Last Wish

Gideon Levy

Kamal Abu Hader, 39, is terminally ill with bone cancer. All he wants now is to spend the remainder of his life with his parents' in his childhood home in Qalqilyah. But for a Palestinian, the right to die in this land is no simple matter.


23 June 2000

   Hobbling with difficulty on his crutches, Kamal enters the living room. The signs of his illness are already quite noticeable - the weakness of his remaining leg, his shriveled body and his relentless, rattling cough. His shaky hands are barely able to lift a cup. His fingertips are swollen and twisted. The metastases in his lungs and liver are painful. His face is ashen, sorrowful. Nothing makes him smile anymore.

Only once did a bitter half-smile, more akin to a minor spasm, cross his face, as he said in a feeble voice: "If they catch me, they'll expel me. And if I'm expelled from here ... Where will I go? ... What will I do in Jordan?"

An oppressive silence filled the room. There are no guilty parties in Kamal's story, and no apparent villains, but it reflects the situation with which all Palestinians must contend, due to the occupation. A personal tragedy as terrible as this ones makes it easier to understand the distress routinely experienced by Palestinians: Healthy or sick, in normal times or extreme circumstances, they are dependent day and night on the occupying regime. Nearly everything they need to do in their daily lives requires a permit, for which the Palestinian Authority serves as a sub-agent of the Israeli occupation establishment. A permit to travel and a permit to return, a permit to leave and a permit to enter, a permit to live in the town where you grew up, and in which your parents live, and a permit to die there. All this at a time when talk of a Palestinian state has become commonplace throughout the world.

Kamal Abu Hader is gravely ill; his days are numbered. His doctors have despaired of helping him. Now all he wants is to spend what remains of his life with his parents, and to die in their home. Not what most people would call an extravagant request. But for the Palestinian Abu Hader, even the fulfillment of this last, modest wish requires a permit from Israel. His grandparents were born in Qalqilyah, his parents live there, he spent his childhood there, and Qalqilyah is supposedly under the full control of the PA. Yet, without a permit from Israel, this young man will not be able to have his last wish - to live a bit longer in Qalqilyah, and to die there, attended by his mother and father.

Porcelain figurines, a map of Palestine marked with the Green Line, and numerous family photos adorn the Abu Hader family's neat living room. The house is situated in an alleyway near the center of Qalqilyah. Kamal's father, Abdullah Abu Hader, worked for most of his life as a tailor for the Jordanian army. His seven sons and daughters are scattered throughout the Arab world. It all began with the great flight during the Six-Day War in 1967. The residents of Qalqilyah were expelled by the Israel Defense Forces, and rumors spread that the town was about to be destroyed, wiped off the face of the earth. The IDF transported the elderly out of town on buses, while the younger people escaped on their own. At the time, Abdullah the military tailor was at his base in the Jordan Valley, close to his sewing machine. When the war broke out, he fled east with the army, crossing the Damia Bridge to the other side of the river. The five children he had at the time and his wife fled toward Nablus, finding refuge in Kafr Sara. From his new base in Jordan, the tailor kept passing messages to acquaintances in the West Bank, searching for his family. He eventually found them and a month later, his family joined him in Al-Mifrak, near Amman. Meanwhile, his house in Qalqilyah had been razed by Israeli bulldozers. Jordan became their new country. In 1971, one of the tailor's daughters married a man from Qalqilyah and went to live there. Fifteen years later, in 1986, the daughter was widowed, and her parents asked to return home to Qalqilyah in order to help her raise her five children. All these details are important to anyone seeking an explanation of why a Palestinian who wants to die in Qalqilyah needs a string of permits to do so.

In 1987, Abdullah, now retired, returned to the town of Qalqilyah with his wife. They built a new house to replace the one destroyed at the end of the war. By then, most of their children had scattered and were making new lives for themselves in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates and Jordan. The parents lived happily in their new-old home.

Kamal, 39, was born in Amman and grew up in Qalqilyah until, at age six, he fled with his mother, sisters and brother in 1967. He has little memory of the family's flight from the town. Kamal was then educated in Jordan and graduated from the Jordanian University in Amman with a degree in accounting. After completing his studies in 1982, he embarked on a modest career: first as an accountant in the Jordanian electric company, later in a rock wool manufacturing firm, and finally in a Jordanian potassium plant. He married Nauza, a daughter of 1967 refugees from Hawara; she is a teacher. They had no children, but led a quiet, peaceful life.

