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Gaza baby found in a tree after strike finds home with her doctor

WorldGaza baby found in a tree after strike finds home with her doctor


Days old and desperately thin, Baby Malak didn’t even have a name when she was taken to the Emirati Hospital in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah. Her family was presumed dead, so medics called her “Unknown.”  

Today, the chubby 6-month-old is the star of the wards where her de-facto guardian, Amal Abu Khatleh, 32, works as a pediatrician. As Abu Khatleh carries Malak — which means angel in Arabic — around the facility, other members of the staff lean in for a kiss and a cuddle. 

“We had a lot of catastrophic stories because of the war that affected us, but the one that affected me most is Malak’s,” Abu Khatleh told an NBC News crew in Rafah late last month. Other children had their parents with them, she added, but Malak “did not and her name was ‘Unknown.’” 

Malak was found in a tree near her family’s ruined home in central Gaza, apparently flung into the branches by a strike, which killed the rest of her relatives in November. 

Shortly after she was taken to Al-Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza for treatment, Dr. Nasser Bolbol, head of the neonatal unit, told NBC News that based on her umbilical cord, he believed Malak was just 2 days old. 

Bolbol added that he and his colleagues thought she had been caught by an angel, providing inspiration for her name. “When I see this baby with no family members, I feel so sad. Very sad,” he said, standing next to her incubator.  

Baby Malak was found in a tree after a strike killed her family.
Baby Malak was found in a tree after a strike killed her family. NBC News

With power outages on the increase, supplies dwindling and battles between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants getting increasingly closer to the hospital, Malak was evacuated to the Emirati Hospital, along with 30 other premature babies.    

Israel, which recently completed a second weekslong operation at Al-Shifa, has long maintained that Hamas was using the complex as a base — which both Hamas and doctors at the hospital have denied.

Abu Khatleh first met Malak when she began treating her after the baby was transferred to the facility in her home city. 

After two of the other babies were taken in by their relatives and the rest were transferred to Egypt for further treatment, only Malak remained, alone, with no family and no name.  

“I was really moved and got so close to her,” Abu Khatleh said, adding that after seeking and being granted permission by the Gaza Health Ministry, she took Malak “home with me and promised to make it up to her after what she has been through.” 

Since then, she said, her family had been helping her raise Malak and the hospital provided her with milk and diapers. Although she was worried that Malak’s development might have been stunted during her two months in an incubator, she said she “tried to make her communicate with my sister’s kids and thank God she did.” Malak, she added, “is great now healthwise and socially.” 

The family bonding also provided much needed companionship for Malak, who is one of at least 17,000 children in Gaza who are unaccompanied or separated from their families, according to a recent estimate from the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. 

So many children have been orphaned in the six months since Hamas’ Oct. 7. attacks and Israel’s subsequent ground invasion of Gaza, that doctors now use a chilling new acronym — WCNSF, for “wounded child, no surviving family.”

Abu Khatleh said her family has embraced her new role as a single mom and they treat Malak “as one of their own.” 

When I told my parents, they got very excited about the idea and told me it’s no problem. ‘She’s going to be a daughter of ours and we’ll take care of her,’ they said … I leave her with my sister and she takes care of her. Everyone treats her as if she is their biological daughter,” she added. 

Quite what the future holds is unclear. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly threatened to launch a major ground operation in Rafah, which is home to more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, many of them displaced from other parts of the besieged and bombarded enclave.

He has repeatedly stated that a ground assault on the city is necessary to destroy the military and governmental capabilities of Hamas, reiterating the goals of the war triggered by the militants’ Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 people and led to some 240 being kidnapped. 

Even as the United States continues to supply Israel with military hardware, President Joe Biden has repeatedly warned against launching a military incursion into the city, fearing it could dramatically increase the death toll in the enclave. More than 33,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to health officials in the enclave, although many more bodies are thought to be buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings.   

Dr. Mohammad Salama, head of the neonatal unit where Abu Khatleh works, said that there was no shortage of prospective adopters for the babies under his care but that finding people who could keep the orphaned children safe was proving difficult. 

Giving the babies away is also emotionally hard, he said. “Already, we have this bond between us and the babies. I feel like a father, not like a doctor,” he added.

Adoption by strangers is relatively rare in the Middle East, and extended family networks usually take care of children who have lost their parents. But UNICEF says that families under extreme pressure to provide food and shelter for their own children may be reluctant to take on more.

Malak, Salama said, was “one of us, one of our team.”

Cradling Malak in her lap, Abu Khatleh said she was still checking to see if there were any surviving relatives.

“Concerning Malak’s future with me, I’ve left this issue to God,” she said.



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