The birthday party that captured Israel's heart

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The Independent Online

Maria Amin, a chubby-faced Palestinian girl with gleaming brown eyes, celebrated her birthday yesterday like any pampered six year old. Doting aunts decked her out like a princess in a gauzy white chiffon dress, spotted with pink hearts and topped with a toy tiara.

A make-up girl primped her hair, rouged her cheeks and painted her lips. With a pout and a shake of the head, Maria rejected a plain lipstick and demanded a glittery gold one. She insisted on being sprayed with a favourite scent. When the make-up girl held up a mirror, she cooed: "How pretty!"

But Maria was no ordinary birthday girl. She came to the party in a wheelchair, which she navigates with her chin against a joystick. She was paralysed from the neck down in May last year when the car she was in was caught in an Israeli missile strike on an Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza. Her mother, grandmother and older brother were killed.

She celebrated her birthday party in the Israeli Alyn hospital and rehabilitation centre for handicapped children, where she is hooked to the respirator she will need for the rest of her life.

Her father, Hamdi Amin, who is on call 24 hours a day, supervised the festivities. The Israeli army allowed his father, grandfather and sundry cousins to visit from Gaza. The hall, overlooking the Jerusalem forest, was awash with balloons.

Reporters who had followed Maria's story, turned up with their own children, bearing gifts, as did Arab and Jewish friends. The birthday girl thanked them in her native Arabic and the Hebrew she has picked up from the hospital staff.

But the celebrations were overshadowed. The Israeli Defence Ministry has paid for Maria's rehabilitation at Alyn and for a small flat on the premises for her father and younger brother. Now, however, the ministry says she must move to the Abu Raya Rehabilitation Centre in Ramallah. It will continue covering expenses.

The Palestinian doctors say that they cannot provide the care Maria needs. They don't have the equipment; they don't have the trained staff. The Israeli hospital is defying orders and refusing to discharge her. The case will come before the Israeli Supreme Court on 25 September.

Hamdi Amin is a father in limbo. He can't work, even if the Israelis give him a permit. Maria needs him constantly. "Until the judges decide," he said, "I don't know how we'll live or where we'll go. Maria's condition is still very grave. For her it's a matter of life or death. She can't move her arms or legs. She can't breathe on her own. There's nowhere in Gaza or the West Bank that can look after her. How can the Defence Ministry say the Ramallah hospital has to treat her?"

The family has seen the worst and the best of Israel. Hamdi declines to blame or to praise. "I don't care about wars, I don't care about Hamas, I don't care about America," he explained. "I grew up in a family where you worked to put food on the table for your children. I believe that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away."

A support group of Israeli and Palestinian activists has rallied to the Amin family's side. Dalia Becker, a chain-smoking Israeli matron, said: "We're Hamdi's second family. Anything he needs, he turns to us. We're paying for the lawyers who will represent Maria at the Supreme Court. It's hard to believe that once the judges see her, they will send her away."

Back in Gaza, the undeclared war goes on. Children are still paying a price. An Israeli shell killed two Palestinian boys and a girl near Beit Hanoun on Wednesday. A military spokesman said the troops targeted several Qassam rocket launchers aimed at Israel. It expressed "sorrow for the cynical use the terror organisations make of the active participation of teenagers in terror attacks".

The army said yesterday that it had arrested a 15-year-old Gaza boy on his way to a suicide bombing against Israeli soldiers.

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