Twilight Zone / No Exit

Why is Israel preventing Dr. Haitham Shehadeh from traveling from Hebron to Amman, where his family is, and why was he detained for months without trial, and without being told the reason?

Trivia questions: What country prevents doctors from traveling abroad to take part in international medical conferences? What government prevents a person from visiting daughters and grandchildren who live in another country? Under which regime is a person prevented from traveling abroad for medical treatment? Where does a resident need a permit to travel abroad? Where is he chased back home from the border station in humiliation, with no explanation? And finally, which regime arbitrarily tosses a pediatrician in jail for two months, with no trial and no explanation?

North Korea? Yes. Iran? Maybe. Syria? Possibly. Hamas is also trying to do so now. And where else? In Israel. This is the story of Dr. Haitham Shehadeh, a Hebron pediatrician and neonatal specialist.

shehadeh - Miki Kratsman - September 9 2011
Miki Kratsman

Dr. Shehadeh didn't want his story to be publicized at first. "I'm no hero,' he explained with a bashful smile. All he wanted last week, for the Eid el Fitr holiday, was to be able to visit his daughters and grandchildren, who live in Jordan, and to undergo his periodic medical checkups there. It seems trivial - but not under the Israeli occupation.

About two months ago he tried to go to Jordan, but was brusquely turned back from the Allenby Bridge without any explanation. Now he carries a thick case full of documents with plenty of evidence about the purposes of his visit - the daughters, the grandchildren, the medical checkups, and he's hoping for the best. But the form he submitted to the authorities a month ago has yet to receive a response.

He was born 58 years ago in a small house by the gas station in the Sheikh Jarrah section of Jerusalem, he grew up in Hebron. He gained fame in his youth: In 1971, when he finished high school, he had the highest grades in the matriculation exams in Jordan and the entire West Bank, with an average of 96.2. People in Hebron still remember it. The promising young man immediately received a scholarship for medical school in the Soviet Union, and he studied in Leningrad for seven years.

Last week we went to his private clinic in the center of Hebron, on the second floor of an office building. The path to the door was decorated with colorful banners for the big holiday marking the end of Ramadan. The clinic is also colorful, friendly-looking for children and their parents, with pictures of babies on the walls, brochures for children's medications, medical books in the bookcase and a baby scale at one side of the room.

Our conversation was interrupted once, when a young woman arrived at the clinic carrying her tiny five-day-old baby wrapped in a blanket. He was delivered by Caesarean section at just 30 weeks, and weighed 1.8 kilos at birth. Dr. Shehadeh is worried about his eyesight.

In 1979, Shehadeh began working in the maternity ward of the Al-Ahli government hospital in the city, which was run by the Israeli military administration. Shehadeh emphasizes this fact, as if seeking approval. Then he completed a two-year fellowship in neonatal medicine in Jordan before returning to Hebron. After examining the newborn, he orders an eye examination. Over the years, he also ran the maternity ward at Al-Muhtaseb Hospital in Hebron's Old City, and he also has a clinic at his home, where he sees patients after hours as well.

Shehadeh no longer works at the hospital, due in part to his poor health. He has high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. In recent years he traveled abroad dozens of times. He is frequently invited to international medical conferences and is a devoted father to his three daughters, who live in Jordan. His brother and sister also live there. He traveled frequently to Jordan and from there to other countries. Now he is concerned about the next conference to which he is invited, of the Middle East pediatric society, which is to be held at the UNESCO convention center in Beirut. He has already paid the $800 registration fee.

"I want to travel with my wife, we like to go to conferences together," he says, with that apologetic look again. If that's not enough to convince Israel to let him go, he also wishes to say that every time he goes to Jordan, he is examined by his medical colleagues there.

"They know me and they have equipment we don't have in the West Bank,' he says again, apologetically or regretfully - as someone who needs to provide very convincing explanations as to why he wants to travel to Jordan. He is no longer permitted to travel to Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, less than an hour from his home, where he used to go for checkups and work.

