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Cut off from jobs, Palestinians turn to selling kidneys Israelis reap benefits of illegal commerce


NABLUS, West Bank -- The ad in a Palestinian newspaper caught Ibrahim's eye. The details were sketchy. But he suspected there might be some money in it, and that would be welcome.

Ibrahim had been unable to keep up his job at a food processing plant inside Israel after the Israeli government sealed the borders of the West Bank to thousands of Arab workers. So he decided to answer the ad, calling a telephone number in northern Israel, and offered to sell one of his kidneys.

Within weeks, Ibrahim became one in a growing number of Palestinians to sell their kidneys on Israel's black market. While this illicit trade reportedly began at least 18 months ago, it has accelerated since the Palestinian economy went into a tailspin after Israel imposed a full economic blockade early this year.

The disclosure of illegal commerce in kidneys came last month in Israel's mass-circulation newspaper Maariv. A three-month investigation unearthed an underground ring that includes doctors at two Israeli hospitals in Tel Aviv and Petah Tikvah.

The recipients are usually Israelis. The middlemen are Arab citizens of Israel. The sellers are overwhelmingly Palestinians in financial straits, usually young unmarried men like Ibrahim.

"A lot of them are people who used to work in Israel," said Maariv reporter Saed Badran. "Afterwards, they feel scared and bitter, and they feel they've been abused."

The newspaper uncovered at least 25 cases of illegal kidney transplants, according to Badran. While the price offered for a kidney ranges from $10,000 to $30,000, the sellers often see only a fraction of the amount. Other promises, including follow-up medical examinations and permission to hold an Israeli job, often go unfulfilled.

Ibrahim, who refused to give his last name or hometown, said he was paid $11,000 for the operation at Beilinson Hospital; the typical Palestinian laborer earns about $7,500 a year in Israel.

Ibrahim said the middleman, Abu Mohammed, promised him free checkups at Beilinson Hospital after the operation. This spring, Ibrahim became ill with a liver ailment that he attributes to his kidney surgery. He has lost weight and developed a yellow glaze in his eyes. But Abu Mohammed has not arranged for medical care in Tel Aviv, Ibrahim said, refusing even to meet him. Ibrahim is now receiving treatment at a hospital in Nablus.

While relatively rare in Israel, the sale of organs by the poor is common in Third World nations.

Over the past month, the Israeli government has begun to ease the border closure. About 30,000 Palestinians now have permission to make the daily commute. But 120,000 held jobs inside Israel before the borders were sealed in 1993; the number of workers allowed in has fluctuated greatly since then.

The closure policy was condemned last month in a 58-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch. It also was criticized by Gideon Ezra, a former deputy director of Israel's Shin Bet security agency and a member of Parliament from the ruling Likud bloc. He said the policy does not prevent terrorist attacks but punishes law-abiding Palestinians.

In fact, the closure has propelled Palestinians like Ibrahim into the Israeli underworld. Under Israeli law, a kidney can only be transplanted from a deceased donor or from one family member to another. Even the paperwork that allows Palestinians to enter Israel for the surgical removal of their kidneys is falsified. Inside Israel, they are utterly dependent on the goodwill of their Israeli co-conspirators.

Within Palestinian society as well, this commerce has been a guarded secret because the sale of a kidney to an Israeli can be a matter of great shame. The donors often keep the truth from their own families, claiming that they have to travel to Israel for temporary work.

People can survive with one kidney, though they put themselves at risk if that kidney is damaged by illness or accident.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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