Saving Mohammed Abu-Mustafa

A desperately ill Palestinian baby, his militant mother, an Israeli doctor and a Channel 10 reporter star in Shlomi Eldar's moving documentary, 'Precious Life,' which premieres at the upcoming Jerusalem Film Festival.

Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon

He went to see her at twilight on a Friday, finding his way through the labyrinth that is the parking lot of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. She was waiting for him upstairs - a woman in despair, holding an infant close to death in her arms. But Shlomi Eldar, the Gaza correspondent for Channel 10 News, did not hurry. He delayed his entry into the depressing neon-lit corridors. Already in the opening scene of his documentary, "Precious Life," he admits he did not want to come - that it all happened by chance, because of circumstances over which he had no control.

"I came here without any desire," he says, looking for a parking space in the large, empty lot. "It's not for me, but I had no choice."

In Sheba's pediatric hemato-oncology department was Mohammed Abu Mustafa, a four-and-a-half-month-old Palestinian infant. Protruding from his tiny body were pipes attached to big machines. His breathing was labored.

"His days may be numbered. He is suffering from a genetic defect that is causing the failure of his immune system," said the baby's mother, Raida, from the Gaza Strip, when she emerged from the isolation room. "I had two daughters in Gaza," she continued, her black eyes shimmering. "Both died because of immune deficiency. In Gaza I was told all the time that there is no treatment for this and that he is doomed to die. The problem now is how to pay for the [bone marrow] transplant. There is no funding."

Now, two years later in his home in Nes Tziona, near Rehovot, Eldar recalls the moments that led him to make a searing, full-length documentary film, which will premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival on July 10. (The film is in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles. ) He remembers standing mutely opposite the woman.

"I came to the hospital to do a report on her for the news," he relates. "This was after Gaza was closed to me. I had entered and left Gaza for more than two decades - it always excited me with its turbulence and wildness. Then, one day they closed it, closed my place of work. That really shook me. I got up in the morning and had nowhere to go."

With the frankness that is his hallmark, Eldar does not hide the fact that when he received the report about the Palestinian infant in need of a financial donation to save his life, he felt no urge to rush to the scene.

"Just a week earlier I did a report about a Palestinian woman who gave birth to twins in Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon just as a Grad missile struck the hospital," he relates. "I just didn't have the patience for it. But I felt a need to do another piece - to prove to the news department that I was still working. So I went to Sheba that day, even though I didn't really feel like it. When I went upstairs, I looked out toward the horizon, in the direction of Gaza, and I remember myself saying to Gaza, 'So long,' and wondering if I were now doomed to be a hospital reporter."

Without him knowing it, from that moment everything began to change. In short order Eldar was confronted with a saga involving a breathtaking race to save the life of an unfortunate infant. Author Yoram Kaniuk, who saw the film two weeks ago at a screening for the Israeli Film and Television Academy, says he was enthralled by it.

"You don't feel that the film was made about something, rather that it evolves in front of your eyes," he says. "You can't guess what the next step will be. The events altered and created the reality that Shlomi describes with such power and beauty. And sadness. It was strange: I watched the film and felt it constituted a kind of lament for our situation - for this lovely baby that was going to die."

Kaniuk says he felt he was watching "a tragedy with hope," as he puts it. "Above all, there was something very human in the film. It's tragic, even grotesque, but that is our life. For example, the Israeli physician, Dr. Raz Somech, who treats the infant so empathetically and devotedly, is called up for reserve duty while the film is being shot and goes off to war in Gaza. Every moment, large or small, is fraught with meaning. Shlomi knows how to capture those moments. There was one moment, when a relative from Gaza comes to the hospital and calls the grass she is walking on 'plants.' She simply does not know what grass is."

Kaniuk does not spare the compliments: "I can tell you that it's one of the best documentaries I have seen. It's a very dramatic experience for the viewers. After it was over, people just sat there, not moving, in a state of shock. The movie got into their gut. Mine, too. And four minutes later they started to applaud."