Against violence

Four and a half years ago, in February 2007, Dr. Shehadeh was arrested. He was placed in administrative detention for five months, later cut down to two months - without trial, of course. He was kept in Ofer Prison and then Ketziot Prison, and never given an explanation why. But even after his release, he continued traveling abroad for conferences and family visits without any problems. Now, as he shows us his Palestinian passport and the Israeli entry and exit stamps in it, he volunteers to tell us the reason for each trip - an operation his brother had in Qatar, the birth of a grandson in Amman, and so on, as if he is obliged to provide explanations, so deeply is the occupation imprinted in him.

In the same breath, he also wishes to explain that he was never a political activist in any party or movement, as if that, too, were a sin. And yes, he is against violence of any kind, ever since he read the writings of Tolstoy, Gandhi and Indian poets. The last stamp in his passport: March 11, 2011. His nephew's wedding.Three months after that, on June 27 of this year, his daughter Shada was about to give birth in Amman. It was a tricky pregnancy, he explains, and she really wanted her father, the pediatrician, to be there by her side for the birth. Shada had her mind set on that. When she was admitted to the hospital in Amman, he traveled that night with his wife to the Allenby Bridge. He left his car in Jericho: "I thought it would be simple," he says.

He told the border officials that he planned to be away for just two or three days, because he had to get back to his clinic. Perhaps this would satisfy them. He also explained that his wife intended to stay longer, "because that's our tradition, that the mother stays with the daughter, to help her after the birth," and this also sounds like an apology. He told the border officials that his daughter suffers from high blood pressure; perhaps this would make it easier to leave. He also had a letter that was faxed to him from Istishari Hospital, where his daughter was. But it was all to no avail: Dr. Shehadeh was sent home from the border crossing. His wife was permitted to cross without any problem.

He asked to speak with the manager or the commander, to try to explain, or at least to receive an explanation, but nothing helped. After waiting several hours at the checkpoint, he had to turn around and go home. Late that night he drove to Ramallah, to spend the night at his mother's home, because of the distance to Hebron. He contacted the human-rights organization B'Tselem and its representative in Hebron, Musa Abu-Hashhash, to ask for assistance. Then he filled out the "form regarding prevention of travel abroad."

He wrote on the form: "Purpose of travel: medical needs/family visit/participation in a conference. I wish to know whether there is any security reason preventing me from traveling abroad." There are two options on the form for the answer to this: "There is no security reason preventing you from traveling abroad" and "It is our intention to prevent you from traveling abroad. Your are entitled to submit your claims in this regard in a reasoned argument. You will be notified of a decision within eight weeks."

"Reasoned argument" or not, Shehadeh was very keen to go to Amman last week to celebrate the holiday with his daughters and grandchildren. He says it was his "family duty" and again sounds like he is apologizing for something. Why, I asked, do you think that you were prevented from leaving this time?

"I promise you that I am not taking part in any political activity, and I despise violence of any kind. I think that your authorities know that I am against violence and against wars."

And yet? Shehadeh says that until a few years ago he volunteered as a doctor in several charitable associations in Hebron. He took care of sick, poor and orphaned children. In Hebron, these types of organizations are usually Islamic ones that Israel associates with Hamas, and it has closed many of them down.

"I'm not a member of any association anymore. We used to have a medical association, the Medical-Scientific Association, which was registered in Jerusalem. Most of its members came from Jerusalem, and it operated a mobile pediatric clinic where I worked as a volunteer. One of the association's founders was an activist in Hamas, but I didn't have any connection with him. Maybe that's come back to me now. Maybe that's why they won't let me leave. In any case, in 2004 I quit my volunteer work in that organization."

The coordinator of government activity in the territories told Haaretz: "Dr. Haitham Shehadeh's departure was blocked for security reasons. His application for a review of the security refusal is currently being examined by the relevant professional parties. When the review is complete, he will be informed of the decision, as required."

Last week, Shehadeh telephoned the Palestinian liaison and coordination administration to find out if they had received any answer from the Israeli authorities. They checked on their computers and told him that no answer had arrived. He had also attached a letter from his doctor in Jordan, Dr. Ibrahim al-Hur, detailing his medical condition. He was planning to go to the Allenby Bridge this weekend, in the hope of being permitted to cross. And again he sounded apologetic: "I just want to live a quiet life now, to enjoy my children and grandchildren, and take care of myself a little bit," and the bashful smile appears again. Last Thursday he set off for the bridge at three in the morning, and was sent back home again.