Last week, Ihab Dawahidi indicated with his right thumb that he was all right. When he needed something, he tapped on the side of his bed in the intensive care unit of Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. He used his right hand again, because the left side of his body is paralyzed.
Eight days after the beginning of the Israeli-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip last month, Ihab was seriously wounded by an Israeli missile.
Few expected him to survive or regain consciousness: A piece of shrapnel had struck him in the head “and his brain was outside,” his brother Jihad, who accompanied him from Gaza to Jerusalem, told Haaretz last Monday, in the hospital’s yard.
“One of our brothers, Ahmed, who was next to him, instinctively covered the wound and the opening in Ihab’s head with his hand, put pressure on it and called an ambulance. After that Ahmed fainted. Our brother Amjad, who is a pharmacist, tied a shirt around Ihab’s head and a friend of ours drove them to Shifa Hospital” in Gaza, Jihad added.
For the Dawahidi family, the war is not over. Ihab, 35, heads the laboratories at the medical clinic run by UNWRA, the United Nations refugee agency, on Al-Nasser (“Victory”) Street in Gaza. Despite the dangers involved, Ihab had continued to go to work even during the war. He and his pregnant wife Raghda Yousef have a daughter and two sons: Lian (9), Mahmoud (8) and Karim (5). In a photograph supplied by the family, in which Ihab is shown embracing his three children, he wears black-framed glasses, his smile revealing a gap between his front teeth.
“My parents and Ihab and four of my brothers and their families live in one three-story house in the Karameh neighborhood in northern Gaza City,” Jihad said.
“Midday on Tuesday, May 18, the Israeli army called the neighbors and informed them that their house was going to be bombarded, and that they should leave. My family knew nothing. A few minutes later the army called again, this time phoning the neighbors from another house: ‘We see the Dawahidi family is still in their house. Tell them to leave because [we’re] about to bomb,’” Jihad added, reconstructing what he later heard from his siblings.
Those phone calls show that the army has the means to know whether there are people in a house that it intends to bomb, and if there are people in neighboring houses who could be injured if they don’t leave.
One of the neighbors immediately called the Dawahidi family in a panic to warn them. “And we all immediately ran out of the house,” said Raghda, Ihab’s wife, on the phone, her voice low and weak.
A warning shot from an army drone was fired at the roof of the neighbor’s house. And then, about 1:30 P.M., the house was struck by another missile. People in the neighborhood concluded that one of the house’s residents was a member of some Palestinian military organization.
The Dawahidi family discovered later that their house had also been damaged: Concrete walls were breached, glass windows were broken, cupboards and curtain rods were torn out. But all of that was dwarfed in comparison to Ihab’s subsequent injury.
He rushed from his clinic a few kilometers away to his neighborhood right after the warning phone call came from the neighbors. He and some of his brothers remained out in the street, waiting for the bombardment.
“About 400 meters from the house, Ihab took cover among a few trees, but the shrapnel got him right there,” Jihad said, adding what he later heard from his brother Amjad about the six-kilometer drive to Shifa Hospital: “On the way to the hospital in our friend’s car, Ihab’s heart stopped. His eyes rolled back in his head. Amjad started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. On the way, they met the ambulance that Amjad had called and its team continued the resuscitation.”
At Shifa, Jihad continued, “they said Ihab was a shahid [martyr]. My brother argued and insisted it wasn’t so, and they finally operated on him; he was in an induced coma for 72 hours. They found a blood clot in his brain, and he was taken in for another operation. We didn’t tell our parents about his condition, we fear for them, and we preferred that they not come. But my mother insisted and visited Ihab about a week later. When she held his hand, he regained consciousness for the first time: He responded to her by pressing her hand. When we asked him whether to bring the children, he answered no by pressing with a finger on his right hand.”
Ihab received permission from Israel to leave Gaza and travel to the Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem. Israel initially denied the request of his pharmacist-brother and uncle to accompany him. Two days later, his brother Jihad, who had served (before 2007) in the Palestinian Authority’s Presidential Guard, was given permission to accompany Ihab.
“My permit came late Wednesday evening, and the next day, May 28, we left. The roads from Gaza to the Erez border crossing had been demolished by the bombings. The ambulance jolted and rocked. I saw my brother was in agony, even though he was unconscious. Even I was hurt by all the bouncing around.”
At the Erez checkpoint, Ihab was transferred from the Gaza ambulance to the Makassed ambulance, bearing an Israeli license plate. An Israeli security officer checked Ihab with a magnetic wand.
On the way to East Jerusalem, already in Israel, the ambulance passed near Barqa, the village where the Dawahidi family comes from, which was attacked by the Givati Brigade in 1948. The father of the Dawahidi siblings grew up in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza. In the 1970s, he went to teach math at a school in Saudi Arabia, where Ihab and some of his siblings were born.
Last week, Ihab underwent another operation to treat an infection. This week he will undergo a bone transplant in his skull. “His condition is improving,” Jihad promised, in a phone call on Saturday. “He’s not speaking, maybe a few words, but he understands and responds. Half his body is still paralyzed.”