Eldar is embarrassed by such praise. He would rather talk about the first days of shooting, when he still had no idea that he would spend the next eight months caught up in the story of a young mother fighting to save her dying son. On the contrary: He thought the baby would be buried alongside his sisters in the Khan Yunis cemetery.

"I got to her after all the attempts to find a donation for the transplant had failed," he relates. "I understood that I was the baby's last hope, but I didn't give it much of a chance. At the time, Qassam rockets falling on Sderot opened every newscast. In that situation, I didn't believe that anyone would be willing to give a shekel for a Palestinian infant."

He was wrong. Hours after the news item about Mohammed was broadcast, the hospital switchboard was jammed with callers. An Israeli Jew whose son died during his military service donated $55,000, and for the first time the Abu Mustafa family began to feel hopeful. Only then did Eldar grasp the full dramatic potential of the story. He told his editor, Tali Ben Ovadia, that he wanted to continue accompanying the family.

"Even though she courageously broadcast the story about Mohammed 10 minutes into the broadcast, when it came to the idea of a movie she said, 'Forget that nonsense - who cares about a Palestinian baby?' I saw that time was passing and I wasn't able to put together a crew. In the end, knowing that the baby's father was due to arrive at the hospital in another two days, I decided to shoot the movie alone."

Eldar returned to the hospital armed with a Sony 400 Camcorder, but then, to his surprise, he ran into objections from the family.

"The father, Fawzi, had no trouble with it," he says. "He had once worked in Ra'anana and knew the Israeli mentality, the 'situation.' For the mother, Raida, it was harder, and at first she did not want to be interviewed for the film. Her stay at Sheba was her first encounter with Israelis, and it wasn't easy for her. For example, when she went through the Erez checkpoint, just a few days before we met, she thought she would be shot or raped and murdered. Fawzi tried to persuade her and also had her mother call and try to win her over. But she was insistent. She was convinced it would be an Israeli propaganda film in which the Israelis would show how good they are, and that as soon as the camera left the medical assistance would end, too."

What finally persuaded her?

Eldar: "I don't know what exactly did it, but in the end she spoke to me. I think that both she and her husband felt that because the donation arrived in the wake of my report, I had a part in their son's new life. They understood it long before I did. So all the walls of suspicion were broken down between us. They gave me the opportunity to get as close as possible to them. In fact, before Fawzi left the hospital to return to Gaza, he said to me, 'Shlomi, watch over Raida. I am entrusting her to you.' It is extremely unusual for a Palestinian man to place his wife in the safekeeping of a Jewish man."

Calm and crisis

Nevertheless, this idyllic situation developed into a deep crisis that led to the severance of the relations and what appeared to be the end of the filming. From an innocent conversation about religious holidays, Raida Abu Mustafa launched into a painful monologue about the culture of the shahids - the martyrs - and admitted, during the complex transplant process, that she would like to see her son perpetrate a suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem is ours," she declared. "We are all for Jerusalem, the whole nation, not just a million, all of us. Do you understand what that means - all of us?"

She also explained to Eldar exactly what she had in mind. "For us, death is a natural thing. We are not frightened of death. From the smallest infant, even smaller than Mohammed, to the oldest person, we will all sacrifice ourselves for the sake of Jerusalem. We feel we have the right to it. You're free to be angry, so be angry."

And Eldar was angry. "Then why are you fighting to save your son's life, if you say that death is a usual thing for your people?" he lashes out in one of the most dramatic moments in the film.

"It is a regular thing," she smiles at him. "Life is not precious. Life is precious, but not for us. For us, life is nothing, not worth a thing. That is why we have so many suicide bombers. They are not afraid of death. None of us, not even the children, are afraid of death. It is natural for us. After Mohammed gets well, I will certainly want him to be a shahid. If it's for Jerusalem, then there's no problem. For you it is hard, I know; with us, there are cries of rejoicing and happiness when someone falls as a shahid. For us a shahid is a tremendous thing."

That was enough to drain Eldar's motivation and dissolve all the compassion he had felt for Raida and Mohammed.

