Gideon Levy

How Israel Is Abusing a Gaza Couple That Just Lost Three Babies

The occupation has wrought havoc with a Gaza couple with quadruplets, only one of whom survived and now fights for her life in a Jerusalem hospital. Their father, repeatedly denied entry, never saw the other three

Mohammed and Wafa Ralaban with Selin, in Makassed Hospital this week. The parents are still afraid to leave the grounds, for fear of arrest by the Border Police.
Alex Levac

Wafa raises the appallingly tiny palm of her daughter, as though hoping to hold onto her so she won’t slip away like her three other newborn siblings did. Selin is a 2-month-old preemie, who weighed 500 grams (17.6 ounces) when she was born in the 25th week of her mother’s pregnancy. The physicians of the neonatal intensive care unit of Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem are still fighting for her life. Her sister and two brothers – Ilin, Daeb and Kayiz – died one after the other within a few days, after their birth on November 24. Now only Selin remains, breathing by means of an artificial respirator, inside an incubator with a network of tubes attached to her miniature body, her mother softly caressing her hand. Amazingly, it’s Selin, the smallest of the four, who is still alive.

Dr. Sudqi Hamada, a physician in the unit, believes the tiny infant “can do it,” and will survive. To instill hope, Hamada, who studied medicine in Toronto, points to a photograph on the wall above the nurses’ station in the ward. It shows quintuplets from the Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis who were born here – and whose 13th birthday was celebrated two years ago at the hospital. They were born in week 28. Selin was born even earlier, and she is suffering from a series of complex disorders, affecting both her lungs and her intestinal tract. Her road to life is still long,

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Two months have passed since the birth that ended so tragically. Since then, the parents, Wafa and Mohammed Ralaban, have had to grapple not only with the death of their children and with the battle to save the life of their surviving daughter. They were also forced to fight for the right to be by their babies’ side in the hospital. If it had been up to the occupation authorities, they would long since have been expelled back to Gaza, leaving the preemies behind for the doctors to save. Had it not been for a determined and devoted struggle by the Physicians for Human Rights Israel NGO – along with the mobilization of the staff at Makassed – the parents and their tiny offspring would have been separated at birth.

It’s thanks only to no end of appeals, phone calls and legal petitions filed by PHRI, which continued apace this week, that the young couple from the Strip – who had undergone fertility treatment in order to achieve this first pregnancy – was allowed to realize their basic human right to be with their dying newborns. This week, too, they were afraid to leave the hospital grounds, for fear of being arrested by the Border Police, who already detained them once, and of being expelled to Gaza.

With such a pregnancy, which is high-risk by definition, Wafa was rushed to Makassed as soon as she felt contractions. A Palestinian ambulance took her to the Erez checkpoint, the permits were issued quickly and, in the “back-to-back” method, a second ambulance, on the Israeli side, took her directly to Makassed, on the Mount of Olives. Wafa’s mother was allowed to accompany her, but Mohammed’s request to join them was rejected. Three more requests by him, in the weeks that followed, were also turned down. He has a sister and a brother in the West Bank, so apparently there’s a risk he will “settle in” – in the language of the occupation apparatus.

Wafa was initially given a permit to stay in Israel for just three days and had not yet given birth when it expired. According to PHRI, there are cases in which Palestinian women who have high-risk pregnancies and give birth in Israel are forced to return to Gaza and leave their infant to struggle alone.

Inhumanity knows no bounds.

At least from that point of view, fate was somewhat kinder to the Ralaban family: They are finally here together, in the preemie ward at Makassed, anxiously following the slow and arduous development of Selin. This week she weighed 1,400 grams, and her hold on life is still precarious.

Palestinian women sit in an alley in Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2020.
AFP

Wafa, covered in a black veil, is 26; Mohammed 10 years her senior. They were married seven years ago in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, where they live. Mohammed still remembers a little Hebrew from the period when he worked in construction for “the Yemenites” in Rosh Ha’ayin, a small city east of Tel Aviv. He liked them, he says. He, too, is likable, and eager to recount his ordeals in great detail. Wafa is a lively participant in the conversation.

For the past few years, Mohammed has been a taxi driver on the Khan Yunis-Gaza City line, a 25-minute ride that costs 6 shekels ($1.75) and for which there isn’t much demand. He arrived at Makassed with 100 shekels in his pocket. Since then, the couple has been living from hand to mouth.

