Twilight Zone / Intertwined fates
Three children of the Qabaha family of Barta'a suffer physical and mental disabilities, but their parents insist on raising them at home, with the help of an Israeli couple who've taken them under their wing
When we walk in the door, Samah greets us with a big smile. The 18 year-old is lying on the floor. She propels herself by crawling and rests her weight on twisted arms and legs. Indeed, her whole body is contorted and she is unable to utter a word, but the smile on her face clearly radiates happiness. Inside, her sister and brother are also waiting for us: Sana, 24, with her hair in a neat braid, is able to crawl and is mute; Mansour, 27, unable to move himself, passes the time lying on a thin mattress. Mansour loves to listen to music and smiles weakly when he is now presented with the gift of a stereo player.
Makbula bursts into tears: The 52-year-old mother of this hard-hit family is overcome with emotion upon seeing Tami Shiloach, who is visiting after not being able to come for awhile, for personal reasons. Crying, the two women embrace.
A wonderful Israeli couple, Tami and Amit Shiloach - she is an occupational therapist and he's a banker-turned-farmer - live in Moshav Ofer in the Carmel mountains, where they moved after having their fill of the big city and living in Gush Dan. Tami was active in the Machsom Watch organization and six years ago, at the Reihan checkpoint, met the Qabaha family from east Barta'a. Ever since, the two families' fates have been intertwined. A few years ago, the Shiloachs took the three disabled young people to the beach in Israel for the first time in their lives. They've never forgotten that day at Habonim Beach. And today, Tami has brought the stereo for Mansour.
The father, Mundar, who speaks Hebrew and whose handsome face does not reflect his life's hardships, gazes upon his son with loving eyes. There was a time when the parents considered putting him in an institution in Bethlehem. They drove there but couldn't bring themselves to leave him there and ended up bringing Mansour home. Makbula and Mundar dedicate their lives to caring for their three disabled children, who are all affected by a genetic flaw that stems from marriage between relations. They have five other healthy children.
Tami Shiloach, who worked at several institutions for the disabled in Israel, says she has never seen anything like the three Qabaha siblings, who receive no physiotherapy and lack the most basic necessities at home, but evidence such impressive emotional health. "Their emotional well-being is really phenomenal, all things considered," she says.
Indeed, this terribly impoverished home radiates happiness and warmth. For years, Mundar has not been able to obtain a permit to work in Israel. His son Mahmoud, 21, had hoped to work at the Off Tov plant in Beit She'an, but was apprehended a few weeks ago for illegal presence, sent to prison for a week and then expelled back to the village.
Apart from occasional odd jobs in the village, the family has no source of income; they also receive no assistance in caring for the disabled children. Against all odds, however, they manage to live a life of dignity.
But what happened a few weeks ago at the Reihan checkpoint broke their spirit. Now they feel humiliated and beaten, especially when they look at Mansour, who is groaning in pain, because of swelling on his matchstick-thin leg. He squeezes his knee, hits it and grimaces wordlessly.
Barta'a is the divided village - half Israeli and half in the territories - that David Grossman wrote about in his 1992 book, "Sleeping on a Wire." Since the construction of the separation fence, residents have been left on the western side of the barrier: To get into the territories, they have to pass through a checkpoint, and yet they are also prevented from entering Israel and are therefore trapped in an enclave.
Furthermore, the road to the nearest hospital in Jenin, where Mansour Qabaha goes for periodic checkups, also passes through the Reihan checkpoint, which is operated by a private company on behalf of the Defense Ministry. What should be a 20-minute trip to Jenin therefore stretches to two hours.
In general, the Qabaha children get sick or hurt with some frequency: In the winter they are exposed to the cold, on the floor; they have a tendency to tumble over and injure themselves. On May 4, Mansour had an appointment at the hospital, and Makbula and Mundar asked a relative with a minibus to drive them to Jenin. The vehicle is not equipped for disabled passengers, and withered Mansour lay on the back seat while the others protected him from slipping off. The trip to the hospital was uneventful, but on the way back, they were stopped at the checkpoint. The armed guards ordered all the family members out of the car to be physically searched. The driver and Mundar did as asked, but Makbula stayed inside to watch over her son. The family says they tried to explain to the guards that, in his condition, Mansour could not be left alone in the car. But the guards apparently insisted that Makbula also come out to be searched and leave Mansour there. Repeated entreaties and explanations were to no avail. After waiting and being searched, Makbula hurried back to the car.
"Whose child is this in the car?" the guard asked, and Makbula quickly replied, "He's my son." The guard then told her that while she was gone, Mansour fell off his seat. Now the boy was lying helpless on the floor of the minibus, between the seats. Panicked, she and her husband quickly lifted him up, with the help of other people waiting in line to be searched, and then drove home to Barta'a.
The next morning, they noticed that Mansour was grasping his leg in pain. They rolled up his pants and saw that his skinny leg had become very swollen overnight and was turning blue. They called the village doctor who said he needed an X-ray. Again he had to go to the hospital in Jenin. But this time the family called the Shiloachs to see if they could help them through the checkpoint more easily. At the checkpoint, Mundar told a guard named Sharon: "Yesterday you all caused my son to be left alone in the car and he fell. Now you must help us. Let us get to the hospital in Israel or I'll sue you." Sharon retorted: "Go ahead and sue us."
In any event, the family passed through the checkpoint without incident and weren't ordered to leave Mansour alone in the car - perhaps due to the intervention of their friends from Moshav Ofer. At the hospital, Mansour's knee was found to be dislocated, but aside from painkillers, no other treatment was offered.
Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror conveyed a detailed response when told about this incident, and it is quoted here in full:
"Subject: Inspection at Reihan crossing
"Barta'a residents and their son are known to the team at the crossing, since they pass through there on a regular basis. In humanitarian cases, such as the one in question, easing of restrictions are given to people passing through.
"The way in which the family members crossed at Reihan on May 4 was no different from the way in which they went through in previous times. Moreover, the mother exited the vehicle without mentioning the need to remain with her son. The son was left in the vehicle by the mother, in the back seat, and was not taken out of the vehicle for security inspection.
"Only a minute passed between the end of the inspection check of the mother and driver, and the continuation of their trip. It is reasonable to believe that any unusual occurrence would have delayed the trip and would have been recorded as part of an official report concerning 'unusual occurrences at the crossing.'
"During their time at the crossing, the parents did not speak to any one of the people working there about the fall and/or injury of their son. The people working there did not record and do not recall any unusual event at the crossing with the family in question. Eight days after said event, the father contacted the person in charge of the crossing with a demand that he pay for his son's medical treatment in Israel, or else he would sue him."