Six-Day War still adding casualties

June 05, 2000|By Helen Schary Motro

THE SILENT side-effects of the Israeli-Palestinian power struggle over Jerusalem still spawn behind-the-scenes dramas that jeopardize everyday life 33 years after the entire city came under Israeli control in the Six-Day War.

One is that of the family of 17-year-old Yasser Abu Halaf, a Palestinian who suffers malignant brain cancer. Ninth out of 13 children, Yasser left school after the sixth grade. Since age 14 he has worked as a dishwasher and odd-job boy in a Jerusalem restaurant.

Yasser hid the bump growing on his head as long as he could. After metastatic cancer was diagnosed, he began receiving intensive treatment in Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital.

Yasser was born in Jerusalem; so were his parents. In the 1980s, unable to afford housing in the city, the family moved outside the city limits to the village of Kalandia a few miles away.

Kalandia today is in what is known as the "seam" between Israeli Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority, a legal no-man's land where Israel and the PA attempt to throw responsibility for social services upon the other. The bureaucracy's computers did not pick up Yasser's case for several months. When they did, the spigot immediately went dry. Arriving one day at the hospital for a chemo treatment, the family was informed that their Israeli residency had been suspended and, with it, their health insurance.

Hadassah Hospital insisted on halting the expensive treatments unless assured of financial reimbursement.

The PA refused to provide health benefits to Palestinians from whom Israel had revoked residency. Yasser found himself in limbo, the unwitting casualty of a political struggle about autonomy, borders, statehood and nationalism.

His family was forced to fight not only cancer but the powers that be.

But he is again being treated at the state-of-the-art Hadassah oncology department in the heart of Israeli West Jerusalem. Multiple surgeries have removed spreading tumors. If Yasser's life is saved, he will owe it not only to luck and science but to an Israeli organization called Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), to a civil rights law association - Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual - and to journalist Gideon Levy.

When treatment was halted, the family turned to PHR, which urgently contacted every relevant government agency. Each passed the jurisdictional buck onward.

Enter Mr. Levy, who wrote about Yasser for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. A week later, Hadassah Hospital announced it would continue to provide Yasser treatment without demanding a prior commitment for financial coverage. In the 18 months that have passed, Yasser has been receiving treatment and bills which Hadassah does not insist he pay. His family, however, still must privately buy Yasser's expensive medicine.

Yasser's case created a public outcry.

The father of an Israeli soldier who died in Lebanon and other individuals donated thousands of dollars toward Yasser's case. National television featured it on prime-time news.

Although the government has agreed to return residency to Palestinian Jerusalemites who move back within city limits and stay for two years, the policy change still leaves Yasser's family excluded because they returned only last year. Having reached a dead-end in their negotiations with government bureaucracies, lawyers at Hamoked have petitioned the Supreme Court to restore Yasser's residency status and health coverage.

Israeli residency was revoked for more than 3,000 Palestinian families since 1995. How many other children lie untreated in the shadows because their cases are not as dramatic Yasser's?

Helen Schary Motro, an American attorney and writer living in Israel, is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

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