Wafa was rushed here on November 18 and gave birth to the quadruplets six days later. The couple knew it was a hazardous pregnancy, but preferred to avoid selective reduction of the fetuses because that too involved significant risk. Ilin died after two days, Daeb after 10 days and Kayiz a few days later. During all that time Mohammed was in the Strip, his wife left alone to cope with the loss and trauma; her mother returned to Gaza after about a week.

Dr. Hatham Hamash, the director of Makassed’s obstetrics and gynecology department, came to the aid of the lone mother, who had no husband with her and nowhere to stay after being formally released from the hospital. At first she was put up in a trailer next to the main building, but it was cold and dirty. Finally, the family of one of the hospital’s physicians in the nearby neighborhood of A-Tur agreed to host her. The 15-minute walk to their home every evening, and back in the morning, was risky for Wafa, as she no longer had a permit to be in Israel.

Hamash contacted Ghada Majadle, who is PHRI’s freedom of movement coordinator, to help obtain permits for the parents. Clearly, it was going to be some time before Selin would be released and could be taken to Khan Yunis. Majadle enlisted Haneen Kinani, a project coordinator at the organization, and the energetic young women began working tirelessly, aided by the organization’s legal counsel, attorneys Adi Lustigman and Tamir Blank. They submitted requests to the Palestinian Civil Committee in Gaza, which is the body that coordinates with Israel, for Wafa to receive a permit to remain in East Jerusalem and also for Mohammed to be able to enter. The committee rejected the requests.

In keeping with the minutiae of its bureaucracy, the occupation apparatus claimed that Wafa had actually submitted a request to return to Gaza; and also alleged that the father had not shown up for Shin Bet security service interviews at the Erez checkpoint – though he claimed he had never received a summons. In the course of his questioning, which finally took place at the end of December, he was asked what he knew about the underground tunnels in Khan Yunis. The situation became complicated and PHRI filed a petition to the administrative affairs court in Be’er Sheva. By then, two of the four Ralaban newborns had died, their father never having seen them.

On January 6, Mohammed received a one-day permit to travel to Makassed. A single day with his wife, who had already lost three infants and was watching their daughter struggle to survive. There was a powerful, emotional reunion at the hospital – and Mohammed stayed on instead of returning that day. He was incapable of leaving, he says now. At first he barely recognized Wafa, because of the effects of her mourning.

But on Saturday, January 11, when the couple went out for some fresh air and shopping near the Old City’s Damascus Gate, they were detained by Border Police. A new and grim chapter now began in the ordeal of this unfortunate couple.

They were taken to the police station on nearby Saladin Street and interrogated for some four hours, Mohammed tells us now. Although the police officers initially threatened to expel them to Gaza, Mohammed eventually succeeded in getting them to understand their circumstances and the fact that their baby was still hospitalized, whereupon the officers decided that he would be expelled to the West Bank, while Wafa would return to the hospital and be confined to its grounds. A police van took her to Makassed and dumped Mohammed at the Ma’avar Hazeitim checkpoint, near the A-Tur neighborhood. It was 9 P.M., cold and rainy.

Mohammed and Wafa Ralaban with Selin, in Makassed Hospital this week.
Alex Levac

Mohammed had no idea where to go and asked a taxi driver to drop him off “as close as possible to Ramallah.” He found a hotel in the city center, but didn’t have enough money to pay for it. He didn’t want to bother his sister, who lives in Nablus and whom he hadn’t seen for 17 years, or his brother in Tul Karm, whom he hadn’t seen for five. He burst into tears – the first time he’d cried since childhood, he says – and begged passersby to help. He was stunned when they all ignored him. He entered a café and was thrown out.

Wafa’s eyes glitter behind the veil as her husband recalls that ghastly night. “In Gaza people would have competed over who would host and help me,” he tells us. “The people in Ramallah are aliens.” He asked someone where he could find a mosque, to seek shelter, but the nearby mosque was shut. He asked about a hospital and ended up at the Ramallah Governmental Hospital. It was now 1:30 A.M., Sunday morning. Wafa was with him on the line from Makassed, worried about him.

