Twilight Zone / Dead on arrival

w w w haaretz c o m – Last update – 15:04 19/09/2008

By Gideon Levy
Nothing helped. Not the pleas, not the cries of the woman in labor, not the father’s explanations in excellent Hebrew, nor the blood that flowed in the car. The commander of the checkpoint, a fine Israeli who had completed an officers’ course, heard the cries, saw the women writhing in pain in the back seat of the car, listened to the father’s heartrending pleas and was unmoved. The heart of the Israeli officer was indifferent and cruel. For over an hour, he would not let the car with the young woman in labor pass through the Hawara checkpoint on the way to the hospital in Nablus. Not to Tel Aviv; but to Nablus; not for shopping, not for work; but to get to the hospital in an emergency. Nothing helped.

Nahil Abu-Rada is not the first woman to lose her baby this way because of the occupation, and she won’t be the last. At least a half-dozen checkpoint births that ended in death have been documented here over the years, and nothing has changed. No punishments, no lessons, not even a request for forgiveness from parents who lose their children because of the coldheartedness of soldiers.

The occupation kills – never has this slogan sounded so true as on that night, two weeks ago, at the Hawara checkpoint south of Nablus. No convoluted excuse or explanation from the Israel Defense Forces spokesman (military sources were quoted the day after the incident, making this outrageous comment: “This baby would have died anyway”) can erase the simple, chilling fact that for officers and soldiers in the occupation army we have established, human feeling has become alien, at least when it comes to Palestinians. Or the fact that there are still officers and soldiers in the IDF who behave with such lack of feeling toward a woman in labor who is about to lose her child.

What went through the mind of the officer who refused to let Nahil pass? He saw her in agony, he heard her husband’s desperate pleas, and he surely knows how children come into this world and how they can leave it just as easily, without lifesaving medical treatment.

The couple had gone to bed at nine. They woke up after midnight when Nahil, 21, suddenly went into labor; she was at the beginning of her seventh month of pregnancy. This was on the night between September 5 and 6, at their home in Qusra, a quiet and relatively well-off village east of the Tapuah Junction, at the foot of the Migdalim settlement in the northern West Bank. The closest hospital was in Nablus, a 15-minute drive at night to the Hawara checkpoint, and then another 10 minutes from there to Rafidia Hospital, if all goes smoothly. But that night, nothing went smoothly.

The husband, Mu’ayyad, 29, called his brother Uday to come quickly with his car. The two brothers work in different industrial plants on the Ma’ale Ephraim settlement. They speak Hebrew well. Their father works as a gardener in Ma’ale Ephraim. They come from a family of 16 siblings, most of whom attended university; they had never been in any trouble. Uday’s phone’s ring tone is the Hebrew song “Hayal mishmar hagvul” (Border Police Officer), with the lyrics: “We were a pair of lovebirds, innocent and shy, suddenly it all ended, my heart is broken … You went to the army and love went with you, now I’m lonely and sad.” Now, Uday’s cell phone also carries a horrifying photograph of his brother’s dead baby.

Uday arrived within minutes and they carried Nahil to his red Opel and lay her down in the back seat. There is no ambulance in the village. Had they called for one to come from Nablus, it would take much longer, they thought. Uday drove quickly, using flashing red lights in the back, while Nahil lay moaning with her husband by her side. The brothers’ mother joined them in the car, too.

Shortly before 1 A.M., they reached the Tapuah checkpoint and after a delay of a few minutes, they were allowed to continue on their way. Nahil’s cries grew stronger. Every so often, she would anxiously ask her husband: Where are we? How much longer? Mu’ayyad reassured her: We’re almost at the hospital, just a few more minutes. Some minutes later, they reached Hawara.

The checkpoint was deserted. They stopped where cars are supposed to stop. “It’s the army: If you don’t stop the right way, they can shoot you and you can be killed,” Mu’ayyad explains later.

