Sunday, December 21, 2003

Birth & Death at Deir Ballut Checkpoint

I woke up early on the second morning of the Peace Camp to observe Deir Ballut checkpoint. Deir Ballut has the misfortune of having both a checkpoint and roadblocks obstructing movement into and out of the village. The main road is obstructed by four large concrete blocks. To reach the checkpoint on the other side of the blocks, travelers must take a two-mile, unpaved detour through the countryside, or walk on the main road past the blocks and wait for public transportation. I walked across the roadblocks to find about thirty cars waiting after they had taken the long way around. It was almost eight in the morning. The checkpoint was supposed to have opened at seven, but the soldiers were late for work. So were almost a hundred Palestinians who had to wait for them.

Deir Ballut checkpoint closes every evening at seven. Anyone who arrives any later is simply out of luck. Less than 24 hours after I left the checkpoint, at 2am the following morning, a local woman named Hessa who was seven months pregnant with twins began having contractions. Her husband drove her quickly to the checkpoint, which they needed to cross to reach the nearest hospital in Ramallah. When they reached the checkpoint, the soldiers sleeping above it came down to meet the frantic couple. They were very polite and said: “The rule is very clear: Palestinians are not allowed through until seven in the morning. Please come back at seven.”

Hessa clearly couldn’t wait six hours to have her babies so they argued a bit more. Again, the soldiers were very polite, even apologetic. They just kept saying the same thing over and over: “Look, we didn’t make the rules, and we don’t even agree with them... We’re just following orders.”

Hessa’s husband called an ambulance to come from Ramallah, about 25 miles away, to the other side of the checkpoint so his wife could simply walk through on foot and be shuttled back to Ramallah. For the next hour, Hessa waited in pain with her worried family in the winter night. Hessa’s pain increased dramatically waiting in the cold, and soon she was ready to give birth.

When the ambulance finally arrived, the soldiers shook their heads again, apologetically: “Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re crossing by foot or by car. You’re still a Palestinian. It’s still the middle of the night. You still can’t cross.” At that point Hessa’s husband exploded with anger, telling the soldiers they could punish him however they wanted, but that his wife must be let through. The soldiers called their superiors, who arrived twenty minutes later. By this time the family had been waiting more than two hours in the cold. The army agreed to let Hessa through, but not her husband. Before letting her onto the stretcher, they examined her stomach to make sure it wasn’t a bomb.

Hessa gave birth to the twins in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. But because they were premature, as twins often are, the babies required immediate hospitalization. One baby died before arriving at the hospital. The second baby died the next day.

If Hessa had known it would take so long to pass through the checkpoint, she could have taken a different road to Ramallah, one that is much longer and bumpier but has no checkpoint. There is only a roadblock, where the ambulance could have met her. Anyone who wants to get from Deir Ballut to Ramallah without passing through a checkpoint can do so, and the army knows that. Just like they know Deir Ballut’s roadblock simply requires Palestinians to take an uncomfortable detour in their cars, meaning more money for gas, more wear-and-tear on their vehicles, and more stress overall. The primary consequence of checkpoints and roadblocks is not increased security for Israel, but strain on daily life accelerating the breakdown of Palestinian society. I wish everyone—especially the soldiers, most of whom are convinced they are following orders designed to protect their families and communities—could see that.

[1] Stories like Hessa’s are not uncommon. In its “Operation Defensive Shield: Soldiers’ Testimonies, Palestinian Testimonies” 2002 report, B’tselem tells a similar story:

“On Friday, April 5, 2002, Tahani ‘Ali ‘Asad Fatouh, a pharmacist from Al Msakan Ash Sha’abiya in the Nablus District began having labor pains. Her husband, Dr. Ghassan ‘Ali Nashat Sha’ar, called an ambulance to take his seven months pregnant wife to the hospital. Due to the curfew imposed on the area, the ambulance could not reach the house and Dr. Sha’ar had to deliver the baby with the help of his neighbor, Dr. Sulfeh. The delivery went smoothly. During the delivery, the ambulance crew tried to reach the couple’s house, as the newborn would have to be placed in an incubator. All attempts failed. Some 30 minutes after the birth, the baby’s health began to deteriorate. Dr. Sha’ar managed to resuscitate his son twice. On the third attempt, the baby died. Tahani Fatouh had become pregnant after four years of fertility treatments. The hospital is only two kilometers [less than a mile and a half] away from the couple’s home.”

During the first four years of the Second Intifada, 13 newborn infants died at checkpoints. Gideon Levy, “Killing Children is No Longer a Big Deal,” Haaretz (October 17, 2004); When this book went to press, at least 68 women had given birth at checkpoints since 2001. PASSIA 2007.

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