"It was an absolutely terrible rift," he recalls. "After I saw how intensely she fought for her son's life, I could not accept what she said. I had seen her standing for hours, caressing him, warming him up, kissing him. At the time I also had an infant of Mohammed's age at home. I couldn't understand where it came from in her. I was devastated. It was all so paradoxical, too, because just as she was talking about the shahids, two Jewish women entered the room and brought her toys and a stroller as presents."

Raida's confession was totally at odds with Eldar's perception of her until then: "The whole time I accompanied her, I saw a caring mother who was at her baby's bedside night and day. She didn't eat, she lost weight and she cried. I myself saw to it that she ate. I saw her faint when she was informed there was a small chance her son would get well. I saw her when she was told there was no longer a chance, and she stood there and caressed Mohammed, with tears, as though parting from him.

"So I was unable to explain how on the one hand, she fought for her child's life, but at the same time told me that his life is not precious. I never believed I would hear that from her. That's why I decided to stop shooting. I had come to tell a lovely story, not a story about a mother who destines her son to be a shahid."

What did you feel when she said that to you?

"That I had been betrayed, that it was a knife in the back. I didn't want to see Raida any more. It also drove me to greater despair. I asked myself, 'Well, is that the conclusion that comes from this story?' But in the end I started filming again. Why? I don't have a good answer; I think it was from curiosity. I wanted to solve the mystery for myself. Something inside me said that it was inconceivable. Something that explains what she said comes later in the film. I don't want to give too much away. I will say only that the struggle for Mohammed's life takes place parallel to the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and thrusts Raida between a rock and a hard place, confronts her with cruel dilemmas."

But you didn't have it easy, either. While making the film you continued to cover the war in Gaza, though in contrast to your colleagues you insisted on showing the human dimension of the catastrophe there. People did not always like to hear your angle, did they?

"Definitely not. I thought, and I still think, that Israel used exaggerated, very excessive firepower. I did not feel comfortable with the fact that a large number of the Palestinian dead were civilians, and I thought it was right to emphasize that. Afterward, I got abusive phone calls; people sent faxes and complaints to the station. Fine. I was more bothered by the Israeli paradox that on the one hand we're treating infants like Mohammed in our hospitals, while on the other the Israeli army fires a shell into Beit Lahia which kills a mother and her four daughters."

That paradox is integral to the film and casts a pall over it, while creating a sense of responsibility for the suffering of Mohammed and his parents. The film is able to create empathy even for the situation of the civilians in Gaza during the war. Was that your goal?

"I was very grieved by the insensitivity we were seeing. It's clear to me that the war in Gaza was justified - no country can allow itself to be fired at with Qassam rockets - but I did not see many people pained by the loss of life on the Palestinian side. Because we were so angry at Hamas, all the Israeli public wanted was to fuck Gaza. It's not by chance that I use that crass word. I use it because it was often heard on the street and it was a military slogan. I remember the wife of my barber telling me, 'Let them kill all the Palestinians, let them burn.'

"It wasn't until after the incident of Dr. Abu al-Aish - the Gaza physician I spoke with on live TV immediately after a shell struck his house and caused the death of his daughters, and he was shouting with grief and fear - that I discovered the silent majority that has compassion for people, including Palestinians. I found that many Israeli viewers shared my feelings. That was not the intention with which I set out, but the film creates a kind of encounter. Even though the woman speaks Arabic and sometimes covers her face, even though the 'stars' are a Palestinian couple - Israeli viewers are able to see themselves through them. When Raida cries for her baby, the audience cries with her, and when she laughs, they laugh with her."

'I had dynamite'

Shlomi Eldar, 53, is married for the second time and has five children. He started his media career on Reshet Gimmel, the radio station that plays Israeli music only.

"I got there after my life's dream of doing my military service with Army Radio ended in a fiasco when I failed the entrance tests," he says. "As a youngster, I was a walking encyclopedia of subjects related to music. I was a different type of kid in the Neve Yisrael neighborhood, a lower-class section of Herzliya. Music was my life from early on. I remember the day when my brother brought home a record player and we listened to the Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper's.' But when I finally got to Reshet Gimmel and supposedly fulfilled my dream, I discovered that all I did was play records, which wasn't really what I wanted to do."

