Living Experience: The enemy within

While conflict rages around them, one Israeli woman has taken a bold step by welcoming into her household a Palestinian man and his sick son
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The Independent Online

There has never been any love lost between the Israeli government and the Hamas-led administration in neighbouring Gaza, but this month has seen the violence escalate again. Following rocket attacks by Hamas on Israeli towns, Israel retaliated in a five-day operation that left more than 100 Palestinians dead. Last week, Israel's Deputy Defence Minister, Matan Vilnai, issued a warning that Palestinians faced a "shoah" (the Hebrew word for a great disaster, often used to refer to the Holocaust) if they continued to fire rockets into Israel. Commentators now say the aspirations of the two sides are so far apart that any sort of peace deal seems impossible.

It is against this backdrop of hatred and carnage that a five-year-old boy and his father have found themselves living with the "enemy", an Israeli family in Ramat Gan, a town bordering Tel Aviv.

Sayed Murannakh and his five-year-old son, Muhammad (known as Hamady), had come to Israel from Gaza after Hamady was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Sayed had lobbied the Israeli government for permission to have his son treated in Israel, where the facilities are far superior to those in Gaza.

When Hamady's treatment finally began in the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center last May, an Israeli woman, Ruth Mueller, 55, was making daily visits there to her niece, who had been injured in a car crash. "I noticed that Sayed never left Hamady's side," she says. "He was absolutely devoted to him and I could see there was a very special bond between them." It wasn't long before they got chatting. Hamady spoke no Hebrew but Sayed, who had worked as an electrician on building sites throughout Israel before they stopped giving work permits to Palestinians, spoke the language fluently.

Due to the recent violent incursions, movement of Palestinians out of Gaza into Israel is virtually impossible. All Palestinians in Israel are considered a security risk, so Sayed and Hamady were closely monitored. During the surgery and subsequent radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment they were instructed to remain within the hospital at all times. So Ruth began to meet with them every day, bringing with her small gifts for Hamady from the outside world.

By the time Ruth's niece had been discharged from hospital, such a strong bond had developed between the threesome that Ruth continued to visit every day. "My family told me I was crazy to go all the time but I felt I'd started something and wanted to see it through," she says. "I would spend two or three hours playing with Hamady and talking to Sayed about our families, what had happened in the news, all kinds of things. As strangers in my country, I wanted to welcome them. Sayed had left his wife and six other children behind for an indefinite period in order to save Hamady's life."

However, at the end of November last year, following a visit back to Gaza to see their family between treatments, Sayed and Hamady lost their hospital room. For a while it looked as if the entire treatment process would be in jeopardy, until Ruth stepped forward and offered them a place to stay in her small three-bedroom flat. "I invited them to move in with us," she says. "I don't know what my neighbours thought about us moving two Palestinians into our home, but what I do in my flat is my own business." Over time, the rest of Ruth's family – her husband, Steven, and their children aged 16, 24 and 26 – have also became deeply involved.

"Of course it's been very upsetting to see Hamady so sick, but Sayed has got used to that and so have we," says Ruth. "It has become part of his life and part of our lives too. At the moment Hamady is well, but we don't know what the future holds."

Sayed has taken great care throughout the gruelling treatment to explain to Hamady what is going on. "He has been incredibly brave throughout," says Sayed. "He is a long way from home, but he is always very co-operative." Every night after the hospital visits Hamady falls asleep on Ruth's sofa, clutching Sayed's hand.

The harmonious union of the two sides, especially in the light of current bloodshed, is so unprecedented that Ruth got a visit from Fredi Gruber, of Israel's Channel 1 TV station, who featured them all on a news programme a fortnight ago. "There's a process of demonisation of Arabs," says Gruber. "We are talking about 1.5m people in Gaza who are all different from each other. You can't label them all as terrorists.

"What has happened here shows that a humanistic approach is also an option – there is a way for Israelis to live in peace with Palestinians. The Muellers are a typical Israeli family, they're not big political activists. Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is one thing but for an Israeli family to move a Palestinian father and son into their living-room for several months is quite another."

Ruth is more matter of fact about the situation. "We share the same ideology," she says simply. "Sayed is a true peace lover and so am I. We both seek to solve problems not in a violent way." Living under one roof has proved to be a harmonious experience that the leaders of the Israeli government and Hamas could perhaps pick up tips from.

"Sayed is a darling. If I say I'm going to do the washing-up or make a cup of tea he jumps up to do it before I can," says Ruth. "It is a heavy burden looking after a sick child by yourself and with this arrangement Sayed has been able to share that burden."

This week, Hamady's treatment comes to an end and father and son are soon due to head home. Although it is too early to say what the long-term outlook is, in the short term Sayed is unequivocal: "Without doubt this treatment has saved his life. It has been such an enormous help living here."

And has the escalating conflict between Israel and Gaza caused problems in their relationship? "Not at all," they both reply. "We are both anti-war and peace-loving. When we see on the news that people are dying in the conflict, it hurts us both, no matter which side they're on."

"Living with the 'enemy' is an experience I never thought I'd have, but it shows that like-minded people can live together in peace. even if they come from opposing cultures," says Ruth. "You can gain so much from other people if your mind is open."

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