On a sunny Sunday afternoon, pediatric oncology patients at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center gathered in the hospital’s auditorium for a big Hanukkah party. They lit the menorah and sang the traditional songs about the tiny Maccabean rebellion that defeated the mighty Greeks in 167 B.C.E.
But while the miracle of Hanukkah was being celebrated downstairs, a modern-day miracle was happening on the second floor. Tal Zilker, a 17-year-old cancer patient from Southern Israel, was chatting with his new best friend, Qusay Omran (prounounced ‘Hussai’), a 17-year-old boy from Gaza.
Having just gone through a particularly aggressive round of chemo, Imran was too weak to join the festivities, and Zilker decided to forgo the first half of the party to keep him company.
“Chatting” may be stretching it a bit to describe the boys’ interaction. Zilker can say, “Are you in pain?” and, “When’s your next treatment?” in Arabic. Omran can manage “Do you have a fever?” and a few cuss words in Hebrew. But when you’re a teenager, vocabulary is nowhere near as important as being ambidextrous.
“We’re both Playstation fanatics,” said Zilker.
This friendship between two teenagers of the same age—who look alike, have the exact same type of cancer, and share the same love for video games—shouldn’t be all that surprising or newsworthy. But add their respective zip codes into the equation, and it becomes as fantastical a tale as a Tolkein novel.
Zilker is from Ashdod, a city in Southern Israel. Omran is from Khan Yunis, in Gaza. During the seven days of “Operation Pillar of Defense” last month, Hamas fired more than 1,400 rockets into Israel, most of them aimed at the Ashdod-Ashkelon area. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) struck more than 1,500 sites in the Gaza Strip, a tiny patch of land twice the size of Washington, D.C.
What’s more astounding is that while Hamas was launching those explosives, it continued sending patients to be treated in Israeli hospitals, many of them located in the same areas Hamas was targeting.
Israeli hospitals have been accepting Palestinian patients for years. There are simply not enough medical facilities in Gaza to treat its growing population. Those that are there are ill-equipped. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 24 medical centers in Gaza, which serve 1.7 million people. Israel, in contrast, has 377 hospitals and a population of about 8 million. Last year alone, more than 100,000 Palestinians received medical care in Israel. Israeli hospitals continued to treat patients from Gaza even at the height of the fighting in November.
To make things even more complicated, many of the Israeli doctors who treat these patients are also soldiers in the IDF, in which service is mandatory. In fact, Dr. Dror Levin, the oncologist treating Zilker and Omran, spent the entire week of Operation Pillar of Defense patrolling the border with Gaza alongside the rest of his reserve platoon.
Though such contradictions might sound crazy to anyone else, here in the Middle East, it’s par for the course.
“It’s actually quite simple,” said Dr. Levin, now out of uniform. “Qusay is not a representative of Gaza. All I see when I look at him is a boy who needs my help. That’s where it begins and that’s where it ends for me.”
Despite the bloody battle raging between their governments, Zilker and Omran seemed less concerned with geopolitics than with playing a game of virtual soccer, their favorite pastime.
The two met in May, when Zilker came in for his biopsy. An MRI done just days earlier revealed a tumor in his left knee. Omran was the first person he met at the oncology floor of the hospital.
They hit it off immediately.
Having gone through surgery to remove his osteosarcoma—an aggressive bone cancer—less than a week before, Omran was a “veteran” in hospital protocol. He quickly took Zilker under his wing and gave him the lowdown, carefully explaining what to expect should Zilker’s biopsy come back positive. (Omran’s father, who speaks Hebrew, translated for the boys, who also used a lot of pantomime.)
The fact that Omran had the same cancer that Zilker was suspected of having, in the exact same place, made their meeting—as they say in this corner of the globe—“bashert”: meant to be.
“At the time, we needed every bit of information,” said Anat, Zilker’s mother. “Qusay was the only person we knew who had the same cancer. He became our lifeline.”
Imran’s father, Jehad, whose name incidentally means “holy war” in Arabic, became their unofficial guide through the difficult maze of doctors and treatments. “This terrible fate brought us together in a way that’s hard to explain,” said Anat.
The only argument they’ve ever had is who’s better at PlayStation. They’re still fighting about that.
Jehad says Anat has been a ray of hope for his family as well. Being a resident of Gaza, he and Qusay are not allowed to leave the hospital except for a few organized trips. For the last 10 months, Anat has been bringing him and Omran home-cooked meals and clothes. Being so far away from his family and friends, he turned to Anat and her son for comfort.
“One of the only good things to come out of this is the fact that I found a new family,” said Jehad, referring to the Zilkers.
When the rockets began flying over Israel in November, Anat rushed to make sure the Omrans were OK. She was a bit worried at first about how the war would affect their newly formed friendship. “I wanted them to know it didn’t matter to us and that we loved them,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t their doing.
A self-proclaimed liberal, she says she never thought of them as anything but friends. But the experience has opened her eyes in one respect. “I knew Palestinians love their children. But I also knew that they were willing to send them on suicide missions. I guess I was surprised to see that they love their kids the same way we love ours. I look at Jehad’s dedication to Qusay and it’s the same. No difference.”
Zilker wanted to know if Omran’s relatives were safe. “I asked him if any of the missiles hit his hometown. I felt bad.”
Asked whether he was worried at the time that their friendship might suffer, he said no. “We’re best friends.”
Omran wasn’t worried either. The only argument they’ve ever had is who’s better at PlayStation. They’re still fighting about that.
Jehad, who is a construction worker by trade, says he knew there were “good Israelis” from his days working in Israel before the blockade. But he was touched by the level of care he received during his stay in Tel Aviv. “They treated us like family. I have nothing but love for the doctors and staff and Anat and Tal, of course.”
Zilker summed it up perhaps the best, the way only a 17-year-old can. “I used to think that there were some good Palestinians but most of them were bad. Now I know that it’s the opposite. There are a few bad ones, but most of them are good.”
Both Zilker and Omran are getting ready to return home. In both cases, doctors were able to successfully remove their tumors. Omran says he’s looking forward to school, but the first thing he’ll do is dust off his soccer ball and hit the playground. Zilker is planning a trip to California.
They don’t know when or where they’ll be able to see each other next. But in the meantime, they plan on meeting on the virtual soccer field for their first ever post-cancer game, to settle the score once and for all.