Gazan girl paralyzed by Israeli airstrike lives and paints in Jerusalem

Maria Aman lost four family members in the 2006 bombing that left her in a wheelchair; now she depends on her father and brother, who are battling for permanent residency status

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Hamdi and Maria Aman smile in their home in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on August 23, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Hamdi and Maria Aman smile in their home in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on August 23, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

BEIT SAFAFA, Jerusalem — Maria Aman paints in threes and fours. Three flowers in a vase, four leaves on the ground. Three birds above, four birds below.

The sequences are a recurring reference to the airstrike on her family’s car in the Gaza Strip on May 20, 2006, when Maria was four years old, that killed four members of her family — her mother, Naima; grandmother Hanan; older brother Muhannad; and uncle Nahed — but spared her younger brother, Moamen, and her father, Hamdi, and left her in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down.

It can take Maria, 16, weeks to complete a painting, moving the brush with her mouth and head.

A painting of three trees, representing her, her father and her brother, towering over the wreckage of a car, “is named after my mother,” Maria says from a couch in her living room in East Jerusalem.

Maria Aman, who was paralyzed from the neck down by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza, shows off a picture on her phone of some paintings that she made, in her home in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on August 23, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Maria’s family was driving through Gaza City when their car was rocked by an Israeli Air Force missile. The target of the strike was Islamic Jihad commander Muhammad Dahdouh, a Gaza terror chief, but the blast and its shrapnel also struck the Amans’ car.

After receiving some medical treatment in the Strip, the critically wounded Maria was urgently brought to Israel, as the Gazan hospital facilities could not provide adequate care, according to her attorney Adi Lustigman.

Maria, Hamdi and Moamen have remained in Israel ever since, but for much of that time, their legal status in the country has been precarious. For the first five years, they lived in the ALYN rehabilitation hospital, as they lacked the necessary permits to let them stay in Israel freely.

Eventually, the Amans were granted temporary residency status, which had to be renewed every year or every other year.

Portrait of Interior Minister and chairman of the Shas party, Aryeh Deri, at his office in the Interior Affairs Ministry, on May 24, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Last October, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri granted Maria — and her alone — the status of permanent resident, meaning the Palestinian teenager could remain in her adopted home of Israel indefinitely.

When Hamdi mentions Deri, he always adds, “May he be healthy,” as a sign of his thanks to the minister for securing a permanent place for Maria in Israel.

The Defense Ministry never took formal responsibility for the airstrike, for the deaths of the four members of the Aman family and for injuring Maria, Lustigman says. But it has helped the family in certain ways, quietly providing them with payments and assistance over the years.

On August 19, Maria turned 16 years old. Like other teenagers in Israel of that age, she received her national identification card, known in Hebrew as a teudat zehut.

For the Amans, it was a joyous day. More than the verbal promise they were initially given or an Interior Ministry letter they received in July, here was proof that Maria could stay.

But the day was also bittersweet. Maria’s ID card is blue; her father’s is pink, a sign that he is a temporary resident. Her 14-year-old brother is not old enough to get an ID, but were he to have one, his too would be pink.

Fearing expulsion

To be clear, Maria does not have Israeli citizenship — as one television news report claimed incorrectly last month — but permanent residency status, which is one step below that. When she turns 18, Maria won’t be able to vote in Israel or get an Israeli passport, but she can get a travel document, known in Hebrew as a Teudat Ma’avar.

Hamdi and Moamen’s temporary resident statuses causes them problems, both long- and short-term.

In general, the family fears that one day they will be expelled from the country they’ve called home for over a decade and sent back to Gaza, where they face an uncertain fate, as they may be marked as “collaborators” with Israel.

It’s not uncommon for Palestinians to receive medical care in Israel, but the Amans’ case is exceptional in the duration of their stay and the extent of assistance that they have received.

That was enabled in large part due to the ongoing efforts by a number of Israelis, notably Dalia Bacher, who took an interest in the Amans’ case and kept up the pressure on the government to allow them to stay, Hamdi says. (Bacher and Lustigman also merit a “May she be healthy” after their names.)

In order for Maria to receive permanent residency, Deri had to override two laws that prevent Israel from granting such status to Palestinians.

But Sabin Hadad, a spokesperson for the Population and Immigration Authority, downplayed any unique quality of the Amans’ case, noting that other Palestinians, mostly those who collaborated with Israeli security forces, have been given residency status and even citizenship.

That is precisely what worries Hamdi.

“Who else besides a collaborator gets to stay in Israel? Gets a place to live? A car?” Hamdi says.

For that reason, he hasn’t been back to Gaza since he picked up Moamen from the Erez Checkpoint in 2006. If Hamdi and Moamen were to be sent back to Gaza, Hamas could carry out the punishment it reserves for other “collaborators” — execution.

Who else besides a collaborator gets to stay in Israel? Gets a place to live? A car?

While there do not seem to be any efforts to deport the Amans, there doesn’t necessarily have to be one for Hamdi and Moamen to lose their residency status.

“What if suddenly there’s a strike in the [Population and Immigration Authority]?” Lustigman asks (like the strikes in November 2016, the summer of 2016 and July 2015, to name but a few).

For now, Hamdi is cleared to live in Israel until October 2018, according to his ID card, but then he will have to renew his permit.

