Ahmed’s gift of life
Ahmed Khatib’s death was tragically unexceptional: the 12-year-old Palestinian was shot by Israeli soldiers while holding a toy gun. But what happened next was not. The boy’s parents donated his organs to six Israelis. They tell Chris McGreal why their decision was a gesture of both peace and resistance
* Chris McGreal
* The Guardian, Friday 11 November 2005
For once, the circumstances of a young boy’s death from an Israeli bullet are not in dispute. The army concedes that one of its soldiers shot 12-year-old Ahmed Khatib in the head during a raid on Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank last week. Other Palestinian children playing with Ahmed have backed up the military’s statement that he was waving a toy gun that looked, to the soldier who shot him, remarkably like the real thing.
The army apologised with unusual speed. The armed factions entrenched in the Jenin camp made no calls for revenge.
But it was the reaction of Ahmed’s parents that caught everyone off guard. As life slipped away from their son in an Israeli hospital at the weekend, Ismail and Abla Khatib decided that some good could come of his death. The Palestinian family donated Ahmed’s organs for transplant. The boy was in an Israeli hospital and his parents understood that their son’s body parts were most likely to save people routinely spoken of as “the enemy” in Jenin. Within hours, Ahmed’s heart, kidneys, liver and lungs were transplanted into six Israelis, four of them Jewish.
The move was hailed by stunned Israeli leaders as a “remarkable gesture for peace”, particularly given the circumstances of Ahmed’s death, and a bridge between warring communities. Ariel Sharon’s closest cabinet ally, deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, telephoned Ismail to praise his “noble gesture”. The speaker of the Israeli parliament praised the Palestinian family for its “remarkable humanity”.
The Khatibs say that peace and a desire to alleviate the suffering of others was uppermost in their minds. But, looking exhausted and still stunned by the twin demands of Ahmed’s death and the Israeli embrace, they also speak of their decision as an act of resistance and anger. And they have found an ally in the armed men who more usually fight back by blowing up Israelis.
“To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance,” says Abla. “Violence against violence is worthless. Maybe this will reach the ears of the whole world so they can distinguish between just and unjust. Maybe the Israelis will think of us differently. Maybe just one Israeli will decide not to shoot.”
It is not the first time that victims of the conflict have given life to people on the other side of the Arab-Jewish divide. Three years ago, a 19- year-old Jewish religious student from Scotland, Yoni Jesner, was murdered in the bombing of a Tel Aviv bus. Part of his body went to save the life of a Palestinian girl from East Jerusalem. But it is the first time that the organs of a Palestinian child killed by the army have given life to Israelis.
Ahmed – the third eldest in a family of four boys and two girls – was killed on the first day of Eid el-Fitr, among the most important of Muslim holidays. “He woke up at 5am before his brothers and sisters. He helped me make tea. He always tried to help me because he felt sorry for me having to do all the housekeeping and cooking,” says Abla.
Ahmed dressed in new clothes traditionally bought for the holiday and left the house after dawn for the mosque and to visit Jenin’s “martyrs’ graveyard” where armed men killed in the intifada are buried. Like many boys of his generation confronted by routine violence, he regarded such men as heroes. As a nine-year-old, Ahmed saw the destruction of the heart of the refugee camp just a few blocks from his home during the fierce Israeli army assault on Jenin in 2002 that left considerable damage and 59 Palestinians dead. They were mostly armed men and their deaths are still commemorated in the memorial posters that paper the walls of the camp.
“Ahmed collected martyr posters because he knew them,” says Abla. “He used to see them in the street and he admired them. He used to like fighter martyrs and these things used to scare me. I used to throw the posters away because when the soldiers come and they see them, they beat you or take you away.”
The dominant faction in Jenin refugee camp is al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, led by Zakaria Zubeidi, a strange, clownish 29-year-old with a face scarred by mishandling a bomb. Ahmed admired Zubeidi in particular and a few weeks ago sent him a drawing of a heart with the name of al-Aqsa’s leader’s name written underneath.
