Twilight Zone / The Long Road to Treatment

Sonia and Osama Rasras encountered many obstacles - and much help - in their campaign to get their daughter medical treatment. But the battle is far from over

Dalal was frightened. The strange people, the unfamiliar surroundings and the doctors and nurses scared her. Occasionally she would cry. Dalal is 3 years old, and suffers from brain damage. She cannot stand, sit or talk, and is gradually going blind; her body is becoming crippled, she has occasional seizures and it's not clear how long she can be expected to live. This week she was at the Alyn Hospital's pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation center in Jerusalem.

Sonia Twilight zone- Emil Salman
Emil Salman

A short history: Sonia Rasras, Dalal's mother, was born in the house closest to the sea in Rafah's Tel al-Sultan neighborhood, in Gaza. Her house is across from the one that was occupied by Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. Osama, Dalal's father, was born in Nablus. He and Sonia met when people still could travel between Gaza and the West Bank. They were soon separated for the first time. For three years, they nurtured their relationship by phone.

On February 17, 2002, Osama received a one-day entry visa to the Gaza Strip. He went to Rafah, married Sonia and stayed with her at her parents' home for a year. In March 2003, Sonia got a one-day entry visa to the West Bank and the couple quickly moved to Nablus.

Their first son, Ahmed, was born under a lucky star. Sonia found work as a teacher in the West Bank town of Dura, south of Hebron, and the family moved there. And then Dalal was born, under an unlucky star: When she was four months old, she was diagnosed as having brain damage.

At the end of 2007, after her father had a stroke, Sonia and her children went to Rafah to see him. That was the mistake of her life: Sonia was not allowed to return to her home in the West Bank. She spent months trying to obtain a visa. Once Sonia took Dalal to the Erez checkpoint and waited for six hours, before returning in great despair. Osama waited alone in Dura.

After I first wrote about the family's story, Israel agreed to allow Sonia to move to the West Bank. But then Operation Cast Lead broke out, and the gates of Gaza closed once again. After the war ended, she reached Jordan via Egypt, and there she rented an apartment for herself and her two children. Her parents and family were in Rafah, her husband in Dura, and she was alone in Amman.

Osama occasionally visited them in Jordan, but as a Palestinian Authority employee, his source of income was in the West Bank. He moved to a smaller and cheaper apartment in Beit Omar, not far from Dura. Meanwhile their third child, Omar, was born, and Sonia developed postpartum depression. She could no longer care for her sick daughter Dalal and her two other children. Osama came to Jordan and took Dalal back with him to Beit Omar.

Then I published a second article about them. In Beit Omar I saw Dalal lying on the tattered sofa, next to a Barbie doll still wrapped in cellophane. She had a splint on her arm and her leg. After the second article was published, the coordinator of government activities in the territories agreed to let Sonia and her two children move to the West Bank, "beyond the letter of the law."

Orit Elion, a physiotherapist who works in the rehabilitation department of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, read the article and decided to help Dalal. This week she told me that Dalal's sad and helpless eyes gave her no rest. "I couldn't think that she would remain cast aside like that all her life," she said.

For three months Elion traveled to Beit Omar every day on her motor scooter, bringing Dalal clothes and toys. Once Elion was stopped by the Israel Police, because Israelis are not allowed to enter Beit Omar.

Elion also decided to bring Dalal to Alyn. She turned to the Peres Center for Peace for assistance, but was told that that year's budget had run out. With the help of acquaintances, she obtained a modest donation from an Islamic organization in Canada and raised a little more money from her friends and colleagues in Sheba. But how does one get an entry visa? Dalal lives about half an hour's drive from Jerusalem.

Reader Gershom Gorenberg also decided to help. An American-born journalist and an observant Jew, he once donated a washing machine to a young Palestinian whose own washing machine was smashed by soldiers, a story I had covered. He and a friend, Prof. Elimelech Horowitz, a lecturer on Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, enlisted another friend, Dr. Eliezer Be'eri, who works at Alyn.

Be'eri was afraid to go to Beit Omar, so one day in late October the group invited Dalal and her parents to the Everest Hotel in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. There the doctor examined the child, as much as one can examine a child in the lobby of a shabby hotel. Be'eri decided that Dalal should be brought to Alyn for a comprehensive examination, whose cost the hospital agreed to cover. The East Jerusalem taxi driver who brought them to the Everest refused to accept payment for the trip, after he found out why they were going there.

But how would they obtain an entry visa for Dalal and her parents? Gorenberg contacted the United States Agency for International Development and the Washington Post correspondent in Israel. Ran Yaron of Physicians for Human Rights turned to Amos Wagner, the Civil Administration ombudsman, asking that Dalal and her parents be allowed to come to Jerusalem for the medical examination.

After a series of letters and phone calls, they learned that Osama was "denied entry for security reasons," apparently because as a child, decades ago, he was once detained for throwing stones. Sonia, a native of Gaza, is not even allowed to live in the West Bank, and even Dalal is registered as being from Gaza, despite having been born in the West Bank.

On Sunday evening a permit arrived, but it was for only Dalal and her mother. On Monday morning Osama ran to the Coordination and Liaison Office in Hebron in order to bring his wife and daughter their entry visas.

At 9 A.M., Suhair Abadi, the information coordinator of B'Tselem, who coordinates medical access for Palestinians, picked up the mother and her daughter in a taxi and went with them to Jerusalem, for the first time in their lives.

"It was a hard day, especially for the child, who cried most of the time due to all the tests and examinations," wrote Abadi at the end of the day. "The team decided that Alyn would recommend that Dalal continue treatment, which would include about two weeks of hospitalization and then a few more days of treatment in the hospital, and then they would see whether the child may be able to walk in the future. If so, she'll need an operation ... I understood from the doctors that the [first] hospitalization will cost NIS 10,000 to NIS 20,000.

"We have to think how we can obtain a visa for Osama," Abadi continued, "so he can be with the child while her mother stays with the other two children. Our thanks to Ran Yaron who worked so hard to obtain the visa this week, and to Gershom Gorenberg, who also worked hard to obtain the visa and came to the hospital and encouraged the mother and child."

The coordinator of government activities in the territories responded: "The child was never denied permission to travel for treatment. The father's request to accompany his daughter was denied by security officials. After that happened, the Civil Administration health coordinator turned to the doctor at Alyn Hospital, and when it was understood treatment was crucial, the Civil Administration decided to approve entry for the mother, before she made a formal request. After the examination the family will be asked to send us the medical evaluation, and based on that the Civil Administration and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories will examine whether the mother should receive another visa.

"In 2010 almost 200,000 Palestinian residents were permitted to leave Judea and Samaria for Israel in order to receive medical treatment and to accompany family members, as part of the policy of making medical treatment a supreme value."

Osama was alternately encouraged and frightened this week. He was happy to hear that there was hope for his daughter. But where will he get the money, and how will he obtain the entry visa to accompany her to the hospital?