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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2008, pages 26-27

Voices of the Nakba

Dr. Hassan Hathout: A Survivor of the 1948 Nakba and the Siege of Ramle

  • Dr. Hassan Hathout and his wife, Dr. Salonas Hathout (Staff photo S. Twair.)

IN MAY 1948, as Jewish forces overran Palestinian villages on the Ramle-Latrun Road, casualties were brought to Dr. Hassan Hathout’s makeshift hospital in what had once been Ramle’s military airport.

As a new round of wounded arrived, Dr. Hathout was told seven of them were injured Haganah fighters, including a woman. Now, standing at the entrance of his hospital, he faced an angry mob demanding to take revenge on their captured enemies.

The young Egyptian physician was facing the biggest challenge of his life. Only months before, he had received his medical degree from Cairo University. He made the decision in December 1947 to launch his career by serving in the Red Crescent in neighboring Palestine.

Now he was standing on the steps of his hospital, shouting at a crowd hell-bent on murder. “You will kill these prisoners over my dead body,” he yelled. “I am a Muslim and an Arab. The Qur’an says the wounded are in protection for their wounds. The captives are in protection for their captivity.”

Once the mob reluctantly disbanded, Dr. Hathout spoke in English to his terrified prisoners. “You now are with us Arabs and Muslims. I will treat you the same as my Arab patients so long as you don’t try to escape. You will receive treatment according to the gravity of your wounds.”

His hospital had some 60 beds which meant that many patients were lying on the floor. The staff included two other doctors and about 15 male nurses. For 72 hours, Dr. Hathout conducted surgeries nonstop. The Jewish woman, Ruth Simon Levy, was operated on for an injury to her thigh muscles. A much more serious case was that of Naphtali Zeinfield, whose thorasic cage was filled with shrapnel.

When the Red Cross oversaw a prisoner exchange, the Jewish patients were transferred except for Naphtali, whose condition was too severe to consider moving.

One day, Dr. Hathout recalled, the shooting from Ramle suddenly stopped. The silence was eerie. The Palestinians had run out of ammunition.

“We waited, expecting to be overrun, massacred,” he explained. “The Haganah didn’t attack. Maybe they expected a booby trap? Then in the distance we heard a convoy of trucks, they were carrying Bedouins shooting in the air. The Jews retreated that day.”

Many times when he drove the Red Crescent ambulance to get medical supplies, Dr. Hathout was asked to smuggle arms in his vehicle.

“I always refused,” he said. “We were a medical organization. I never fired a bullet or carried a weapon. Someone offered me a German pistol, but I didn’t accept it.”

Over the ensuing month, no matter how hectic his schedule, Dr. Hathout would spend a few minutes daily with Naphtali. “We talked of many things, in particular about Naphtali’s one-year-old son. It was emotional when the Red Cross came for him. He thanked me over and over for saving his life.”

One of the first Jewish prisoners at his hospital was a woman from Yemen, Sarah Bint Shamoun Gamil. She was gravely wounded, and a Palestinian fluent in Hebrew was brought to her bedside. Believing she was talking to a Jew, the dying woman confided:

“These Arabs are the best people I’ve met,” she said. “The Haganah took me from my kibbutz and warned I must defend our people. Yet in battle, they carried away an injured blonde woman fighter but left me to die. Look how the Arabs are caring for me.”

When a truce was announced, Dr. Hathout rushed home to Cairo on leave. When he tried to return to Ramle, it had fallen, as more than 100,000 Palestinians were being expelled from Lod/Lydda and Ramle (see p. 61). He was directed to serve in a hospital at the Ramallah Friends School.

Upon arriving in Ramallah, Dr. Hathout was appalled to learn that a close friend from medical school had volunteered to join him in Ramle and now he was a prisoner of war. He sent a letter via the Red Cross asking the Israelis for permission to join his patients at the Ramle hospital. His request was rejected.

His next step was to request to meet with an Israeli delegation. The Red Cross arranged this at Deir Latroun Monastery in an area designated as no-man’s-land.

Here, Dr. Hathout was approached by his Israeli counterpart, a Dr. Hokhman. He was astonished when the Israeli embraced him and exclaimed: ”So you are the Egyptian doctor with the blue eyes and golden moustache. The patients are telling me very good things about you.”

As negotiations began, Dr. Hathout argued for the return of his colleague. “Our hands are full. We have 100,000 refugees living under trees. Children are dying. We need doctors.”

Dr. Hokhman countered that the Egyptians were holding three Jewish doctors. “Give us one and we’ll give you one doctor.”

Dr. Hathout responded: “I cared for Jewish prisoners and treated them humanely. It would be a great betrayal if you don’t keep this spirit alive on both sides of the battlefront.”

At the close of their third meeting, Dr. Hokhman agreed to return the Egyptian doctor as well as Dr. Hathout’s surgical equipment and supplies. This was done within 30 minutes.

Dr. Hathout went on to receive his diploma in obstetrics and gynecology from Cairo University. On April 28, 1951, he married Salonas Hasan Ismail, a gynecological pathologist. After he received a degree in surgery from Cairo University the couple moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he did post graduate work at the Royal College of Surgeons and received a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh.

The husband-wife medical team moved to Kuwait in 1966. In 1973, he was a co-founder of the Kuwait University Medical School, where he taught until 1988.

In 1972, Dr. Hathout opened a letter mailed from Switzerland. It was from Naphtali, who had sent his message from Israel via a friend living in Switzerland. The Israeli said he had searched for Dr. Hathout’s whereabouts for years. That summer in Vienna, he had come across his name and address in a hotel guest roster.

“You saved my life,” the Israeli wrote. “My family has always wanted to meet you and thank you. I will make all arrangements if you will be my guest in Israel.”

Dr. Hathout answered that he remembered his former patient and his wound, but he could not accept his invitation so long as Arab lands were under Israeli occupation.

Months later, he received another letter from Naphtali, who inquired about “this nonsense that you won’t visit Israel.” The remainder of the letter was written by his wife, who explained her husband had died of a heart attack, but she wished to express thanks for the 24 years of life Dr. Hathout had made possible for her husband.

Dr. Hathout and his wife have lived for 20 years in Pasadena, California near their daughter, Dr. Eba Hathout Shahawi, and her family. He continues to lecture at Loma Linda University and the Islamic Center of Southern California, and is the author of numerous books, including Reading the Muslim Mind.

By Pat McDonnell Twair, a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.