He wrote to Elimelech Ram, then director of Israel Television's news department, requesting an interview. When he did not get a reply, he joined a managerial training course given by Bank Hapoalim.

"After I saw that it wasn't for me, I left [the bank]," he explains. "I was out of work for a year, and then, out of the blue, I was invited to a television presenters' course [at Israel Television]. I remember that, at the time, my father was on his deathbed. When my mother visited him in the hospital he told her, 'Another week or two and I will no longer be among the living. But don't worry, I have left you a savings account. I have taken care of everything, but there is one thing that worries me: Shlomi.' He was worried because I wasn't working. I was already in the process of being hired by Israel TV, but he didn't know it yet. My mother told him, 'Never mind, it's all right, he has been invited for an interview for television. He replied with a comment I will never forget: 'Television isn't work.'" Telling the story, Eldar still gets choked up.

At the end of the course, in which two future famous television personalities - Gadi Sukenik and Nitzan Chen - also took part, Eldar was appointed education correspondent. But his job was short-lived.

"I started to work on the day the Gulf War broke out," he relates. "At the time there was no Channel 2, so Channel 1 had a 100-percent viewer rating. Within four days, everyone knew who Shlomi Eldar was. Two weeks after I started to work I had a scoop. There was a debate over whether to keep the schools open during the war. Zevulun Hammer, the education minister and the person in charge of the Broadcasting Authority, stated that defense minister Moshe Arens had not allowed him to open the schools. I received information to the effect that Arens had actually told Hammer that he fully supported keeping the education system going. I broadcast the item and [the anchor] Daniel Pe'er humiliated Hammer on live TV. That infuriated Yosef Barel, then director of Israel TV. He told me I had made a mockery of a cabinet minister and he wanted to fire me."

With the aid of Ram and Rafiq Halabi, editor of the "Mabat" news program, Eldar kept his job with Israel TV, but was exiled from Jerusalem to become the station's correspondent in the south. As part of his new assignment, he became familiar with the Gaza Strip. His introduction to it was gradual, but very significant for him.

"Until the Oslo Accords, reporters who went in with the army, on curfew days, filmed the Palestinians. The streets were empty, they drove past in patrol jeeps and the Palestinians watched from their windows. That's what television viewers saw. I did not enter Gaza in a jeep. At first maybe I did - I went with the Israel Defense Forces spokesman - but I quickly understood that I was doing a disservice to my profession as a journalist. It was clear that if I came with the army, with a military force, the attitude toward me would be different and I would not be able to forge relations of trust with the population."

One of the most significant reports Eldar produced at the time was in July 1992, about Palestinian children who were hurt during the intifada.

"Back then no one believed that there could be such a thing as the IDF hurting children," he says sarcastically. "But I filmed disabled children, wounded children in hospitals, children who had been beaten, children who talked like old people about life and death. I remember meeting two girls there from affluent homes who changed my approach to the Palestinian situation. They told me how their home had been demolished during an operation to capture wanted men. I came back with powerful material and put together a report that for the first time showed children who had been wounded by Israeli fire. When I recorded the narration, my voice cracked from emotion. I realized I had dynamite. That was the report that really got me into Gaza."

Subsequently, Eldar was appointed editor of "Mabat" and of the Friday night weekly newsmagazine.

"After a report I did about the distress of the Palestinians at the Erez checkpoint, Barel suspended me from covering Gaza and the Palestinians," Eldar says. "He called me and said, 'You let me down, friend.' But because he trusted me as an editor he appointed me the editor of the newsmagazine. A year and a half later, in 2003, I was asked by Channel 10 news chief Shilo De-Beer to join the station, which was then starting to broadcast. He wanted to make me the Gaza correspondent. I actually thought that Gaza was small-time stuff, because until then it was not covered in its own right. I told him that I accepted, but suggested I also be responsible for coverage of social-affairs issues for Channel 10 News. My idea was to devote two days a week to Gaza and the rest to social-welfare stories. But once I entered Gaza, during the second intifada, I never got around to doing the other stories."

