Fate brought me to Reham Dawabsha’s hospital bed after she and the rest of her family were burned alive in their home. We had never met before, but something kept bringing me back to see her.
Operation Protective Edge brought me a small, new batch of new Jewish and Arab friends. A few days ago, we got together after a year apart. Gaza seemed very far from the German border, and naturally the refugee issue took over our conversation.
At the end of the evening I announced that I was heading toward Tel Hashomer Hospital, “just to say hello and see how the women there are doing. Reham’s mother probably hasn’t eaten since the morning nor slept.”
One of the women decided to come along: “I’ll come with you, but my heart is weak. I won’t go in, I’ll wait outside.”
“A woman in urgent care is not frightening, the people who put her there are,” I said to myself. We made it to the children’s unit of the hospital, where little Ahmed Dawabsha is still hospitalized. Family members and volunteers sat around a cake.
“We decided to celebrate Reham’s birthday anyway,” said one of the volunteers. The aunts ate the cake, crestfallen and with tears in their eyes, wished for her recovery. “Inshallah she will be alright, God is great.”
I asked whether Umm Hassan, Reham’s mother, was resting or whether she had eaten at all. The aunts told me that she refuses to leave her daughter’s hospital bed.
Living between Ahmed and Reham
I began to talk in the direction of Reham’s hospital room, through a long hallway that was empty in the late hours of the night, when my friend asked me: “Why this family, Samah? I know how much we tried to help the sick from Gaza and the West Bank, why are you so attached to the Dawabsha family?”
I thought for a moment. “I don’t think it was a choice. Fate brought me here on the day of the attack, and since then I feel like I am a part of this. Poor Reham and Ahmed were burned alive. Just a family sleeping in their home, and someone planned to kill them in the most inhumane way possible. This isn’t cancer from up above, this is a human cancer and they are the victims, and they landed here in a military helicopter without a clue.”
I found Umm Hassan and another aunt trying to enter urgent care after they left to pray for a few minutes. The mother stood crying in front of the locked door. I rang the bell until they responded. The four of us entered the room quietly, without the typical pushback from the medical staff whom I have come to know quite well.
The beeping of the machines was the only thing that could be heard next to Reham’s bed. Her mother turned to me: “Look at her Samah, her face is even brighter than yesterday. Yesterday they told us that she only has a few hours left, but she held tight. Maybe it’s a good sign.”
“Inshallah, God is great,” I answered. “What did the doctors tell you today?”
“That her blood pressure is going up and that perhaps her body is responding to the treatment. The doctor says it’s a miracle that she made it this far.”
She looked at me with a modest smile that brought out the wrinkles on her tired face. “I am happy you are smiling, whoever saw you yesterday and today can see the difference. You told me that she would pass away on her birthday, and here she is and we are celebrating, right?”
The mother got up from her seat and began caressing Reham’s face. “Isn’t she breathing better than yesterday? I see that the numbers are going up, do you see?”
I looked at the monitor as if I understood what it said and responded: “She must feel that you are near her. Your touch is important, there is nothing like a mother in an hour of need. But you must also rest, sleep a little, and come back later.”
Umm Hassan wasn’t all that enthusiastic about my idea. When Reham’s brother Hassan and his wife came into the room, I asked Hassan to help me convince his mother to come eat and sleep in the other room, and call her if something happens.
We finally managed to convince her. I hugged Umm Hassan and led her toward the exit. “My heart is with her, I cannot leave her like this,” she whispered to me.
We headed toward the children’s hospital. On the way we laughed at the moving walkway that frightened the women of Duma. Umm Hassan was the only one who would use it.
“You see Samah,” she laughed. “What can I do? I have gotten used to it. I haven’t seen the village in 35 days, it is as if I live here between Ahmed and Reham.”
After making sure that Um Hasan was in good hands, I said goodbye and headed home. I called my husband Omar to explain my tardiness. “I stopped at the hospital after the meeting,” I told him, like a little girl asking for forgiveness. “I knew it. I had a feeling you were there.”
There is something in the air during these nights, ever since Reham’s condition became critical, and I refuse to let go. I am constantly thinking of her, her mother, the stories I’ve heard and the photos I’ve seen, like a life puzzle that is slowly being put together, until I really feel like I knew the elementary school math teacher, the mother who loves to cook vegetables and eat healthy, who chased Ahmed in the yard in order to feed him, the loving older sister among three.
I thought about how I am saying goodbye to a woman whom I never knew, a woman whose entire life, and death, made its way into mine. There is no logical explanation, and I didn’t look for one. I thought about her final moments and how it would happen. I imagined the machines coming to a deafening halt, and what her mother would do right then.
