Paralyzed Gazan Girl Witnesses War, This Time From Israel

Maria Amman, a young Gazan who was severely disabled in a 2006 missile attack that killed her mother and other relatives, spent the Gaza war in Israel while her family back home suffered.

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Hamdi and Maria Amman.
Hamdi and Maria Amman. Credit: Alex Levac

Hamdi didn’t allow Maria to watch the scenes from the Gaza Strip on television. Maria knew there was a war but didn’t grasp the extent of it. She was constantly on the phone to family members in Gaza, and heard the sounds of the explosions and the bombardments in the background, but had no idea how terrible the war was. Maria’s entire upper body is paralyzed and she is on a respirator as the result of a missile fired by the Israel Air Force that hit her and members of her family in Gaza in 2006, killing some of them and leaving her severely disabled for the rest of her life.

Maria Amman is a wunderkind and her father, Hamdi, is the most amazing and devoted father I have ever met. For eight years he has been dedicating all his time and energy, 24/7, to unflagging care of his daughter.

This week they told us at their temporary home in Umm al-Fahm: “These wars have to end. Anyone who wants to know why should take Maria to his home, for one night. He should imagine that she is his daughter, for one night. So for one night he will know who Maria is and what Maria is. That way he will understand. Maybe that’s why God has let her live – to be a picture for everyone.”

The picture looks like this: Two pieces of shrapnel from the AIF’s criminal missile penetrated Maria’s brain; since then she has been paralyzed and on a respirator, day and night. She operates her sophisticated wheelchair by means of her mouth, and her mobile phone by means of her tongue. She paints beautiful pictures using a brush placed in her mouth, and she surfs on a specially designed computer. Her body is fitted with splints, belts and braces. Her grooming is meticulous.

Hamdi polishes her fingernails and toenails, and combs her hair beautifully each day. She speaks Arabic and Hebrew fluently, but with effort because of breathing difficulties. Maria attends a special-education school, and is full of joie de vivre. Her father has decided to devote his life to his daughter. Every few hours, he has to deal with one of Maria’s endless physical problems. He takes her to the beach and to the movies, to the amusement park and for a vacation in Eilat. Maria has grown quite a lot. She is 13 now.

I had visited their home in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood in the Strip at the end of May, 2006, a few days after the Israeli missile that targeted Islamic Jihad activist Mohammed al-Dahdouh hit the car the Amman family had purchased just two hours earlier. A mistake. It happens. It was their first and their last family outing: Maria’s mother, one of her younger brothers, her grandmother and an uncle were all killed.

Maria was taken in critical condition to a hospital in Gaza and transported from there to Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, in Israel. The Israeli authorities did not allow Hamdi to accompany his daughter into Israel at the time. Meanwhile, doctors at Sheba told me her chance of surviving was very slight and that in any case she would be paralyzed for the rest of her life, and would never be able to speak again.

When the missile hit the car, Hamdi thought the motor had exploded. At first, he was not told of the full horror of the attack. He thought only his mother, whom he took to the hospital in Gaza in the back of a truck, had been killed in the incident. It was only after several hours that the whole truth became clear to him; he fainted and was also taken to the hospital.

When I visited their home at the time, Hamdi refused to speak to me. “I was cursing God and suddenly there’s an Israeli reporter in my home at a time when my family’s blood hadn’t even dried yet. It was too heavy for me,” he recalled this week. He was limping then from his injuries – he too was wounded by the missile – and the signs of his shock and anger were very evident. His anger passed with time. He says he “immigrated” to Israel, and a friendship developed between us.

For five years Hamdi and Maria lived at the wonderful Alyn Hospital for the physically disabled in Jerusalem, and for the past three years they have been with Muaman – a brother who was wounded with Maria in 2006 and also later on, both times slightly – in a rented apartment in Umm al-Fahm. Many Israelis enlisted to help the family over the course of the years. Government institutions deviated from their usual practice in this instance, thanks to the public campaign on Maria's behalf, and have given a great deal of help to her and her father, financial and otherwise. Nonetheless, the family's struggles and problems, which we will not detail here, have not yet ended.

Now the family home back in Gaza has become a place of refuge, bursting at the seams with the 120 people who are staying there, members of the extended family who fled the devastated Shujaiyeh neighborhood in recent weeks. For eight years now Hamdi hasn’t been to Gaza. He is afraid to leave Maria alone even for a moment. His brother-in-law Ashraf was wounded in Shujaiyeh and is now at Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. Hamdi’s brother and another brother-in-law were also lightly wounded, and their five-story home in Shujaiyeh was destroyed. Hamdi has sent a little money to his family and has urged them not to leave the house.

“It’s painful for me to see what’s happening in Gaza,” he says. “Every time it brings back the memory of my son. For what? I don’t understand. You raise a child and he dies. It’s beyond belief. There is one God in heaven, not two and not three, and he is everybody’s. The earth belongs to him and he has given it to us to live on. And there is paradise and hell. The blood in our bodies is the same blood and the flesh is the same flesh.

“Enough. Enough war. I talk with my family in Gaza all the time. The children aren’t sleeping. It’s dark in the daytime and dark at night, there is no electricity and there is no water. My brother brings water on foot from a gas station. Do you remember the gas station at the entrance to our street? There were bombardments next to our house, but they didn’t hit it directly. People are deathly afraid there. I thought about bringing the children here, but they won’t allow me to bring them all. You don’t know how much they’ve been crying to me over the phone.”

Still, the house in Umm al-Fahm is filled with laughter, even now, thanks to Hamdi, who doesn’t let the war penetrate. Muaman, a mischievous boy of 11 who was wounded twice in the Gaza Strip during the course of his short life, scampers after the numerous white mice he is raising; Maria gazes at the huge aquarium her father set up. The house resembles a hospital filled with sophisticated medical and rehabilitation equipment.

Red spots appear on Maria’s shoulder and Hamdi quickly carries her to her room, to change the catheter. She has no sensation in her paralyzed body, but Hamdi knows how to tend to all her needs, almost like a doctor. For years he has been sleeping at the foot of her bed, waking up every few hours to care for her. I ask Maria about the war in Gaza and she replies: “It’s heartbreaking.” She doesn’t remember anything from home, but says she misses it. When there is electricity in her family’s home she talks to her cousins on Skype and writes them on Facebook. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

With her tongue, Maria licks her touch-screen smartphone, which Hamdi holds close to her mouth; she calls her relatives in Gaza, whom she has never met: The hubbub of numerous children is heard in the background and the grown-ups have left the house for the first time, now that there is a cease-fire. Maria tells them that all is well with her, thank God.