About five years ago, Kamal began to have pains in his right knee, and consulted a doctor. Sarcoma - bone cancer - was the diagnosis. The potassium company financed Kamal's medical treatment for several months before laying him off. He was treated at the military hospital in the Hussein Medical Center, at first with chemotherapy and radiation, later by full amputation of his right leg. Kamal and his wife were compelled to vacate the apartment they lived in because it belonged to the potassium company that had fired him. Unemployed and disabled, Kamal lived in a rented apartment in Amman with his wife, scraping by on their savings and on Nauza's teacher's salary.

The metastases appeared four years after the onset of the disease, and Kamal's doctors at the Hussein Medical Center told him that his illness was terminal. "They said they had no cure for me after I'd already received chemotherapy and radiation. They said I would die," he relates with chilling simplicity. When his father heard about his condition, he left right away for Amman. The couple applied for a tourist permit to visit their former town, but the Israeli embassy in Amman turned down the request. Instead, Abdullah was able to obtain for his son and daughter-in-law a visiting permit to Qalqilyah from the Civil Administration.

Last December, the couple left their apartment in Jordan to make the final trip to Qalqilyah. They came equipped with a document issued by the Jordanian Welfare Ministry, confirming that they had no assets or income in Jordan. Their visiting permit for Israel was good for three months; Kamal's life expectancy was longer than that, and they submitted a request to extend the visit by four months. The request was granted. Palestinians are usually granted just one extension of their visiting permits. A month from now, therefore, on July 26, the couple's extension will expire.

Kamal is afraid. Very afraid. For a moment, it seems that he's more worried about how much longer the permit will be valid than about his own brief life expectancy. The prosthetic leg with which he was fitted in Jordan no longer fits his stump, which has shrunk considerably. His other leg has also become very weak. The pain from the metastases are intensifying.

Three months ago, Kamal's mother, Khadija, submitted a request for family reunification with her sick son and his wife. To this day, she has not received a response: such matters usually take years. The spokesman for Shlomo Dror, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said: "The Palestinian Authority has never transferred this request to us and without an inquiry from the PA, we cannot handle a request for family unification. You have two authorities working here. All we can do is to ask the PA to rush the request to us. In the meantime, we can extend the visitor's permit for him and his wife. If he applies to us, we will do this."

A Palestinian charitable organization has supplied Kamal with a wheelchair for a monthly rental fee. Thus, on his better days, he goes out in the street and wanders among the stores. His younger brother assists him. Back in his childhood surroundings, he "just gazes at the people and the streets." The doctors didn't tell him how much time he has left. "Only God knows," his father cries. "Maybe a year," the son whispers. Since arriving here half a year ago, he has not seen a doctor. "The doctor there said there was nothing to be done," he says again. He doesn't trust the Palestinian doctors, and a visit to an oncology institute in a state-of-the-art Israeli medical center is something he can only dream about. In any case, he could not reach one with his visitor's permit, which is restricted to the territories. Money for medical expenses is nonexistent. Two painkilling tablets are his sole treatment.

When asked what else he would like, Kamal replies:

"I'd just like to stay here. In Amman, I no longer have a home, an income or anyone to help me. This is home. My father is supporting me from his savings, so I have a little bit of money to get along. Here there are young people around and my nephews who can carry me down the stairs. That's what I want. To stay here."

Wouldn't you like to have at least an examination by Israeli doctors?

"Of course I would, but I don't see how. I don't have a permit to enter Israel. Look, they say there's always hope. Maybe I have some, too. Maybe they'll discover that it's not bone cancer, maybe it's something else. Maybe they have some new study and they'll know how to cure me. But the first thing I ask is that they let me stay here."

His father again cries out: "I'm keeping him here. With or without a permit. He'll stay here until God takes him. Where should he go? To Jordan? He has nothing there. I won't let anyone take him from here. I won't leave him," he exclaims, his voice choked with sobs.

Kamal could remain in Qalqilyah illegally, like 40,000 other Palestinians inside the PA. In its great generosity, Israel recently agreed to let 5,000 stay.

"No, I can't leave Qalqilyah," Kamal says. "If they catch me, what will I do? And then, if they expel me... If I'm expelled, what will I do then?"

He has one last request: that we not present him as though he were begging the Israeli readers; he has even refused contributions in Qalqilyah. And then, as we are about to leave, with a desperate, heartbreaking look on his face, he tosses out one more question - "Maybe there is hope? 





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