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Israeli hospital has been quietly harboring 24 patients from Gaza and their families since October

RAMAT GAN, Israel — Ibrahim Hasanein, who turned 3 this week, was born in Gaza but has spent almost half his life in an Israeli pediatric ward.

Relatives brought him to the Sheba Medical Center more than a year ago to treat his rare blood disease. They were there when Hamas terrorists breached the fence between Gaza and Israel on Oct. 7, and still in November, awaiting results of a bone marrow transplant, when a call came from back home: Ibrahim’s father had been killed in an Israeli airstrike.

He is among at least two dozen seriously ill patients from Gaza who, along with their relatives, have quietly spent the war inside the walls of Sheba, the largest hospital in Israel and, according to Newsweek’s ranking, one of the best in the world. Some, like Ibrahim, still need months or possibly years more specialty care, their families say. Others are done with treatment but are still being allowed to shelter in the hospital rather than returning to a war zone where 85% of health facilities have been destroyed, clean water is scant and hunger is rampant.

Mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters of patients from Gaza and the occupied West Bank worked on a craft project together Saturday at Sheba Medical Center. Photo by Susan Greene

Sheba, which spent years touting its work saving the lives of Palestinians and other non-Israelis, has stayed mum during these nine months of war about treating these patients and harboring their families. Physicians for Human Rights Israel so far has blocked the government’s efforts to send three of the patients from Sheba, along with Gaza residents being treated at hospitals in East Jerusalem, back to Gaza.

The group won a temporary injunction in March to protect those patients, citing Israeli and international law that prohibits releasing people to places where they cannot access adequate medical treatment or would be in danger. That injunction expired in April.

Aseel Aburass, a managing director of the doctors’ group, said it is filing for extensions for those who wish to stay at Sheba or in East Jerusalem. At least one family wants to return to Gaza, she said, and her organization is working with other aid groups to facilitate that once it is safe.

Aburass said no patients she is aware of have been deported, and called Israel’s discussion of doing so a “disregard of Palestinians as humans, as living things, as sick people.”

The court case and Israeli news reports about it only mentioned a handful of patients at Sheba, but families there said there are at least two dozen. Those working with the patients said their care has been paid for by the Palestinian Authority and philanthropy in Israel and abroad.

A spokesperson for the hospital, Steve Walz, would not say how many patients from Gaza have been treated at Sheba since the war, nor how much their care and the sheltering of their families has cost. He and other medical center officials also declined to say if the hospital would cooperate with the government should it seek to send the patients or their families back to Gaza.

Walz said he could not discuss the patients or their companions “for their own safety and protection.”

Ibrahim’s grandmother, Iptisam Hasanein, who arrived here with him in April 2023, was similarly wary.

“I don’t want to say anything that could harm my family either here or there,” she told me, speaking Arabic through a translator. “But what we’re going through, it’s like living between two hells.”

 

‘Hospitalization without borders’

Israel has generally been proud of its record treating seriously ill patients from throughout the region, especially the occupied West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. At least six of the kibbutz residents who were killed in the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war in Gaza had regularly volunteered with a group called Road to Recovery that drove Palestinians from Gaza to medical appointments in Israel.

Sheba called its approach “hospitalization without borders.” Now, the Gaza patients’ relatives said, hospital staff has warned them not to leave the confines of Sheba’s 200-acre campus for fear they could be harassed or attacked.

I spent Saturday at Sheba, talking to 11 mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters of patients from Gaza. Most said they had accompanied young family members to Israel before the war seeking care for cancers, blood diseases, autoimmune disorders or other life-threatening conditions. A few came with adult relatives who needed treatment for serious illnesses. All said they have been sleeping in the patients’ hospital rooms or in hostels on the hospital’s grounds ever since.

Buma Inbar, left, is an Israeli Jew who has been providing food and supplies to at least two dozen Gazan families harbored at Sheba Medical Center since the war started in October. Photo by Susan Greene

They praised the hospital staff, about a third of which is Arab Israeli, for care they described as compassionate and professional. And all were grateful for donations and other support from Arab Israelis, Palestinians from the West Bank and an Israeli Jew named Buma Inbar who twice daily brings them food and supplies.

Inbar, who lives a 20-minute drive from the Sheba in a village of 2,600 people called Neve Monosson, has been helping arrange medical care for Palestinians since his son, Yotam, an Israeli soldier, was killed while serving in Lebanon in 1995. His work was highlighted in the 2017 documentary Muhi — Generally Temporary, about a Gaza boy with no limbs who spent eight years living at Sheba.

“In all the Middle East, no country treats more Palestinian children than Israel,” Inbar said. “They are treated just like our own children here no matter their gender, nationality, religion or race.”

