And the twins died

Gideon Levy, Haaretz, 1/9/04

The twin girls died one after the other. The first to die was the one who was born first, at the checkpoint. Several hours later came the death of her sister, who was born a few minutes after they finally left the checkpoint, and who managed to reach the hospital alive. One lived for less than an hour, the other for less than a day. The death certificate lists their ages as one day old and zero. One died in the arms of her grandmother, the other was carried in the arms of her aunt, while their mother was lying in an ambulance, freezing, trembling, exhausted and humiliated after what she had gone through at the IDF checkpoint near her village.

This past Sunday, the two bespectacled soldiers at the checkpoint at the entrance to Deir Balut direct us with unusual politeness to the path through the fields that leads to the village. The asphalt road to the village is regularly closed off with cement blocks and barbed wire, despite the fact that there is a manned checkpoint at the other end. Why is travel forbidden on the main road, and allowed only on the rocky path? Only in order to subject the 4,000 residents of this attractive village to further mistreatment, and to pacify the settlers in the area, residents of Paduel, Alei Zahav and Beit Aryeh, who whiz past on the well-paved Jewish roads.

Lamis, 25, Raad, 36, and Sabaa, 15 months old. A young and attractive couple with a daughter, a house in the village and horses in the yard. They married five years ago. Raad studied accounting for four years in Bombay, India, worked as a croupier in the casino in Jericho and is now unemployed, and makes a little money from agriculture, in his family’s olive grove. A tattered black leather jacket and gel in his hair. The couple was eagerly awaiting the birth of the twins that Lamis was carrying. She was in her seventh month, and they knew that she was about to give birth.

It happened about two and a half weeks ago, on the night of December 21, a particularly cold night. Shortly after 1 A.M. Lamis woke Raad. She had contractions. Raad went outside, borrowed a car from a neighbor and drove to Zawiya, the neighboring village, to his wife’s doctor, to get a letter of referral for the government hospital in Ramallah. The hospital in Nablus is closer, but the road is full of checkpoints, and for the hospital in Ramallah he needed a referral. The doctor gave him the letter and promised to order an ambulance from the infirmary in Beit Rima, about 20 kilometers from Deir Balut. Raad returned home, picked up his wife, and together they drove in the neighbor’s car on the rocky road, in the direction of the village checkpoint. His sister and his mother joined them for the journey.

Next to the concrete blocks of the village checkpoint he stopped the car. It was shortly after 2 A.M. “I have no words to describe the weather outside. Freezing cold and wind,” recalls Raad. From the checkpoint he phoned the ambulance, which reported that it was on the way. Lamis’ condition deteriorated, her pains intensified, and Raad’s sister suggested that until the ambulance arrived they should wait in one of the houses near the checkpoint, in order to protect Lamis from the cold.

The soldiers turned the spotlight on the car, from their watchtower. The couple managed to walk only a few steps, Lamis supported by Raad, until the voice of the soldier was heard from the tower: “Stop or I’ll shoot. Stop or I’ll shoot.” They froze in place. Raad says that he tried to explain to the soldiers that Lamis was about to give birth, but they only shouted, “Stand, stand.”

And so they stood outside, in the freezing cold, the young woman in labor and her husband. The minutes seemed like hours. Raad says that they stood between 15 minutes and half an hour. When he saw that Lamis’ suffering was becoming unbearable, he decided to take her back to the car, no matter what. “You only die once. If he shoots, he shoots.” He placed the bag of clothes in his hand on the road, and carried his wife to the car. Lamis was trembling and crying.

Afterward the ambulance arrived, and stopped on the other side of the checkpoint. Raad shouted to the medical team to quickly bring a stretcher for Lamis, but the soldiers in the tower also prevented the ambulance driver from leaving his vehicle.

