JENIN: For once, the circumstances of a young boy’s death from an Israeli bullet are not in dispute. The army concedes that one of its soldiers shot 12-year-old Ahmed Khatib in the head during a raid on Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank last week. Other Palestinian children playing with Ahmed have backed up the military’s statement that he was waving a toy gun that looked, to the soldier who shot him, remarkably like the real thing.
The army apologized with unusual speed. The armed factions entrenched in the Jenin camp made no calls for revenge. But it was the reaction of Ahmed’s parents that caught everyone off guard. As life slipped away from their son in an Israeli hospital at the weekend, Ismail and Abla Khatib decided that some good could come of his death. The Palestinian family donated Ahmed’s organs for transplant. The boy was in an Israeli hospital and his parents understood that their son’s body parts were most likely to save people routinely spoken of as ‘the enemy’ in Jenin. Within hours, Ahmed’s heart, kidneys, liver and lungs were transplanted into six Israelis, four of them Jewish.
The move was hailed by stunned Israeli leaders as a ‘remarkable gesture for peace’, particularly given the circumstances of Ahmed’s death, and a bridge between warring communities. Ariel Sharon’s closest cabinet ally, deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, telephoned Ismail to praise his ‘noble gesture’. The speaker of the Israeli parliament praised the Palestinian family for its ‘remarkable humanity’.
The Khatibs say that peace and a desire to alleviate the suffering of others was uppermost in their minds. But, looking exhausted and still stunned by the twin demands of Ahmed’s death and the Israeli embrace, they also speak of their decision as an act of resistance and anger. And they have found an ally in the armed men who more usually fight back by blowing up Israelis.
“To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance,” says Abla. “Violence against violence is worthless. Maybe this will reach the ears of the whole world so they can distinguish between just and unjust. Maybe the Israelis will think of us differently. Maybe just one Israeli will decide not to shoot.” It is not the first time that victims of the conflict have given life to people on the other side of the Arab-Jewish divide. Three years ago, a 19- year-old Jewish religious student from Scotland, Yoni Jesner, was murdered in the bombing of a Tel Aviv bus. Part of his body went to save the life of a Palestinian girl from East Jerusalem. But it is the first time that the organs of a Palestinian child killed by the army have given life to Israelis.
Ahmed — the third eldest in a family of four boys and two girls — was killed on Eid day. “He woke up at 5am before his brothers and sisters. He helped me make tea. He always tried to help me because he felt sorry for me having to do all the housekeeping and cooking,” says Abla.
Ahmed dressed in new clothes traditionally bought for the holiday and left the house after dawn for the mosque and to visit Jenin’s ‘martyrs’ graveyard’ where armed men killed in the intifada are buried. As a nine-year-old, Ahmed saw the destruction of the heart of the refugee camp just a few blocks from his home during the fierce Israeli army assault on Jenin in 2002 that left considerable damage and 59 Palestinians dead. They were mostly armed men and their deaths are still commemorated in the memorial posters that paper the walls of the camp.
“Ahmed collected martyr posters because he knew them,” says Abla. “He used to see them in the street and he admired them. He used to like fighter martyrs and these things used to scare me. I used to throw the posters away because when the soldiers come and they see them, they beat you or take you away.”
The dominant faction in Jenin refugee camp is Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, led by Zakaria Zubeidi. Ahmed admired Zubeidi in particular and a few weeks ago sent him a drawing of a heart with the name of Al Aqsa’s leader written underneath.
Ahmed also had encounters with Israeli soldiers. Two years ago, one of them grabbed him and a couple of other boys, gave them a broom and told them to sweep his tank. But usually when the boys saw an Israeli patrol, they stoned it.
“To be honest, he did go out and throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. It was a game for them,” says Abla. Ahmed was playing the game when he was shot. “He was bragging about his new clothes. He looked at his brother’s new clothes and said they were very beautiful but his were better,” says his mother.
Then Ahmed heard the Israeli army was in the camp in search of his heroes. Children poured out on to the street. His mother said he did not own a toy gun and was not carrying one when he left the house. But others had them and a friend, Ahmed Tawfi Krehen, says that Ahmed was carrying an imitation weapon by the time the pair of them spotted the army jeeps.
“The gun looked like an Uzi. He was playing with it. The Jews thought he was a fighter and they shot him. I was standing next to him, just one metre, when they shot,” says the 11-year-old. Ahmed was hit by a bullet in the back of his head and another in his pelvis.
“Some boys arrived at the house and said Ahmed was shot and was taken to the hospital,” says Abla. “When I got there, all his clothes were covered with blood. I realized immediately he was dying. He was not moving at all. He was taken to the operating theatre and they decided he had to be transferred to Israel because his situation was so critical.”
Abla says the doctors told her that both bullets exploded inside her son, causing considerable damage to his brain and body. It is one of the issues she returns to in anger and suspicion. “His body was full of fragments. Part of his brain was on his clothes,” she says. “Did they have to shoot him twice? Couldn’t they just have shot him in the leg?”
Ahmed was moved to an Israeli hospital in Haifa, but by then his mother had given up hope. “I told the doctor that Ahmed was dead but the doctor would not declare him dead. He tried to do more tests. They kept his heart beating but I knew he was not alive,” she says.
When Ahmed died two days later, his father had already decided what to do. Ismail’s brother, Shokat, died in 1983 at the age of 22 of kidney failure. “I saw my brother in the flesh of my own son. My brother had kidney failure and since we didn’t have the proper treatment for him, his situation deteriorated and it affected the second kidney and that lasted for 15 years,” he says. “I donated blood to my brother every time he needed it. I lived the whole ordeal and I wanted to stop others suffering like that. I told the doctors I wanted to donate Ahmed but first I had to consult from a religious point of view, and my family and my society.”
Ismail first asked his wife. Her wait in the hospital left her in no doubt. “We saw a lot of painful scenes in the hospital. I have seen children in deep need of organs, in deep pain. It doesn’t matter who they are. We didn’t specify that his organs would go to Arabs, Christians or Jews. I didn’t want my son to suffer, I didn’t want other children to suffer regardless of who they are,” she says.
“My son was dead but at the same time maybe he could provide life to others and maybe he could reduce their pain. Of course my son was martyred and they were the criminals and they took his life away but we are the ones who could give life back to them. And maybe my son is still alive in someone else.
“It was a message from us to them, a message of peace for them. We are the ones who want peace and love and they are the ones who break their promises and who don’t want peace.”
Ismail sought an assurance from the mufti of Jenin that there was no religious objection.
Then came what Ismail calls ‘society’. In Jenin, that is not so much the neighbours as those who control the streets, principally the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and Zubeidi, who has dispatched his share of suicide bombers into Israel.
Ahmed’s heart was transplanted into a 12-year-old Israeli Arab girl, his lungs into a Jewish teenager suffering from cystic fibrosis and his liver was divided between a seven-month-old Jewish girl and a 58-year-old mother of two suffering from chronic hepatitis. The kidneys were divided between a three-year-old Jewish girl and a five-year-old Bedouin Arab. —Dawn/The Guardian News Service