Before the war, the World Health Organization estimated that about 70 patients from Gaza received care each day in Israel. Neither WHO nor Israel’s office for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories would say how many patients from Gaza have been treated here since October.

“The truth may be nobody really knows,” one WHO employee told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of an organizational policy against speaking with the news media.

 

‘We never knew this would happen’

The women from Gaza who I spent time with at Sheba talked about the anguish of living away from home during wartime.

They described the ups and downs of their relatives’ medical conditions, the long waits for them to wake up from surgeries, the months it could take after treatment for them to resume eating solid foods, to get out of bed, to walk again, to grow. The kids — patients and some of their siblings — said they’re bored and miss their families back home. They looked worried when their relatives cried.

“We never knew this would happen and are all so tired, so tired,” said Saba Al-Laham, 58, who is from Khan Younis and came to Sheba Oct. 1 to accompany her granddaughter Fatima for eye cancer treatment. “We’ve become like families and consider each other sisters,” she said of the bonds she has formed with other women from Gaza.

Saba Al-Laham came to Sheba Medical Center from Khan Younis, Gaza, on Oct. 1 seeking treatment for her granddaughter Fatima’s eye cancer. They are waiting for safe passage home. Photo by Susan Greene

Fatima, who is 5, finished treatment this winter after having one eye removed, but “we’ve stayed because of war, until there’s a safe road home,” Al-Laham told me. The little girl cries most days about missing the rest of her family, who have been displaced but uninjured in the war; they are usually able to reach them by cell phone.

Her smile, though, helps her charm the other children from Gaza to play with her in the hospital’s hallways and green spaces.

Members of the group said they have had almost no interaction with Israeli patients and visitors, but have struck up some friendships with patients from the occupied West Bank, including Ammar Marshoud, a hemophiliac from Ramallah who told me he has lived all of his 14 years inside Sheba.

The women pray and pace the hallways together, and take turns cooking in the kitchens in the hospital’s hostels, doing laundry and watching each other’s kids. They are also constantly watching their cell phones for news of air strikes, ceasefire negotiations and war deaths, just like everyone in Israel and Gaza.

Subhia Jarad and her 7-year-old daughter, Sama, from Beit Hanoun, Gaza, arrived at Sheba Medical Center 11 months ago to treat Sama’s leukemia. Photo by Susan Greene

“I knew it would be a long time, but didn’t think it would last this long,” said Subhia Jarad, 34, who came to Sheba in August with her 7-year-old daughter, Sama, who has leukemia.

Jarad’s brother, sister-and-law and cousins have since been killed and her home in Gaza’s Beit Hanoun neighborhood destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Her husband is disabled, she said, so her 13-year-old daughter has been caring for her two younger children. Jarad worries the little one, who is only 3, won’t remember her by the time she makes it home.

She told me the family has been living in a tent on the roof of a school, where the sun and heat have “caused spots on their skin.”

“It’s fire there; it’s hell,” she said.

 

‘My soul is in Gaza’

Jarad and the others were careful in talking about the war.

Speaking critically about Israel, they fear, could risk their loved ones’ medical care here and the relative safety they feel in a tidy hospital with running water and intact roofs. But speaking too favorably about Israel or saying they hope to stay at Sheba could put their relatives in Gaza in danger with Hamas.

One of the young Gazans who has been harbored for nine months by Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. The hospital quietly has fought to keep families of sick kids from being deported to the territory where Israel has destroyed 85% of health facilities. Image by

Hasanein, Ibrahim’s grandmother, stared into space as she sat among the other women. She told me later that she avoids sharing her pain with other families “because we are all suffering.” She also said she feels most days like her head will pop off.

She wanted me to know that little Ibrahim cannot talk as a result of his cancer treatment, and that he will “never have a normal education or lead a normal life.” She asked that I write that Ibrahim’s father — her son — Shareef was not affiliated with Hamas.

Hasanein said nearly 500 members of her very large, extended family have been “martyred,” as she calls it, in this war that has lasted more than nine months and, according to the Gaza health ministry, killed nearly 40,000 people. Her sister and several of her sister’s children were among them.

Meanwhile, her own children and grandchildren have had to flee their homes six times in the last nine months to avoid Israeli shelling, Hasanein told me, unable to hide her tears or fury.

“My soul is in Gaza,” she said. “ The only thing I want is to return back home and die with them.”

Her granddaughter Lujain, who is 9 and donated the bone marrow that helped save her little brother’s life the week their father was killed last fall, has had no formal schooling for more than a year. She spends most days sitting with her grandmother in the hospital hallways, wondering when they’ll get to go home — and what they will find there.

The post Israeli hospital has been quietly harboring 24 patients from Gaza and their families since October appeared first on The Forward.

The post Israeli hospital has been quietly harboring 24 patients from Gaza and their families since October first appeared on The News And Times.