Ahmed also had encounters with Israeli soldiers. Two years ago, one of them grabbed him and a couple of other boys, gave them a broom and told them to sweep his tank. But usually when the boys saw an Israeli patrol, they stoned it.
“To be honest, he did go out and throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. It was a game for them,” says Abla. Ahmed was playing the game when he was shot. “He was bragging about his new clothes. He looked at his brother’s new clothes and said they were very beautiful but his were better,” says his mother.
Then Ahmed heard the Israeli army was in the camp in search of his heroes. Children poured out on to the street. His mother said he did not own a toy gun and was not carrying one when he left the house. But others had them and a friend, Ahmed Tawfi Krehen, says that Ahmed was carrying an imitation weapon by the time the pair of them spotted the army jeeps.
“The gun looked like an Uzi. He was playing with it. The Jews thought he was a fighter and they shot him. I was standing next to him, just one metre, when they shot,” says the 11-year-old. Ahmed was hit by a bullet in the back of his head and another in his pelvis.
“Some boys arrived at the house and said Ahmed was shot and was taken to the hospital,” says Abla. “When I got there, all his clothes were covered with blood. I realised immediately he was dying. He was not moving at all. He was taken to the operating theatre and they decided he had to be transferred to Israel because his situation was so critical.”
Abla says the doctors told her that both bullets exploded inside her son, causing considerable damage to his brain and body. It is one of the issues she returns to in anger and suspicion. “His body was full of fragments. Part of his brain was on his clothes,” she says. “Did they have to shoot him twice? Couldn’t they just have shot him in the leg?”
Ahmed was moved to an Israeli hospital in Haifa, but by then his mother had given up hope. “I told the doctor that Ahmed was dead but the doctor would not declare him dead. He tried to do more tests. They kept his heart beating but I knew he was not alive,” she says.
When Ahmed died two days later, his father had already decided what to do. Ismail’s brother, Shokat, died in 1983 at the age of 22 of kidney failure. “I saw my brother in the flesh of my own son. My brother had kidney failure and since we didn’t have the proper treatment for him, his situation deteriorated and it affected the second kidney and that lasted for 15 years,” he says.
“I donated blood to my brother every time he needed it. I lived the whole ordeal and I wanted to stop others suffering like that. I told the doctors I wanted to donate Ahmed but first I had to consult from a religious point of view, and my family and my society.”
Ismail first asked his wife. Her wait in the hospital left her in no doubt. “We saw a lot of painful scenes in the hospital. I have seen children in deep need of organs, in deep pain. It doesn’t matter who they are. We didn’t specify that his organs would go to Arabs, Christians or Jews. I didn’t want my son to suffer, I didn’t want other children to suffer regardless of who they are,” she says.
“My son was dead but at the same time maybe he could provide life to others and maybe he could reduce their pain. Of course my son was martyred and they were the criminals and they took his life away but we are the ones who could give life back to them. And maybe my son is still alive in someone else.
“It was a message from us to them, a message of peace for them. We are the ones who want peace and love and they are the ones who break their promises and who don’t want peace.”
Ismail sought an assurance from the mufti of Jenin that there was no religious objection. Transplants are a divisive issue within Muslim communities but the mufti said he saw no obstacle to donating Ahmed’s organs or to them going to Israelis and Jews.
Then came what Ismail calls “society”. In Jenin, that is not so much the neighbours as those who control the streets, principally the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and Zubeidi, who has dispatched his share of suicide bombers into Israel.
“When we heard Ahmed’s father decided to donate the organs, we blessed the step,” says Zubeidi. “Despite Jenin’s reputation for the suicide bomber and the bomb belt, the people of Jenin camp love life and granted life to five or six children and didn’t distinguish whether they were Jewish or Muslim or Christian because our problem is not with the Jewish people as the Jewish people, but with the occupation.”
Ahmed’s heart was transplanted into a 12-year-old Israeli Arab girl, his lungs into a Jewish teenager suffering from cystic fibrosis and his liver was divided between a seven-month-old Jewish girl and a 58-year-old mother of two suffering from chronic hepatitis. The kidneys were divided between a three-year-old Jewish girl and a five-year-old Bedouin Arab.