I cried both to and from the hospital, trying hopelessly to distract myself. My friend called me at 7 a.m. the next morning: “Why did you drag me there Samah? Look what happened!”
“What!?” I yelled, “Reham died?”
“Yes, right after we left her. I cannot believe I was with you yesterday.”
I put down the phone, sent my son to school, and found myself on the way to the hospital. Reham’s father Hussein told me that he called me at midnight. “You didn’t answer, Reham was martyred. Khalas, my poor daughter is gone. The funeral is today.”
The drive, which felt like it lasted forever, ended at the hospital, where the women of the village and Reham’s mother — all of them tearful, tired, and devastated — were driven back to Duma. All of them left apart from Miriam, Reham’s 16-year-old sister who stayed with little Ahmed, who does not understand what happened and was in surgery in the morning.
Reham’s father and brother-in-law waited for her body to be released; the entire procedure took four hours after it was discovered that they lacked approval from the police. The hospital spokesperson called everyone she could to obtain the permit. The hospital clerk looked at them sternly, refusing to release the body without a signature.
Between translating the forms and the many telephone calls, everybody’s patience was running out. I called a journalist I knew to ask if perhaps he could find a police official. I spoke with the police spokesperson and told her we are waiting for the signature.
She responded that the top brass was at an event in honor of Rosh Hashana. “We are being burned and they are celebrating?!” yelled the brother-in-law. The spokesperson called back to say that one of the officers would leave the event in order to send a fax with his signature. A few minutes later and the release certificate was in our hands. We headed to the morgue.
As we headed out of the hospital in an ambulance we were accompanied by a woman who coordinates entry permits into the occupied territories. She told us that the ambulance driver did not want to enter the PA-controlled areas, nor pass the checkpoint, claiming that it went against company regulations.
‘I do not believe that Jews did this’
It was a long drive to the morgue, as if it were in another city. The entire drive was spent making sure that a Palestinian ambulance would come to the Hawara checkpoint near Nablus, where they would transfer the body.
I imagined the humiliation of moving Reham from one vehicle to another on both sides of the checkpoint. How could this happen on her final journey?
Alas, this was the only solution we could find; ordering an “Arab” ambulance would take another hour, and no one had the energy for waiting around.
The father went inside to identify the body. One of the three men in charge of the morgue, an ultra-Orthodox man, consoled the father and asked whether Jews were really responsible. “I do not believe that Jews did this,” he said, “there must be a mistake.”
I went to the father and asked to say goodbye to Reham, since I would not be at the funeral. “Of course, binti, of course. You are like her sister now, come with us.” The father slowly unzipped the thick, blue bag.
It was the first time I saw her face without bandages or attached to machines. I could not bring myself to say anything aside from the Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Quran), and slowly followed the stretcher until they placed her in the ambulance, her father weeping beside her.
As the ambulance door slammed shut, I remained standing there in silence. I was alone, and looked around to try and understand what I was doing there, and how it could be that behind me were numbered metal coffins, while in front of me stood a giant horizon.
I thought I saw a huge forest touching a white, open sky. I took a deep breath and prepared to leave. It is still unclear to me how I found myself next to Ahmed’s bed after he woke up from surgery.
I spoke with the staff members in Hebrew about the funeral and the ordeal with the police approval. We agreed not to tell him until we spoke with a child psychologist and until his grandmother comes back, despite being convinced that he felt what had happened.
Mariam tried to distract him with balloons and a game, but he refused to participate.
All of a sudden I thought about this girl who lost her sister, far away from their village, and must now act as a mother to this wounded child. Why isn’t anyone asking her how she feels?
The volunteers suggested she eat something, and she was too embarrassed to even answer. I asked her if she needs anything, she said she needs a wristband to enter the unit. “Let’s take care of it with the nurse, it’s no problem,” I said.
We waited for the nurse along with another volunteer. “It must be hard for you,” I said, “I understand your loss, and everything you are going through.” She turned to me with a heartbreaking look of a lost teenage girl and began to cry.
“It’s okay, cry binti, you are not alone here. We are with you,” said the volunteer. The nurse arrived and Reham’s sister wiped her tears as she headed back to Ahmed’s room. I said goodbye for the hundredth time and left the room, after promising Ahmed that I would bring him Tom and Jerry games, which he loves.
As Reham was lowered into the ground, another chapter in the horror movie called humanity came to an end. The thought of little Ahmed losing his parents and brother in one night is too difficult to comprehend. It is a feeling of anguish mixed with helplessness in the face of a justice system that not a single Palestinian believes in. It makes it difficult to believe that things will be okay here one day.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.