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.”

An IDF spokesman: “At the request of the reporter, the IDF will conduct an investigation to clarify the circumstances of the case.”

What did you feel? Lamis: “What did I feel? I should have given birth at home, and even died, rather than going to the checkpoint and begging the soldiers for hours to let us pass. I hope the Israelis will never taste what I tasted, and will not experience what I went through. And that they will explain to their sons who serve in the territories that they should be a little bit humane. That they should be human beings.”

They buried the two twins in the village cemetery, side by side, in one grave. Next to them are buried Raad’s two sisters, who died at an early age. Latifa died at the age of 22 and Moufida at the age of 25. The couple had been planning to name the two girls after them.
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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.

Gate No. 542

Gideon Levy, Haaretz, August 8, 2003

The occupation’s latest wrinkle is the separation fence and its permanent gates. A visit at `Open Sesame’ time.

About a dozen farmers stood around late last Sunday afternoon, in the fields of Zita, a farming village north of Tul Karm, waiting for the men in the Border Police Jeep to open the gate in the fence built without permission on their fields. They knew the Jeep would arrive between 5:30 P.M. and 6 and they waited patiently on both sides of the fence, a few squatting on the ground. Those on the way home stood to the west of the fence, and those going out to their greenhouses stood on the eastern side. Anyone going out to the greenhouses now won’t be coming home tonight; this is the last time today the gate will be opened.

At six precisely, the Jeep arrived. Five armed policemen in head-to-toe protective gear exited the armored vehicle,
made a report by phone and formed a half-circle by the gate. Feet planted wide, weapons cocked; one lit a Marlboro, another took out a key. Wordlessly, he opened the big, silver-plated lock hanging on the gate in the fence, a fence made of wire and electronic sensors. Barbed wire, electric cables, iron posts and dirt trenches to besiege farmers whose lives, liberty and honor are now crushed a little more thoroughly.

“That’s how hatred is sown,” comments Taysir Jeda, the village lawyer and English teacher, and who has also come to tend his fields. Indifferent to the action around them, frogs croak rhythmically from the drainage ditch, nearly 100 meters across, that borders the intimidating fence. Shortly the gate will close. Whoever made it through, made it; whoever did not, will spend the night in a greenhouse. The Jeep with the key won’t be back here again until tomorrow morning, come what may.

“Danger. Military Area. Anyone crossing or touching the fence does so at his own risk,” is written on the sign over the fence. The latest innovation of the occupation, these yellow iron gates – the locked transit points of the separation fence which, in this area, separates farmers from their fields. This is a “humanitarian” arrangement that will last, one may venture to guess, a very brief time, pursuant to which Border Police come periodically to open the gate for the caged-in farmers, a good-will gesture from the most humane military force in the world.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the National Committee for the Struggle Against the Separation Fence in the Northern West Bank, Suheil Salman, reports a migration of people eastward, it’s not clear how sizable, because of the hardships the fence has caused: the people of Qalqilyah, closed off and fenced in like in a ghetto; the town of Kafin, north of Tul Karm, whose residents lost 20,000 dunams [5,000 acres] of their land in 1948 and another 5,000 or so dunams for the settlement of Hermesh. And now along comes the fence and takes most of what is left.

In Jarushiyeh, near Tul Karm, the fence runs alongside Jamal Othman’s yard. Ten meters between it and the house, with the sensors and the red warning signs. You look out the window of the carefully designed living room and see
the fence. You go up to the roof, and see the fence. You go outside, and see the fence. Not just any old fence: tangled coils of barbed wire, a deep trench, an electronic fence, a smooth strip of dirt to detect unauthorized
feet, a paved road for security vehicles – and then the whole thing again, on the other side, 100 meters of it. The olive groves are gone, the water is gone, their livelihood is gone, their freedom is gone. A 450-dunam grove of
olive and almond trees. The planners made a surveying error so Othman lost another 30 dunams of olive trees that were already uprooted before the regrettable error came to light. Now the uprooted trunks peek out from under a layer of dust and the fence route passes 20 meters to the west.

