The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

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.