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Four-Year-Old Asil Arara: An Unreported Story from Occupied Palestine

Michael Cooper

A beautiful four-year-old girl with braids, Asil Arara had been playing in a field not far from her home in Anata, and not far from the Separation Wall and the Israeli settlement of Anatot. In the quiet of midday, her ten-year-old cousin heard shots and came running.

The Palestinian village of Anata has seen violence before. Trapped by the Wall to the west and Area C (under Israeli control) to the east, life in the village is paralyzed by the Wall, check points, and a permit regime that limits Palestinian access to school, family, work, farmland and health care. As recently as two months ago, men and women of the village were beaten when they attempted to cultivate their land bordering Anatot. The Jewish settlers poured out of their homes, beating the villagers with clubs and pistol butts while Israeli police looked on, making no effort to stop them. And now this — the shooting of a four-year-old child.

We met her by chance — in the pediatric intensive care unit at Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem where we’d come to do a cardiac consult on another child. As a group of doctors and nurses from the UK and the USA, we’re here on a medical mission—to provide heart surgery for Palestinian children living under occupation—an occupation going on its fifth decade. While cardiac surgical care for Palestinian children with severe heart defects is sometimes obtained in Israel, the ability of Palestinians to enter Israel for care is restricted. Because of this, many Palestinian children come to surgery too late or not at all, dying from conditions that can been corrected. That’s why we’re here.

We volunteer under the auspices of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), which coordinates international teams of doctors and nurses to provide an almost seamless service for pediatric heart patients; members of our team have come for a week of surgery—two pediatric cardiac intensive care nurses, a pediatric anesthesiologist, a pediatric cardiologist, and a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon. That’s how we came to Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem and how we came to learn about Asil, a month after her hospitalization began. To our knowledge, there has been no report of the incident in the Israeli or international media.

One of the shots that Asil’s cousin heard struck her in the back of the neck. According to the emergency room note, he found her “lying down with bleeding with blood around her head.” She was transferred by ambulance to Makassed Hospital where she was found “not able to move any limb,” with no sensation below the mid-chest. She was taken to neurosurgery for closure of the leaking cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) with the operative note reading; “gunshot injury with CSF leak between C4 and C5 with fragmented fracture of C4 vertebrae with bone fragments in the spinal column.”

That was a month ago. The little girl playing by the Separation Wall is now a quadriplegic—paralyzed from the neck down. If Asil survives, she will require complete and total care every day of her life; to be fed, toileted, bathed, dressed, lifted from bed to wheel chair and from wheel chair to bed. And, of course, she’ll need someone to brush and braid her dark brown hair as it is now, neatly braided on the pillow.

Before leaving the intensive care unit, we said good-bye to Asil, waving and blowing her a kiss. She fixed us with her brown eyes and responded, making a little kiss good-bye to us. Twice.

Looking into her eyes, we saw the confusion and terror of a little girl who cannot move and doesn’t know why, the incompressible and unremitting fear of being trapped.

How like the village of Anata.

How like the Palestinian people.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Michael Cooper

Michael J. Cooper is Clinical Professor of Pediatric Cardiology at University of California, San Francisco, and author of “Foxes in the Vineyard,” an alternative history of the Arab/Israeli conflict.

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