Arab Girl’s Rehabilitation is Handicapped by Politics

The story of Alla Ghneim is a tale about tragedy and hope — and frustration. It’s also about how individuals can fall victim to the unintended consequences of Israeli-Palestinian politics.

In March 1995, 5-year-old Alla and a friend were crossing the main road passing through her West Bank village of Al Khader, near Bethlehem, when a cement truck ran over the two girls.

Her friend died immediately. Alla was rushed to the Hadassah Medical Center in the Ein Kerem section of Jerusalem.

The lower half of Alla’s body was totally mutilated. The doctors at Hadassah had to amputate Alla’s lower torso from the hips down.

Miraculously, Alla survived.

“The doctors had lost hope and had asked for my opinion,” recalled Alla’s father, Mohammad, a construction worker in a nearby West Bank town. “They told me that in similar cases in America and Europe, the parents do not want to accept children in similar circumstances, that they prefer that they die. But I told them: As long as the head is there and she can talk to me — I want her.”

Although it was unclear whether Alla would survive the ordeal, the doctors went ahead with several operations. Two months after the accident, she was out of danger.

“Mentally, Alla remained a totally healthy child,” said Dr. Shirley Meir of the Alyn Rehabilitation Center in Jerusalem. “The natural drive of a child, ever since birth, is to get up and do things on its own. We took advantage of that drive.

“When Alla came to us, she was a frightened little child,” said Meir, “but on the day she managed to sit by herself, that was the day she began to smile.”

Allin’s physiotherapists worked day and night to adjust the girl to her new life. They trained her to move using her arms, they taught her how to swim. “I accepted the fact that one should not cry over this and that,” recalled Alla, smiling, “I realized that one must try and change things.”

But as the initial shock over the accident had faded away and Alla returned home from the hospital, another difficulty emerged — the financial one.

Despite her handicap, Alla insisted that she go to school. Alla’s three brothers carried her every day by chair from the third floor of their building and then walked with her for 30 minutes through the dusty paths to school.

Taking care of Alla was now a full-time job. Mohammad missed several work days, and Alla’s mother, Nawal, could not work at all.

Their medical and rehabilitation costs amounted to more than $1,000 a month. Mohammad’s income from construction work could not cover the costs, and he was forced to take out several loans. He was not too concerned — eventually, he believed, insurance would reimburse him.

But it turned out to be not so simple. Soon after Alla’s accident, a political development got in the way of her rehabilitation.

In September 1995, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed the second of the two Oslo accords, which expanded Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In December 1995, six months after the accident, Alla’s village was divided into three sections: Some of it fell into Area A, under total Palestinian control; some became part of Area B, under Palestinian civilian control but Israeli security control; and the rest became part of Area C, under total Israeli control.

The driver of the truck that ran over Alla and her friend did not have the proper license, and as a result, his insurance company refused to compensate the girl and her family. In Israel proper, the family would have been compensated by the state-run Karnit insurance company.

But since Al Khader was no longer under total Israeli control, representatives of Karnit appeared in court and demanded that its Palestinian equivalent take care of the compensation and rehabilitation costs.

“According to the legal opinion of the Israeli Civil Administration, the accident took place in Area A,” said Lifa Lior, a lawyer for the insurance company. “Thus the burden lies on the Palestinian company.”

For a year, the parties have debated who was in charge of that specific part of the road. A yard here, a yard there could mean tens of thousands of dollars – - and could radically affect Alla and her family. For once, the Palestinians and Israelis wanted the other party to be responsible for a parcel of land.

But Mazen Kopti, a lawyer for the girl and her family, claims that it is irrelevant to determine who owned the road. The only relevant fact in his view is that Israel was in control of the road at the time of the accident.

As the parties continued to haggle in court, the girl’s rehabilitation process was slowed down for lack of funds.

“It is unacceptable that after having put so many efforts and so many resources into saving the girl, the girl cannot be rehabilitated,” said Meir of the Alyn Rehabilitation Center.

When the story appeared on Israel Television, the public responded. Viewers from all sectors of Israeli society phoned in to offer contributions. A week after the story was aired, enough money was collected to buy Alla a specially designed wheelchair.

But the legal battle continues. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians appear to want to carry the burden of paying for Alla’s rehabilitation all her life.

Just because she was unfortunate enough to lose her legs somewhere between A, B and C.

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