The ambulance driver, Rawahi al Haj, a resident of Beit Rima, sounded very upset and angry this week. To a researcher for Physicians for Human Rights he said: “At 1:45 A.M. I received a call to pick up a woman about to give birth, at the Deir Balut checkpoint. After about 20 minutes I arrived at the checkpoint. I entered the checkpoint area and stopped. I began to honk to the soldiers. I honked a number of times, and not a single soldier came out. That lasted for five to eight minutes. Then I decided to take a chance, and to continue in the direction of the checkpoint. I got out of the ambulance and continued in the direction of the iron gate at the checkpoint. I hoped I would at least be able to reach the woman in the car, on the other side of the checkpoint, on foot. I checked and saw that there was barbed wire beneath the locked iron gate.

“The soldier in the tower started to shout: `Keep away from the gate or I’ll shoot you.’ I told him in English and in Arabic that there was a woman in labor in the car, and that I had to get there in order to help her. I returned to the ambulance, took out the stretcher, pushed it under the iron gate, and together with the paramedic crawled under the gate and continued to walk toward the woman. We put the woman, who was trembling and wailing, on the stretcher, and continued in the direction of the checkpoint gate, in order to try to transfer her somehow.”

Meanwhile, a military jeep arrived at the checkpoint, with the officer who is apparently the only one with the key to the locked iron gate. The ambulance driver: “The soldier in the jeep started to ask us for papers, while we were pushing the woman on the stretcher, under the iron gate. I tried not to give them any papers, and to run quickly toward the ambulance, but the soldiers insisted on the papers, and so we were delayed for another few minutes. The woman’s situation continued to deteriorate. Finally I put her into the ambulance. I had just begun to drive, when after 10 meters I was forced to stop. The woman gave birth. We were still in the checkpoint area.

“While I was trying to help her, a soldier came over to me and asked that we leave the checkpoint immediately, because standing there is prohibited. I shouted to him that the woman was giving birth. Two soldiers tried to peek into the ambulance, to see the birth. I asked them to leave immediately.”

After the first girl was born, they quickly left the checkpoint and sped toward Ramallah. The driver explains that he wanted to get there before the second baby was born, so that at least her birth would take place in a hospital. Remember that Lamis was in her seventh month, and the babies were premature. But after driving for 10 kilometers, when they reached the village of Luban al Sharqiyeh, the second birth began. They stopped and Al Haj again served as midwife. In the ambulance it was very, very cold. They didn’t allow Raad to travel with his wife in the ambulance, and he stayed behind. Lamis told him that both babies were born blue, but they cried and they were alive.

The first infant died in the ambulance, apparently just before they entered the hospital. On the way her crying began to fade out, until it was silenced completely. When they brought her in, the doctor could only determine her death. The time was almost 5 A.M. About four hours after the beginning of the contractions, and about three hours after they embarked on their difficult journey. According to Raad’s estimate, they were delayed at the checkpoint for about an hour and a half. The ambulance driver estimates that from the moment he arrived at the checkpoint until they left, an hour passed.

Whatever the case, the second infant was immediately brought to the ward for premature babies, and connected to a respirator and placed in an incubator. She died the next afternoon. On the death certificate, issued in Ramallah, it says that both girls died from RDS, respiratory distress syndrome. They weighed about 1,500 grams each.

Dr. Ilan Gal, a senior physician at the Lis Maternity Hospital at the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, explained this week that during the birth of twin preemies, the place of birth is of vital importance. “Most of the fetuses at these weights survive in proper conditions for treatment. The birth must take place in a hospital, because the first minutes of treatment in such cases can be critical.”

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The killing fields of Rafah

Gideon Levy, Haaretz, Nov 30, 2003
Quietly, far from the public eye, Israeli soldiers continue killing Palestinians. Hardly a day goes by without casualties, some innocent civilians, and the stories of their violent deaths never reach the Israeli consciousness or awareness. If there is one consistent piece of data in the current intifada, it is the number of Palestinian casualties: dozens a month, unceasingly.

There were 30 in November, 57 in October, 33 in September. In May and June, the number of casualties reached 60 a month (all data supplied by B’Tselem). While Palestinian terror shocks us with its brutality, the daily killing of innocent Palestinians in far greater numbers is ignored – unless it is a case of an army operation as in Nusseirat refugee camp in October.