Great privilege

In 2007, Eldar was awarded the Sokolow Prize for his Gaza news and investigative reporting. But the prestigious journalistic award leaves him largely indifferent. It definitely made him think his efforts had not been in vain, "but despite that, I was not all that thrilled by it," he says. "To come up with a good story excites me a lot more. 'Precious Life' moves me. I feel that the film is the peak of my career. The pinnacle. It took me to a place I did not think I would get to. Today it's a bit amusing, because no one showed an interest in it. Most of the time I shot it myself. Fortunately, everything changed on the day I met Ehud Bleiberg on the lawn of the home of Moshe Edri, one of the owners of Cinema City [the cineplex outside Tel Aviv]."

Eldar had not previously met Bleiberg, an Israeli-born film producer who lives in Los Angeles. Recent films he has produced include "Adam Resurrected," based on a novel by Yoram Kaniuk, and "The Band's Visit."

"He grabbed me there for a talk. He wanted to hear my impressions of Gaza," Eldar recalls. "I also told him about the film I was making and he asked to see some of it. After watching for about 10 minutes, he said, 'You know, I have never done a documentary, but I am going to do this film. I will produce it.' He also set a condition: He said I had to understand my role in the movie, that I could not be a director looking on from the side, that I had to be part of the story. That made things very difficult for me."

How so? Because he asked you to change the way you perceive your role as a journalist?

"Exactly. That is one of the significant processes I undergo in making the film. Very slowly I start to understand something I had always refused to accept. For years I had been looking at things from the side - in my reporting, too, you will not see even the tip of my nose. But while shooting 'Precious Life,' I started to understand that a great privilege had befallen me - namely that I had a part in Mohammed's life. It drove me wild when I grasped it. The whole time I had looked for satisfaction in my work, which I lost when Gaza was closed. And suddenly, in a hospital in metropolitan Tel Aviv of all places, everything was dwarfed in the face of an infant, when I became one link in the chain that was fighting to save his life."

So being "our correspondent for Palestinian affairs in hospitals" is not such a terrible fate after all?

"People come out of the film and talk about how they have been shaken up. They tell me that for days after seeing it that they couldn't get it out of their minds. That is very moving. But besides the personal aspect of this, I also discovered a type of new hope, something deeper in regard to the conflict. When the peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians was signed between Rabin and Arafat, I believed that its origins, in fact, lay in Israeli prisons. The encounter between Israelis and Palestinians in the prisons started with enmity and suspicion, and then something happened. Something softened, and wardens and inmates became friends.

"That is exactly the process I see now in the hospitals. Raida was also very suspicious when she first arrived here. But she discovered human beings, Israeli nurses who kiss her son. She let them sing him Hebrew lullabies. Filming her, I understood that the next peace process is taking shape in our hospitals."

Warm emotions

The theme song and soundtrack of Precious Life were composed by the singer Yehuda Poliker, who has overlaid Eldars images with warm emotion.
I really wanted him to write the music for the film, but didnt dare ask him because I have admired him all my life, Eldar says. Even though his [2001] CD What is My Loves Name accompanied me throughout the making of the film, I just couldnt do it.

Finally, though, he worked up the courage and contacted the singer. I told him about the film. He understood my intention right away, and said, I dont have time to write you music for the film. Im sorry, but Im putting out a new CD and I am busy with the mix, working from morning to night. Nevertheless, I sent him a copy of the film the next morning. He called back that evening and said, Shlomi, you blew my mind. This film totally shook me up. Ill write the music even if I have to work on Saturday, at night and on weekends.

Asked how they worked together, Shlomi explains: Generally the director has to sit with the musician and explain what he wants, and where. Here there was no such process. Poliker sat alone and wrote the music for each scene as he watched the film. Ten days after he received the film he invited me over. He played the music for me and I was astounded. He composed a soundtrack for the whole film; he simply handed me a CD to integrate into it. I consider him a central collaborator in the work. His music is captivating, it is heartfelt, filled with passion and style like Poliker himself. You can feel how the music caresses Raida in her difficult moments and tries to comfort her. At the end of the first screening we had, Poliker was moved to tears.

Mohammed Abu Mustafa at home



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