In the hospital he was sent to the prayer room. It was freezing and he couldn’t fall asleep there, so about 3 A.M. he moved to a waiting room in a clinic, where it was warmer. But in minutes security men arrived, accompanied by Palestinian police officers, and ordered him to leave. “Do God a favor and let me stay,” he pleaded. But they expelled him, out into the deserted streets of Ramallah.

Mohammed walked the streets until it was time for dawn prayers in the central mosque, next to Al Manara Square; afterward he found the office of the Palestinian Coordination and Liaison Administration, where he hoped to submit a renewed request to enter Jerusalem. That can only be done in Gaza, he was told. In desperation, he called his brother in Tul Karm and spent the next few days with him. He called PHRI, thinking, he says, “They helped me get out of Gaza, maybe they can help me get back to the hospital.” The NGO filed another urgent petition to allow Mohammed to return to Makassed.

“The imperative of humaneness, the basic principles of decency and justice, oblige the petitioner to be allowed to return immediately from the West Bank to the hospital and be at his family’s side at these difficult and critical moments,” PHRI attorney Lustigman wrote on January 21, asking for an urgent hearing.

The hearing took place on Thursday, January 23, before Judge Gad Gideon, of the Be’er Sheva District Court. The representatives of the Southern District prosecutor’s office, attorneys Oded Yahud and Capt. Anastasia Sorzhenko, stated on behalf of the respondents: “The father of the infants entered on 6/1 [Jan. 6]. It is true that he received a permit for one day. The request was apparently submitted for one day; we do not have the request here… A situation was created in which the petitioner was apprehended five days after the expiry date of his permit, by Border Police, who removed him to JS [Judea and Samaria]. The moment he left, because he was illegally present, it was impossible to authorize a permit allowing him to visit a patient.”

The state did agree, however, that “because of the complex humanitarian aspect” of his situation, Mohammed would immediately be allowed to submit a request from the West Bank. A break was declared in the proceedings, during which the request was submitted in Tul Karm. One of the lawyers from the prosecution noted that Mohammed “must check with the Shin Bet that it’s all right. We ask for a stay of another few minutes to complete the examination. From the moment there’s a permit, requesting entry for one week, we will ask the petitioner to return to the Strip. The purpose of the permit is to visit a patient, and that can be requested only for a week. In keeping with proper procedures, he is obliged to return to Gaza. If the court proposes that he travel to Ramallah… in order to make an exception in his case, the situation needs to be checked in another week.”

The petitioners: “We absolutely object to that. He lost three children in a week, and the fourth is sick.”

Judge Gideon’s ruling: “I welcome the fact… that a way was found that will allow the father to be united with his infant daughter already today. I have taken note that in the absence of any unusual and surprising evidence, the petitioner is expected to enter Israeli territory today at midday.”

The judge set another hearing for this week, and asked “those in authority” to view positively a situation in which the father would not be required to return to Gaza, “as far as this is possible.”

A spokesperson for the unit for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories told Haaretz this week: “On November 17, 2019, the Palestinian Civil Committee in the Gaza Strip submitted to the COGAT a request for entry to Israel on behalf of Wafa [Ralaban]. The request was approved within 24 hours, and she entered Israel on November 18 – and since that date has been at Makassed Hospital.

“With regard to the father, initially, Mohammed Ralaban’s request was denied, for security reasons. However, after reconsideration of the request, it was decided, though this was not required by law, to approve his entry to Israel so that he could visit his daughter in the hospital in East Jerusalem. We should stress that he was issued a one-day permit, per the request submitted in his name by the Palestinian Civil Committee in Gaza.

“It should also be noted that it was because of the extraordinary humanitarian situation faced by the Ralaban family that Mohammed’s permit was renewed, in spite of the law, considering his illegal stay in Israel following the expiration of his permit – and as of the writing of these lines, he is still at Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, together with Wafa, at their daughter’s bedside.

“Additionally, and contrary to your claim, only a single appeal was submitted in the matter of Mohammed Ralaban, which was closed following an agreement between the sides.”

This past Tuesday, PHRI again submitted a request to the Palestinian Civil Committee in Gaza. “Request No. 10254. Request for visit/stay with patient in hospital.” The following day, the authorities extended the couple’s permission to stay for another week.