Here’s a list of victims from the last month, taken from the margins of the daily newspaper chronicles: A 32-year-old motorcyclist shot to death in the chest after soldiers said he tried to escape a checkpoint near Iskar refugee camp; a 10-year-old boy from Sejaya in Gaza who was bird hunting with a slingshot near the separation fence around Gaza, killed by a tank shell fired at him; an eighth-grader from Barukin, near Jenin, who threw stones at soldiers, shot dead; a youth shot to death during “disturbances” after the funeral of his friend in Jenin; a taxi driver and father of six shot to death in Tul Karm by soldiers who thought he was trying to get away; a 15-year-old killed in Yata during some arrests; a nine-year-old killed by IDF fire in Rafah; and three Palestinians who were on their way to the holiday dinner last Wednesday in Gaza, killed by soldiers who claimed they thought the three were an armed cell.

The IDF admitted the next day that they were “accidentally” killed. But a day later, Brigadier General Gad Shamni, commander of the Gaza forces in the Strip hurried to say the soldiers actually behaved correctly. Even though three innocent people were killed, he didn’t even think it was a mistake.

Life in the killing fields of Rafah, for example, is as cheap as the hundreds of houses that have been demolished there for various, strange reasons. Just a few days ago, the IDF demolished the home of someone in their custody whom the army claimed was responsible for the smuggling tunnels. There’s no need for blood on the hands to justify demolishing a person’s house in the current intifada. Only someone who has lately visited Rafah can understand how cheap life has become in this remote place, where there’s practically no building that has not been damaged.

Last weekend, the BBC broadcast a program titled “When the killing is easy” about the killing of British TV cameraman James Miller, the death of International Solidarity Movement volunteer Rachel Corrie under a bulldozer, and the shooting of ISM peace activist Tom Hurndall, who has been rendered a vegetable by his injuries. All three incidents happened within a few weeks in Rafah.

The TV cameras caught Miller walking in the night to his death: wearing a flak vest marked with fluorescent ink identifying him as a journalist, white flag in hand, walking slowly and cautiously, calling out to the soldiers in the armored personnel car facing him so they calm down. Then, the sound of a shot in the dark, and then another and Miller falls, dying in the dirt. The single bullet that struck his neck was well-aimed.

The soldiers in the APC had the best night vision equipment and it is difficult to assume that they were unable to identify their victim as a journalist. Maybe they did not want to kill a journalist, maybe they thought it was a Palestinian pretending to be a journalist, but there is no doubt he was not endangering any of their lives inside the APC. They could have warned him to halt, they could have only wounded him. Hurndall was also an innocent victim of the easy fire. A bullet struck him in the head and he’s now a vegetable.

In effect, there is no difference between how Miller was killed, how Hurndall was wounded and how the three Palestinians were shot dead last Wednesday, except for the fact that a movie was made about Hurndall and Miller, because they are not Palestinians. When soldiers know they will not be prosecuted – and usually no investigation will even take place – for killing an innocent foreign photographer or innocent Palestinians on their way to a festive dinner, they are getting a license to kill from their commanders.

In the eyes of a soldier’s commander, at most he made a mistake. When Brigadier General Shamni announced his soldiers operated “correctly” by killing three unarmed residents, he paved the way for the next unnecessary killing.

If there’s no investigation and no punishment, it means nothing wrong happened. If the pilots are allowed to kill 10 civilians for a single wanted man, obviously the killing of a single innocent resident is inconsequential. Thus the line blurs between killing and murder. What was the sniper’s bullet that struck Miller in the neck? In the complacent response, the IDF’s senior command sends a worrisome message to its soldiers. No instruction booklet about what is allowed and not allowed and no day of discussion about “respecting human dignity” that certain units in the territories have lately taken will erase the damage of the sweeping license to kill that the IDF grants 19-year-olds in the territories.