No one explained anything, there was no advance notice. They came, they dug, they smoothed, they straightened, they paved, they built and they left, as if they owned the place. Now Othman’s house has spotlights shining on it at
night and he thinks the object is to get him out of there. Four kids inside. He knows he can’t stay there for long, in a house by the fence. Meanwhile, in his yard he has a few black plastic cisterns, a gift from the government of Greece to the farmers whose access to water was destroyed. The bald mountainside visible from the window was the
family’s olive grove. Heavy engineering equipment is parked now on top of the bald mountain, a hint that the work isn’t finished. Last year, the Othman family produced 800 large tins of olive oil and about six tons of almonds. Now they buy almonds and olive oil at the grocery store.

“In prison, at least they feed you. Here, it’s a prison without food. Every day, I see my land, like an unburied corpse. A dead man, after they bury him, starts to be forgotten, and here you see the deceased every day – and you don’t forget.” The elderly father, Sa’ad, who is 83, gazes at the olive grove he planted decades ago, and says nothing. “You want security? Then give us security. But even after all this, I stretch out a hand in peace,” says his son, the farmer Jamal.

Drive west through the fields of Zita until you arrive at the electronic fence, the dirt trenches, the barbed wire and the yellow gate. Some of the greenhouses are on this side, some on the other side. One of the village’s houses
is on the other side, too. Abd al Basat al-Az, a boy of about 17, is coming back on his donkey from the greenhouses opposite. He still isn’t used to the new arrangements, it’s only been two months, so he arrived early. The way home
will be barred for a good while yet. Go home at four? Who ever heard of such a thing? Israel has decreed that he will go home at six, if then. Disappointed, he goes back the way he came.

The hardships of the gate as told by the farmers: If someone touches the fence, the army won’t open the gate that day, as punishment. Sometimes the police tell them to lift up their shirts. Sometimes they only let some of the
farmers go through. Or curse them. Or beat them. Vehicles are prohibited from crossing; only crooked deals get the crops through.

The hour is late, the sun slowly sinking. More farmers are gathering near the gate, over a dozen now, after an exhausting day of work in the greenhouses, 40 degrees Centigrade in the shade. Sa’ad Taiya and Yusuf Taiya, who own the greenhouses on the other side, want to go home. So does Mohammed Abu Tamam, who’s been picking peppers. When will he take them across? “First let me get myself across.”

The oldest farmer present, Muayyad Mar’i, relates that a few days ago, he wanted to take his tractor across to his fields, but the policeman asked for permits and insurance papers, accessories that Zita farmers can only dream about. The fine: NIS 750. Mar’i says he had to pay on the spot, or forfeit the tractor. He only had NIS 450; the policeman changed the paperwork accordingly. So it goes in Zita.

We hear a distant noise. Maybe the Border Police? Everyone tenses up – but, no, it’s only a helicopter. From the direction of the greenhouses, the Ahmed Abu Sharqiyya family is approaching. Parents with two children, carrying a picnic cooler. Hoping for the best. The farmers say they’ve mostly stopped taking their wives and children to work, because of the hardships at the gate. Sometimes the Border Police don’t speak nicely to them and they want to spare their wives and children the experience. And anyway, who wants to go out to work in the fields when the Border Police are around.

Abed, the teenager, suddenly shows up on his donkey, approaching from the east. He found another gate that was open, and came through that way. A shepherd in a red shirt, he left his sheep on the other side of the fence. The
Abu Sharqiyya family, meanwhile, has sat down on the cooler. Uday, a toddler of two, is suddenly close to the fence and his father jumps up to get him. Just don’t touch the fence.

Six o’clock exactly. The Border Police Jeep comes bursting out of the north in a cloud of dust. The farmers nervously rise and gather up their belongings. The armored Jeep stops a secure distance from the gate, the policemen
put on their protective helmets – there’s a photographer around – and immediately take up positions around the gate. The two groups eye one another with hostility: the guards their prisoners, the farmers their wardens.

What do these policemen think about what th y’re doing? Hard to know. The commanding officer tells them they’re not permitted to talk. The gate opens wide. The farmers say it’s never opened that wide. And the security check has never been so easy, with no lifting of shirts and no humiliation.

The Jeep’s motor is still running. They have to stay here for 20 minutes. The officer is prepared to say only that they come here four times a day, for 20 minutes each time. The farmers say the gate’s never been opened more than twice a day, and sometimes not even that.

The sun’s rays slant down on the rocks the Israel Defense Forces brought here to prevent vehicles from going through, on the five policemen, and on the farmers slowly dispersing, their long shadows moving away along the road.