Crossing Borders

Dalal rested in her father's lap. She smiled but only said one word, ana, "I" in Arabic -- her entire vocabulary at the age of three and a half. My friend Dr. Eliezer Be'eri, carefully felt her feet and ran his hand over her back. "Can she hold things?" Be'eri asked.

"She just started to with her right hand," answered her father, Osama Rusrus.

"Does she pass things from hand to hand?"

"No. The other hand doesn't function."

The examination continued. A cool evening breeze blew across the patio of the Everest Hotel, a mountaintop pensione on the outskirts of Beit Jala in the West Bank. Beit Jala itself is in Area A, the part of the West Bank that is under full Palestinian Authority control and that is off-limits to Israelis by Israeli military order. Alyn Hospital, the Middle East's only pediatric rehabilitation hospital, where Be'eri is a department head, is in Jerusalem, which is off-limits to West Bank Palestinians unless they procure Israeli permits. Our lives are fragmented by many borders in very little space.

The Everest, however, is in Area C, the part of the West Bank that is under Israeli control, meaning that Palestinians and Israelis can meet there. It is no-man's land, or rather everyman's land. Dalal is brain-damaged. The reasons, for the moment, aren't clear: It could be a genetic condition; it could be cerebral palsy, caused by a lack of oxygen before or during birth. The story of Dalal's examination is a short one with, I admit, a large cast of characters and with hope of a happy ending.

The catalyst was journalist Gideon Levy, who writes with singular, furious dedication about the inequities of the occupation for the Hebrew daily, Ha'aretz. Whether journalism can sway large numbers of people to make peace, whether it can change the big picture, is a question that eats at me. I'd like to believe it can, but so far, the thesis is hard to prove. In the meantime, however, Gideon has shown that an article can change the small picture. And even while the occupation continues, it's possible for Israelis and Palestinians, here and there, to cross boundaries and ameliorate an injustice. I find some solace in that.

In September, Levy published an article about the Rusrus family. Osama was born in the West Bank. His wife, Sonia, is from Rafah in the Gaza Strip. After they married, they lived in Dura, in the southern West Bank, and Osama worked for the Palestinian Authority. Dalal is their second child. By the time she was 4 months old, her parents knew she had serious developmental problems. But late in 2007, Sonia took Dalal with her to see her ailing father in Rafah. While there, they were trapped inside the Israeli siege of Gaza. Finally, at the end of Israel's 2009 invasion, mother and daughter received humanitarian permission to cross into Egypt. From there, they traveled to Amman. But Israel now strictly bars Gaza residents from entering the West Bank. Osama visited them in Amman. When Sonia got pregnant and gave birth to a third child, she suffered postpartum depression. Osama decided to help out by taking Dalal back to the West Bank, though Sonia could not come with him.

Describing this, Gideon focused on the madness of a policy that divides families. But he also mused about "the wonders [that] could be done for the girl … in a place like Alyn Hospital for children in Jerusalem."

Elliott Horowitz, an Orthodox professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, pointed the article out to me. Horowitz is more than a dedicated reader of Gideon Levy; he feels a religious duty to respond to what he reads and has invited me to help out several times in the past. When I read the story, my eye stopped on the line about Alyn Hospital. When it comes to social connections, Israel is more of a small town than a country. Be'eri, my former neighbor and Talmud-study partner, happens to head the Alyn Hospital's respiratory rehabilitation department. It took about 30 seconds of explanation on the phone for him to volunteer to examine Dalal. Horowitz and I would take him to meet the girl and her father. The question he needed to answer, Be'eri said, was whether care could improve her condition. Alyn does rehabilitation, not long-term nursing care.

Arranging a time and place took longer. Be'eri's s hospital schedule only allowed him to go after nightfall. Traveling in the West Bank is part of a reporter's work. Lately, though, there have been several nighttime shootings at Israeli cars on the roads near Bethlehem and Hebron. I didn't want to take risks with a man who saves children's lives or have to explain to his wife why I had thought driving those roads was sensible. Musa Abu Hashhash, the Palestinian fieldworker for the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem who'd originally alerted Levy to the Rusrus family's predicament, suggested the Everest as a safe spot to meet.

While we sipped extra-black Arab coffee on the patio, Abu Hashhash told Horowitz, Be'eri, and me about the other results of Gideon's writing: Most important, the army's Civil Administration had given extraordinary permission to Sonia Rusrus to return to her family in the West Bank. "They're afraid of Gideon," Abu Hashhash said. An Israeli reader sent money and toys for Dalal. An Israeli physical therapist has started coming once a week, as a volunteer, to work with her.

Dalal babbled, repeated "ana," and for a few moments held my finger with her good hand. Be'eri asked questions and studied medical records that Osama brought. At the end, in his quiet, practiced tones, Be'eri said that "she's sweet" and "has very serious delay in development" and definitely could benefit from care that would maintain her quality of life and allow her "to develop to her potential, whatever it is." She needs orthopedic care for her feet and a custom-built chair that will help her sit properly. He could arrange a referral for her to come for a multidisciplinary examination at Alyn where "we'll prepare a proper long-range plan," he said.

Abu Hashhash, whose human-rights work has made him an expert on the bureaucracy of borders, added that with the hospital's referral, Osama and Dalal would be able to obtain permits to enter Jerusalem. Payment is another question. Sometimes the Palestinian Authority funds treatment in Israel that's not available in Palestinian hospitals, but getting approval is "very difficult," he said. We decided to cross that bridge once the referral is in hand. Somehow, the money will show up.

We parted. Back in Jerusalem, I had one more problem to solve. The cabbie friend who had driven us to the Everest, an East Jerusalem Palestinian, refused payment. "But you lost three hours of work," I said. Horowitz said, "Look, we'll give you money, and you donate it to something you choose." To that he agreed.

I know this won't bring Israeli-Palestinian peace. It won't even give Dalal a normal life, just a slightly better one. If there's something I learned from Be'eri that evening, though, it's that you do what you can, when you can, and take your solace from that.

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