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Maybe Andy Warhol was right and every person really does have 15 minutes of fame. Sometimes, though, those minutes arrive too late. Even the Palestinian wagoner Tareq Mohammed Badran got his moment in the spotlight and even a measure of grace. The only trouble is that they came after he and his horse (and his wagon) had been swept to their death in the Hadera River.

Badran tried to cross the raging waterway last Wednesday with his brother, after they had completed their day's work in the village of Jatt, inside the 1967 Green Line. The two, who were from the West Bank city of Qalqilyah, were trying to get home after a day of working illegally in Arab villages in Israel, where they sold vegetables on the street. Because he was only 21, Badran could not get an entry permit to Israel, and there has been no work in Qalqilyah for a long time. So he was compelled to take the risk of infiltrating into Israel every day with his wagon, in order to sell vegetables from the Qalqilyah market in the alleys of Jatt, where he did not stand out as an Arab. The only places in Israel where Palestinians from the territories can still walk around without arousing suspicion are the Arab towns and villages.

Badran's brother begged him not to try to ford the stream, which the heavy rains had turned into a torrent of water, overflowing its banks. But Badran was determined to get home and decided to try to cross. Almost instantly he was swept into the powerful current and disappeared along with his horse and wagon, leaving his brother helpless.

Large rescue forces, including frogmen and police, under the command of the chief of the Iron station, hurried to the site and launched an extensive search for Badran. A bulldozer was also brought to the area, to dig under the cascading waters, and even the special rescue team showed up with its advanced equipment.

The images of the rescuers, with hundreds of local residents looking on, were broadcast on television and published in the papers. Irrespective of race, creed or gender, Israel mounted an operation to rescue a wagoner from Qalqilyah, even though he was a Palestinian and was in the country illegally. Not far from there, other rescue forces searched for a Palestinian boy - whose name was not made public - from Baka al-Sharkiya, who fell into the same stream while playing with friends on a water pipe that crosses above the stream. He, too, disappeared, and large rescue teams continued to look for him.

The search for the wagoner went on until dark; the next day, an Israel tractor driver found his body near Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. Not much information was available about the young man in Qalqilyah, apart from the fact that he originally hailed from Gaza and therefore wasn't well known in the city. Still, it's not difficult to imagine the life he led - the life of a produce seller who may have found himself stuck in Qalqilyah and unable to return to Gaza, or perhaps moved there because he thought there were better prospects of earning a living.

Imprisoned in his new city, which is under siege and offers little employment, Badran decided to try his luck in areas he was prohibited from entering. What did he have in his life apart from the horse and the wagon? What chance did he have? What future? The East Jerusalem daily Al-Quds reported last Thursday about another wagoner from Qalqilyah, Fares Kuran, 24, who fell into an abyss between Taibeh and Tira with his horse the previous week, and disappeared without a trace. He, too, was only trying to make a living.

It was heartwarming to see the rescue effort that was mounted for Badran, an effort that transcended borders, nations and wars. This is the way we like to see ourselves: rushing to help, humane and brave. Israeli rescue efforts are known around the world: whether it's earthquakes, floods or volcanoes; whether it's Latin America, Asia or Africa - we're there. The soldiers of Israel's salvation army are on the scene immediately and dig in the ruins, scour the area for survivors, set up field hospitals and rush in food and medicine. In Turkey, we even built a village for survivors. In fact, when it comes to natural disasters, we rescue without discrimination in Israel, too, and for a moment even the life of a Palestinian wagoner seems to be a whole universe for us.

But heartwarming as it may be, it is impossible to avoid thinking about what could have happened to that poor young man if he had not been swept away in the current, and how Israel would have treated him if he had lived. If he had been caught in Israel without a permit by IDF soldiers, they would have arrested him, confiscated his wagon, given him a dose of humiliation and maybe a beating.

Alternatively, he could have found his death with appalling ease on the dirt trails along which he made his way every day in order to avoid the many checkpoints. If he had been shot to death on one of those dusty trails, as has been the fate of quite a few Palestinians who wanted only to get from A to B, no one would have taken an interest in him. Maybe a knife would have been found among his belongings, turning him into a posthumous terrorist.

Or he might have been killed in the Qalqilyah market by soldiers while buying vegetables, as happened to the produce seller Ahmed Satiti as he was loading bags of garlic and onions into his car in the Jenin produce market last October. No one took any interest in this innocent produce seller, the father of two children, who bled to death on the road without being saved by an Israeli rescue team.