Documentaries aren’t meant to produce movie stars, but “Muhi: Generally Temporary,” a new documentary by photojournalists Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander and Tamir Elterman certainly does. Muhammad El Farrah, or as he’s known in the film, Muhi, is a young Palestinian boy from Gaza with a rare medical condition that can’t be treated in the Strip. The film focuses on Muhi and his grandfather, Abu Naim, both of whom live in the hospital where Muhi has been treated for the past seven years, of all places, just outside of Tel Aviv in Israel.
The filmmakers recently started to screen the film and, in tandem, they are running a campaign to raise money that will be split between the film’s outreach costs and the expenses of Muhi’s prosthetics and healthcare needs.
Muhi is charming, lovable, and his short life is marked by plot-twists and drama. In some ways, the film is a classic tale of a young boy overcoming the odds and living his difficult life to the fullest. His adorable one-liners and affable smile are straight out of a Hollywood script. Unlike Hollywood, though, a documentary set in Israel/Palestine is hardly fodder for simple, happy endings.
The film is set on the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, showing the Erez checkpoint dividing Gaza from Israel and the West Bank, as well as scenes from 2014 that will sting for both Israelis and Palestinians alike who lived through the last military operation in Gaza, “Protective Edge.”
People who aren’t Palestinian or Israeli might think that Muhi’s story is one-of-a-kind: A child with a rare disease, given a rare opportunity to get treatment in the hospital of his people’s supposedly sworn enemy.
Certainly, some aspects of his life are unique. While thousands of people may travel from Gaza for medical treatment in Israel and the West Bank, it’s a rare exception to get a long-term permit allowing one to stay in Israel over the course of seven years, even if the permit is called “generally temporary” (hence the title of the film) and is thus not absolute. Muhi, his grandfather and the friends and hospital staff raising him are exceptional human beings. However, at the same time, the film shows the rather mundane and complex entanglement of the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, who both call the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea home. No matter how adorable and how special, Muhi is still a Palestinian from Gaza, and because of this, he is subject, at the end of the day, to the same permit regime as are millions of Palestinians.
Many moments in the film hint at the complicated military bureaucracy that defines the lives of Gaza residents still living under the control of Israel, despite the 2005 disengagement. Not the stuff of movies, and not dwelled on, these moments might fly over the heads of the audience. We see the visits and then heart-wrenching farewells of Muhi’s mother, who has managed to come from Gaza only three times in seven years(!) to see her son. Also Muhi’s grandmother, Abu Naim’s wife, comes on several occasions and the film captures so poignantly the tenderness of those stolen moments with loved ones.
Here are answers to some of the questions that might arise for audiences watching the film:
How rare is it for people from Gaza to get treatment in Israeli hospitals?
In theory, Israel allows travel of medical patients and their companions from Gaza for the purpose of receiving treatment in Israeli and Palestinian hospitals on three conditions: 1) that both pass a security screening 2) that the treatment being sought is not available in Gaza and 3) that the patient has a referral to a hospital and a guarantee showing coverage of medical costs. In recent years, Israel has made it more difficult for adults under the age of 55 to receive permits to accompany medical patients. One of the main effects of this is that parents are less likely to get permits to accompany their young children.
Early in the film, Buma Inbar, an Israeli activist who helps people get permits and reach hospitals in Israel, says into the phone, ostensibly speaking with military officials, that Muhi’s companion is his grandfather, therefore there shouldn’t be a problem with the permit. At Erez Crossing, it’s not uncommon to see a baby in the arms of a grandparent coming for treatment.
Approval rates for permit requests for medical patients were a relatively high 80 percent in 2013, but more recently, there has been an alarming drop in approval rates. According to the World Health Organization, in March 2017, only 55 percent of applications were approved. In 2016, there were 4,395 referrals given for medical treatment of patients from Gaza in Israel (about 18 percent of the total referrals for treatment outside of Gaza).
Who typically pays for treatment of Palestinian medical patients given treatment in Israeli hospitals?
Israel conditions exit permission for treatment based on patients having a guarantee of payment for their medical bills in Israeli hospitals. The Palestinian Authority pays for the vast majority of medical costs for Palestinian patients from Gaza and the West Bank. There are some charity organizations and programs that cover costs for others.
Who else can travel from Gaza to or through Israel?
The criteria for who is eligible to request a permit (but by no means guaranteeing approval) can be found here (only available officially in Hebrew, go figure. Gisha’s most recent translation is here). Israel says it allows travel from Gaza “in exceptional humanitarian cases, with an emphasis on travel for medical treatment.” The majority of people who travel from Gaza are medical patients and their companions, people traveling to visit family in exceptional circumstances such as the death or illness of a first-degree relative, and some businesspeople.
Why can’t Muhi’s family members travel back and forth freely?
At the end of the film, end titles share that, given that Muhi’s treatment is considered complete for now, his mother is no longer able to get permits to come see him. This is a reference to the travel criteria (see above). A mother is eligible to ask for a permit to visit her son if he has passed away (to attend his funeral), is gravely ill, or is getting married. Given that Muhi meets none of these conditions, his mother has no “reason” to come see him, according to the policy. Even if his treatment were ongoing, she would only receive temporary permits to see him. In theory, she could bring her other children with her who are under the age of 16, thanks to work by Gisha that raised the age of accompanying children. But Israel usually does not allow parents to travel with all their children at once for fear that families will try to leave Gaza permanently and settle in the West Bank or Israel.
Who makes these decisions?
Travel to and from Gaza has been gradually restricted since the 1990s, with peaks after the start of the Second Intifada, after the 2005 “disengagement,” and finally with the closure imposed in June 2007 following the Hamas takeover. The Israeli Security Cabinet (the prime minister, defense minister and other key government ministers), reached a decision in September 2007 declaring Gaza “a hostile entity.” The criteria on travel from Gaza are ostensibly devised as government policy under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense. While certainly Israel has legitimate security needs, we share the criteria to show that not all decisions are made based on concrete security concerns against individuals, but rather according to sweeping decisions influenced by interests and politics.
Permit requests by Palestinians from Gaza are submitted to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee and passed to the Israeli Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration, who then process the requests according to the criteria in place and act on recommendations from the Israeli Security Agency (referred to as the Shin Bet or Shabak). If the permit request doesn’t meet any of the criteria for travel, it is usually rejected. Organizations like Gisha challenge blocks from the system, trying to get answers when none are given, or changing rejections into approvals through legal work.
Is Israel obligated to allow residents of Gaza to travel for medical or other reasons? Why can’t people just go for medical treatment in Egypt?
Israel’s substantial control over so many aspects of life in the Gaza Strip means that, under international law, it must facilitate normal life in the Strip, including allowing access for civilians and civilian goods. Alongside this obligation, Israel has the authority to decide by which routes both people and goods enter and leave Gaza, and to establish reasonable and proportionate security measures to prevent the transfer of weapons and other military activity. Accordingly, Gisha’s position is that Israel must allow free movement of people and goods to enable economic growth, opportunities for personal development and normal family life, subject to individual security inspections.
Egypt does not have the same level of obligation to Gaza residents given its relations with Gaza are not governed by the law of occupation. Nonetheless, it should allow humanitarian access at a minimum. Even if Rafah were open more frequently (it was open only 42 days in 2016 and has been open 11 days in 2017), this would not solve Gaza residents’ needs for access to Israel and the West Bank, over which Israel has sole jurisdiction.