The story of a Palestinian Nightingale

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If anyone was born to be a nurse, it was Rinad, my pleasant and compassionate head nurse colleague. A midwife, she has worked for the past 10 years in Al-Makassed Hospital’s Obstetrics and Gynecology department, demonstrating daily her remarkable devotion to her humanitarian career and her strong sense of belonging to the community she serves.

Despite having to cross the various checkpoints that separate her little village, a suburb of Bethlehem, from besieged Jerusalem, there was not a single day when Rinad arrived at work late. She always knew how to find her way around the checkpoints, and would leave her home after the dawn prayer, giving herself enough time to trudge up and down the hills, across muddy and dusty streets, and reach her place of work on time.

Unlike many of the rest of us, Rinad’s reservoirs of joy and patience didn’t get consumed on the way to work. She was always calm and calming. In fact, it was sometimes difficult for me to accept her over-easy-going, pacifist demeanor.

When I last saw Rinad before leaving for vacation abroad, I congratulated her on getting married. She looked even calmer, happier and more beautiful than usual.

When I returned to work a month later, however, a different Rinad awaited me. I was astonished by the disappearance of the welcoming smile and her optimistic spirit that always spread hope in the hearts of our patients and repeatedly renewed the energy of those who worked closely with her.

The change in Rinad was so frightening that I was reluctant to approach her directly at first. Her friends told me that Rinad’s husband, Issa Abu-A’ahour, was among the couple of hundred people who had sought shelter April 2 in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. While Rihab was in Jerusalem at work, Issa, along with others in his neighborhood, fled the invading Israeli forces to the city of Bethlehem. Only 13 days after their marriage, Issa’s fate hung between the peaceful sanctuary of the church and the bullets of the Israeli snipers surrounding it.

Finally, after the six-week-long siege of the church was over, Issa and 39 other Palestinian men, so-called “terrorists,”
were expelled either to Gaza or to Europe. Isaa was expelled from his native city of Bethlehem to Gaza, without even having the chance to say goodbye to his wife.

While international news programs refer to U.S.- and EU-sponsored “negotiations” between Israeli and Palestinian delegations that resulted in an “agreement,” a “resolution” to the siege, and an official Palestinian approval of the transfer, everyone on the Palestinian street, from professors to falafel shop owners, quietly considers the PA’s approval of transferring Palestinian activists a cheap sellout. We know that only a free people, not a besieged authority, can negotiate a meaningful agreement.

One of our most cardinal and legitimate Palestinian demands is the right of return to which the PA’s approval of this transfer arrangement stands in severe contradiction. Nor does it even take into account the lack of consideration of the deal’s repercussions for those 40 exiled Palestinians and the people who love them.

Israel, whose existence is based on the expulsion of a nation from the lands of their parents, is reasserting its essential exploitative nature. In the Israeli Knesset, parliament members continue to talk both in secret and publicly about transferring Palestinians to other Arab nations. “We cannot make peace with the Palestinians until we reduce the population of the West Bank by 50 percent,” said Labor’s Dr. Ephraim Sneh, a minister in Sharon’s cabinet.

The occupation is fulfilling its purpose: raping more and more “empty” Palestinian land all the time. The shame lies in Palestinian approval of such a policy.

“Issa was an activist, he loved his people and he was politically opinionated, that was all, that was his ‘crime,'” Rinad told me. “I knew this about him before we got married and, in fact, that was what attracted me most to him,” she added. “I do not regret having married Issa. Even if I could foretell the future and had known ahead of time that we would live together only for 13 days, I would still have chosen to marry him.

“Now that he has been transferred to Gaza, I fear the worst for Issa,” his bride said. “They took him out of the church to put him in a larger prison, where they can assassinate him during any incursion into Gaza and count him as just another ‘war casualty.’ Gaza is more out of our reach than Europe. There is no way that I can go and live with him or visit him there, considering the tight closure of Gaza.

“I miss Issa,” Rinad said. “I’m very angry about what has happened to him and to 40 of his siege comrades but I’m so grateful to be carrying his child,” she told me, with tears in her eyes.

How does Issa feel about this pregnancy? I asked. “He is so delighted,” Rinad replied. “I could just about see the smile on his face when I told him over the phone that I was pregnant. I wish he could be here to feel the early kicks, to see the first ultrasound images and to give us his presence and being.”

Although the Church of the Nativity crisis is over, however, Rinad’s has just begun. Not long after our conversation Rinad miscarried and was left in agony, the grief at losing her baby added to the pain of separation from her husband. Rinad, who has consoled and supported so many women through failed pregnancies and post-partem depression, needs someone to support and console her at this moment in her life. The one person who might do that, however, is far out of sight and out of reach, and she does not even know if she will ever see him again.

Rihab’s story is one of the many, many stories of the 40 wives, the 40 mothers and fathers, and the more than 40 children of our 40 young Palestinian men who were unjustly judged without a trial, “found” to be “terrorists” and punished by transfer, uprooted from their own homes and loving families.

As for the rest of us, who approved of, or were indifferent to, or were too timid to object to the Church of the Nativity deal, life goes on with gloomy expectations. On this night, another night shift in our hospital, our patients are asleep in bed with their pain, as always. We, meanwhile, sit in the lounge watching the news of the Palestinians who have been deported to Europe, the continuing invasion of Palestinian towns and villages, and the daily death and destruction of our Palestinian civil society. I sip some more of my bitter coffee and continue writing, glancing every now and then at a dispirited and exhausted Rihab, sagging in her chair and hugging her pillow for dear life.

(Samah Jabr is a Palestinian physician and a writer living in East Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)

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