The girl who received the heart, Samaah Gadban, is from Israel’s Druze community in the Golan Heights. She is named after a brother she never knew who died of the same genetic heart condition before she was born. Samaah waited five years for a donor. Before the operation, she was so weak that she stopped going to school because she was unable to walk more than a few yards at a time. Her father, Riad, called the donation “a gesture of love”. Her mother, Yusra, was overwhelmed as she waited at her daughter’s bedside.
“It was shocking to know that young boy died like that so Samaah could live,” she says. “I have lost a son and it is impossible to describe the suffering I know Ahmed’s mother is feeling. But I am also happy that my daughter has the chance to live. I am very grateful that in their pain they thought of our pain.”
The other families have chosen not to speak in public as yet. At the hospital, the orthodox Jewish parents of one of the recipients who did not wish to be identified said that once their child recovers from the transplant they intend to travel to Jenin to thank Ismail and Abla.
They, like many Israelis, were surprised and impressed by the Khatibs’ humanity. The stereotype of Palestinians as Jew-haters, as an explanation for the violent resistance to the humiliations and controls of occupation, is now so dominant in Israel that news of the Khatibs’ decision was greeted with astonishment.
Senior Israeli politicians hailed it as “remarkable”. The mayor of Haifa called as did Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister, who apologised to Ismail for the killing of his son, an unusual gesture in itself. “I am very moved by your noble gesture, which affected me profoundly,” he told him.
Olmert invited Ismail to visit his office in Jerusalem. “I will go if it will promote peace,” says Ismail. “I will tell him one thing: children have nothing to do with this conflict.”
The organ donation did not meet with universal approval in Jenin. Some of the Khatibs’ neighbours asked how they could give their child’s body parts to the people who killed him. But Abla says she was also visited by more than 10 mothers who lost young children in the conflict who offered their support.
Crucially, the Khatibs’ decision was given the public endorsement of the al-Aqsa’s brigades leader, Zubeidi, who helped carry Ahmed’s coffin at his funeral on Sunday. He acknowledged that giving life might be a better way of winning Israeli understanding for the Palestinians’ plight than blowing up children on buses.
“This kind of action is a form of resistance. Six Israelis have a part of a Palestinian in them and we don’t think those people would come to kill a Palestinian person. And I don’t think their family members would kill a Palestinian child,” he says.
It is what Ismail hopes to have achieved. “The hope is that those people will learn the lesson from what I have done, those six people will learn the lesson that we are human beings; their families, even if they were serving in the army, will consider what I have done,” he says.
But Ahmed’s father also wonders if his son would have grown up to make such a decision. As a motor mechanic inside Israel, Ismail spent many years working with Jewish Israelis. Like many of his generation, he distinguishes between what is done by the government and the military and his daily encounters with ordinary people. It is part of what helped him decide that there was no contradiction in donating his son’s body to save the lives of people whose army killed the child.
But that bridge is increasingly difficult to cross at a time when the two communities are ever more separated by barriers, checkpoints, fear and politicians. Today Jenin is sealed off from the Israeli town of Afula, a few months ago just a 10-minute drive to the north, by the vast West Bank barrier and a large yellow metal gate under army guard. Ismail has tried to keep his job just the other side of the barrier by travelling to Jerusalem, crossing through the city and making his way north – typically, a five-hour journey to reach a destination he can see from the edge of Jenin. And soon that route will become all but impossible as the wall and checkpoints are built through Jerusalem.
With the increasing separation, and contact largely limited to the humiliations of checkpoints, Ahmed was growing up with a single view of Israelis as “enemies and killers”.
“Take a boy like my son, who was 12 years old. He was born between two intifadas. What does he know but tanks and soldiers and jet fighters? He only meets Israelis who are soldiers. He thinks all Israelis are soldiers. This does not help us. Seeing each other as human beings helps us,” says Ismail.