As Children Die

My son followed me out of the apartment and caught up with me as I leaned on the fence around the playground, shaking. "What's wrong, Dad?" he asked. He's used to a wordy father, but I couldn't find words, not then. I took a breath, slipped back on my journalist's emotional armor, went inside, and picked up the phone again to find out more about what happened to Tabarak Odeh.

It was the morning of a cheerless Independence Day. We'd dropped the usual family hike in the hills west of Jerusalem because, with no fence separating Israel from the West Bank, there's no telling who might slip by the army patrols and look for an Israeli to kill. Then again, perhaps it was lack of will to celebrate that had kept us at home. I'd made pancakes for breakfast, promised the kids bike riding and stories, and taken a moment to check my e-mail.

That's when my discomfort had begun. In the inbox I had found a message I'd been too busy to open the day before. A friend had passed on an appeal from the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC) to help two-year-old Tabarak, from the village of Deir al-Hattab near Nablus in the West Bank. The girl had a neurological disease and needed daily medication, the message said. But the village had been closed off by the Israeli army for two weeks, the medicine had run out, and her parents couldn't leave to buy more. UPMRC was trying to get an ambulance to her, but Israeli troops wouldn't let it through. My friend asked if I could call the army spokesman's office; maybe media inquiries would make a difference.

The appeal was a day old when my friend forwarded it, so by now two days had passed. At the bottom, Tabarak's family's cell-phone number appeared. I dialed that first, so I'd know what to ask the army. "She deaded this morning," said the man who answered in broken Hebrew and told me to hold the line. My chest tightened, leaving too little room for air. If I'd opened the message the day before, I wondered, called the right people, urged colleagues to call, would that have saved her?

Another voice came from the phone, a man who said in English that he was a cousin. "The child has been dead. The medicine ran out since 10 days. It was available in Nablus. Because of the siege they could not get there," he said. "For two days they are trying to get an ambulance. Yesterday it came and took her, but she died in the hospital this morning." He wasn't screaming. He was stating facts. "That's all there is," he said before hanging up.

The cousin's words provided only this much relief: Other people had responded to that appeal. She hadn't died because I'd failed to open my e-mail. I still needed air and to get away from the phone, and I found myself outside, in socks, with my son next to me. She had died, perhaps, while I was playing holiday dad by making pancakes.

This is a story, I'm afraid, without a simple moral. The soldiers who prevented anyone from entering or leaving Deir al-Hattab were there, as it were, in my name, to protect my family by keeping terrorists from moving from place to place. Heaven knows we need protecting. In the past year, two car bombs have exploded in my neighborhood. My mental map of Jerusalem is an array of places where people have been shredded by explosives.

Not just the closure of Deir al-Hattab but the entire Israeli offensive in the West Bank is ostensibly aimed at nothing more than stopping terrorism. I doubt it will accomplish that. My estimation is that the operation is based on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's mistaken conception that he can crush not only terrorism but Palestinian nationalism with military force, a conception apparently shared by top generals. I have no doubt we need to defend ourselves. But to reduce support for terrorism Israel must again offer the Palestinian public a realistic hope that negotiations will lead to the end of the occupation. This is abstract; the death of a particular child in an operation presented as protecting my children is immediate and unbearable.

But nothing is simple. The commanders whose orders made it impossible for Tabarak Odeh's parents to get her medicine, I believe, are culpable of paying too little attention to civilian suffering. Yet I reject a claim that the scale balances when weighing that culpability against the actions of terrorists who deliberately target civilians -- who have made bombs and strapped them on people and sent those people to blow themselves up in a crowd next to mothers with strollers.

To tangle matters further, in late March, just before the Netanyah bombing and the Israeli offensive, soldiers at a West Bank roadblock stopped a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance. As the army reported, the driver turned out to be a Tanzim (the armed wing of the Fatah) activist wanted by Israel's Shin Bet security service. His sister-in-law was sitting in back; his young nephew was lying on the stretcher. Under the stretcher was a belt of explosives intended for a suicide bomber. One might be tempted to dismiss the army's report -- if using an ambulance to smuggle a bomb weren't entirely consistent with a strategy of suicide bombings.

That string leads to another knot. If one acknowledges that Sharon's offensive is likely to enlist more terrorists, one must recognize that Palestinian terrorism brought Ariel Sharon to power and provided public support for his strategy. Palestinian leaders and activists who chose murdering civilians as a means of achieving independence are therefore also complicit in Tabarak's utterly unnecessary death.

I spoke to Tabarak's doctor, neurosurgeon Hameed Masri of Nablus. The girl suffered from cerebral palsy and required medication for epilepsy. He'd seen her before the closure of Deir al-Hattab and she was healthy. When the medicine ran out, she began having convulsions. She was semi-comatose on arrival at the hospital. At three the next morning, convulsions began again, causing apnea. She died at 7:30 A.M.

The next day, on an uncertain cell phone link, Tabarak's father, Jaber Odeh, told me his story. The medicine had run out five days after the army closed off the village. He had no idea what to do. He tried, without success, to call an ambulance. With his phone, from an Israeli cell-phone company, he couldn't get through. (A spokesman for the Israeli human-rights organization B'Tselem confirmed that phone service has been erratic in the West Bank in recent months.) At last, someone told him to call Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, head of UPMRC. Barghouthi's public cry for help worked, but slowly: Odeh was told an ambulance would arrive at eight the next morning. It came at 11:30 A.M. Stopped repeatedly at Israeli military checkpoints, Jaber Odeh said, it took three hours to make what should have been the 10-minute drive to Nablus. Her skin was blue when she reached the hospital. The name Tabarak, I've been told, means "blessed."

I could not speak to my son when he first asked what was wrong because I was caught in this tangle. Any report that presents what is happening here in simple categories, one victim and one villain, has failed.

In Israel, a growing minority is publicly protesting Sharon's policies. In private conversations, I've heard Palestinians, from cabbies to professors, reject the strategy of terror. In public, however, even Palestinian moderates seem to speak only of Israel's offenses. That disturbs me. But I'm not willing to engage in the dance of "You first," "No, you first." While condemning the other side's deeds, I must also speak against my own government's actions. Tangled in the web, I find no relief in doing so.

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