Hamdi Aman brushes the hair of his daughter Maria, who is paralyzed from the neck down, in their home in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on August 23, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“Hamdi is the only one left in the world to care for [Maria],” the attorney says.

Lustigman also notes a degree of hypocrisy in the government’s treatment of Moamen, who joined Maria and Hamdi in Israel after a few months living with his grandfather in Gaza, during which he, incredibly, surviving a second Israeli assassination airstrike.

The attorney says it’s the government’s “racist” attitudes toward Palestinians that are preventing it from giving Moamen permanent resident status, while granting it to some of the children of foreign workers.

“African and Filipino children, who aren’t in a humanitarian situation as bad as [Moamen], are getting permanent status,” she says.

Stuck in Israel

On the more immediate front, not having permanent residency status prevents the family from leaving the country, as Hamdia and Moamen aren’t eligible for travel documents. This means they can’t fulfill Hamdi’s longtime dream of taking his children on a vacation abroad, something he’d like to try to do while Maria is in a healthy enough condition to travel.

Hamdi and Moamen’s temporary resident status also makes it much more difficult to enter the West Bank, where they have some family and friends, though it’s not technically impossible.

Sitting opposite his daughter in the living room, Hamdi recalls a trip to the Dead Sea through the West Bank when their car, which is specially designed to fit Maria’s wheelchair, was stopped at a military checkpoint and nearly impounded for “further investigation.”

It was only Hamdi’s insistence that they be let through and the threat that “if anything happens to my daughter, it will be your responsibility,” that they were able to continue home, he says.

Lustigman says that she and her legal partner, Tamir Blank, have worked for more than 11 years to help the Amans on a pro bono basis and will continue to do so.

Eventually, they hope to get the three full citizenship. But Lustigman says, “we won’t stop, we won’t forget and we won’t rest until Moamen and Hamdi at least get the minimal level of calm that comes from knowing that they’re not about to be expelled.”

A passion for painting

The family lives on the ground floor of an apartment building in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem. The living room is filled with couches, knickknacks, a fish tank, a bird cage and Maria’s paintings.

She started in 2011. An art teacher came to her school and, “He said, ‘I want to help you get the sadness out through painting,'” Maria says.

She didn’t connect to it at first, but over time it became a passion. Maria’s made 23 paintings so far.

A painting made by Maria Aman, who was paralyzed from the neck down by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza, in her home in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on August 23, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

In addition to the pictures dedicated to her family, the 16-year-old also paints self-portraits and landscapes of Gaza, based on a combination of her own memories and photos from family members who still live in the Strip.

She held an exhibition in her school and even donated a painting that will be sold in a fundraiser at the Ben Ami Gallery in Tel Aviv.

This week, both Maria and her brother went back to school. He studies at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in the capital. Maria also used to attend the Jewish-Arab school but was eventually forced to move to the Ilanot special needs school in the Katamon neighborhood of the capital.

Throughout the summer Moamen volunteered at ALYN, the place he called home for most of his childhood.

Other than a few weeks for a day camp through the Ilanot school, most of Maria’s summer was spent at home, she says.

She and her father would drive Moamen to ALYN in the morning. They’d return home and, like most teenagers her age, Maria would spend the next few hours watching television or chatting with friend and family on her smartphone, which she operates, quite adroitly, with her tongue.

Later, Hamdi would put Maria back in her wheelchair, and they would pick Moamen up from the hospital.

For 11 years, Hamdi’s life has revolved around his children. He hasn’t remarried, and the amount of care that Maria needs on a day-to-day basis limits his ability to hold a job.

When The Times of Israel visited the Amans, Hamdi was interviewing a potential caregiver for Maria, who would accompany her to school and help around the house, to give him more free time and flexibility.

Hamdi, a wiry man with a long nose and a wide smile, says he’s gotten pretty good at cooking, making traditional Arab fare like Maqluba — a chicken, rice and vegetable dish — as well as some meals that are less associated with Palestinian cooking, like cholent, a Jewish stew typically made for Shabbat lunch.

“Yeah, I make chamin,” Hamdi says with a smile, using the Hebrew name for the dish.

He also learned how to put on Maria’s makeup and do her hair. She says she doesn’t know who taught him, but she thinks he’s doing an okay job.

Hamdi Aman applies lipstick to his daughter Maria, who is paralyzed from the neck down, in their home in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem on August 23, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

It was important for Hamdi to send his children to mixed Jewish-Arab schools, he says, so that they can interact with Jews and not harbor grudges against Israel for what happened to their family.

A few years after the airstrike, Hamdi met the pilot who dropped the bomb. He recalls the man crying as he apologized for what happened.

“I told him, come in and meet Maria,” Hamdi says.

Being angry over what happened would “just be nonsense,” Hamdi says. “It wouldn’t bring back my wife or son.”

My brother and father won’t let me feel bad. I have a beautiful life

Maria and her father consider the airstrike that killed half their family and left her in a wheelchair as a matter of fate.

“It wasn’t on purpose. It wasn’t in our hands, and it wasn’t in the hands of the pilot,” Maria says.

She’s not angry about being paralyzed. “I got used to it,” she says with a smile.

“Besides, my brother and father won’t let me feel bad,” Maria adds. “I have a beautiful life.”

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