Friday, August 24, 2007

Paralyzed five-year-old Gazan girl faces deportation battle in Israel

BBC News:

Five-year-old Maria Amin from Gaza is putting on a brave face in the hydrotherapy pool.

Two therapists at the Alyn Children's Hospital in Jerusalem are helping her.

Maria cannot kick her legs or even feel the water she's floating in. She is permanently attached to a ventilator.

Maria was paralysed from the neck down by an Israeli rocket attack in May 2006.

The missile was aimed at a leader of the armed Islamic Jihad movement, who was killed outright.

So were Maria's mother, her grandmother and seven-year-old brother, who were driving past at the time. Maria was blown through the car window, suffering severe injuries.

Israeli law denies compensation to victims of what it calls its "acts of war", but Maria's story was taken up by local as well as foreign press.

Under pressure, Israel's Defence Ministry has been paying for her rehabilitation treatment at the specialist hospital in Jerusalem.

But now it wants to deport Maria to a Palestinian clinic in the West Bank.

Staff at the hospital in Jerusalem are helping Maria to become as independent as she can be. They are teaching her to use her mouth to work a computer.

The head of the hospital, Shirley Meyer, doesn't want to let Maria go.

"Without going into politics - that's not my role and not my business - my first priority is to make sure my patients receive the care they need," she says.

"I don't care where that is, but as far as we know, this is the only hospital in the Middle East that can look after Maria properly.

"Her case is extremely complicated. So we will not agree to discharge her until we are satisfied she will be adequately cared for elsewhere."

Israel's Supreme Court will hear Maria's case at the end of September.

If the country's Defence Ministry gets its way, Maria will be sent to the Abu Raya Rehabilitation Centre in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

In a statement, the ministry said Maria would fare better in her "natural environment".

Her father Hamdi is fighting to keep her in Jerusalem.

"It's a matter of life and death for Maria. She can only survive 50 seconds without the ventilator and there are often complications. Here they are experts. In Ramallah they are not," he says.

"Israel's air strike killed my son and my wife. All I ask is that they look after my daughter."

Maria's lawyer, Adi Lustigman, has several objections to the Defence Ministry's plan: Maria is Gazan and has no family in Ramallah; Abu Raya has not got the experience or equipment to deal with complications such as hers; far less severe cases are sent to the Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem.

Frequent hold-ups at checkpoints between Ramallah and Jerusalem could cost Maria her life. She would not be the first Palestinian to die that way.

Israel's Defence Ministry has offered to send staff from Abu Raya to Jerusalem for training. It says it will pay for some of Maria's medical equipment and for her father's rent in Ramallah for a year.

"But then what?" asks her lawyer. Maria's paralysis, her frequent infections and fevers, her need for new medical equipment as she gets bigger, are all ongoing.

Everyone involved in Maria's case says they have her best interests at heart but, like so much else in this conflict, the fate of this Gazan child has become highly politicised.

Maria will turn six next week. She says she just wants to lead as normal a life as possible.

"I want them to give me a home for me and my father and my little brother where I can bathe by myself, get dressed by myself and everything," she says.

"I want them to make a kitchen so I can cook for my father and my brother whatever they want.

"I would love to go to school. But first I would have to shower, get dressed and have a school bag."

Maria's father is constantly by her side. He feeds her, cleans her ventilator and brushes her hair.

He even paints her nails, although he knows she will never use her hands again.

Palestinians: 11-year-old boy killed in Israeli West Bank raid

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