A soldier stood 25 meters away. Mu’ayyad began walking toward him carrying the identity cards of all the passengers in the car. “Come here a second; it’s an emergency. My wife is in labor and I have to take her to the hospital, to Rafidia,” Mu’ayyad said. The soldier said he’d have to consult his superior officer. “He walked really slowly, not in any hurry,” as Mu’ayyad describes it.

Adds Uday: “They’re working very quietly, very slowly, it’s all quiet. She’s yelling and they’re quiet. Moving very slowly.”

The soldier disappeared into the building next to the checkpoint. The two brothers say it was 15-20 minutes until he returned, accompanied by the officer. Meanwhile, Nahil had started bleeding in the car. “What’s the problem?” asked the officer. “My wife is suffering, she’s bleeding in the car. Please, do me a favor, check the car quickly and let us go.” The officer: “You need a permit.”

Mu’ayyad pulled out a work permit that’s good for Judea and Samaria, 24 hours a day, but the officer didn’t even bother to look at it. “I started to plead with him. I told him: The situation is serious. I told him: Keep all the IDs with you and keep me with you, and my brother will just bring her to the hospital and come back.” It didn’t help. Nothing helped.

The cries of agony from the car grew louder and more frequent, the officer must have heard them quite well. He heard, but closed his ears. “I opened all the doors so they would hear my wife’s cries,” says Mu’ayyad. “I was not asking to go into Tel Aviv. I was asking to go to Nablus, and not so I could stroll around at one in the morning, but so I could bring my wife to the hospital.”

After all his pleas fell on deaf ears, Mu’ayyad tried one last request: “Help me. Maybe you have the phone number of an ambulance? I’m from the villages and I don’t know it. Could you help me in this situation? Look, my wife is screaming in pain, she’s bleeding, help me, please.” Nothing. A heart of stone. “He didn’t want to help me, the officer,” Mu’ayyad recalls dryly.

Desperate and terrified, he phoned his brother who lives in Nablus and asked him to call an ambulance to rush to the checkpoint. But by the time the ambulance arrived, the birth had begun. The tiny head was emerging; Mu’ayyad is sure he saw the baby move its head. He quickly grabbed hold of either side of the head to protect it.

“I said to them: Look, the baby is starting to come out! I show the soldiers my wife in this condition. It’s no easy thing for me to show them my wife in this condition, but I wanted to save my son. I’m ashamed, but out of fear for my wife and child, I showed her to them. We need oxygen, you have to do something, I say. He didn’t listen to me. In the end, the baby started to come out, my wife was lying in the car, her legs sticking out. I grabbled hold of the baby so he wouldn’t fall between the seats. I thought I could feel his heart pounding. I felt that my son was still alive. He moved his head to the side two or three times; he needed someone to take care of him right away to get him out and save him.”

But the birth stopped, with the baby half out and half in. Mu’ayyad and Nahil were desperate, frantic. The officer and the soldier outside didn’t lift a finger to help. “We needed someone to take care of him. He’s a neonate. He needs to be taken right away to an incubator with oxygen,” Mu’ayyad yelled. He tried to get help, but no one at the checkpoint responded.

Meanwhile, the ambulance from Nablus arrived. Mu’ayyad says that precious minutes passed before it was allowed to cross to the other side, where Nahil was. He says he screamed at the soldiers: “You didn’t help me! Now I think my son is dead! Help me save my wife’s life, at least. I lost a child, but my wife has to be saved! I started yelling like a madman until they let the ambulance approach.”

The paramedic put on gloves and entered the car. The baby was still only halfway out; the paramedic pronounced him dead.

Mu’ayyad: “He said to me: “I have to take the child out, before we take your wife to the ambulance. I think he’s dead.” He removed the baby and cut the umbilical cord. We took the bag with the clothes that we’d brought for the baby, dumped them out and put my son inside. We tore out the upholstery from the car and carried my wife to the ambulance. Then the medic removed the placenta and put it in the bag with my baby.”

A while later, the couple arrived at Rafidia with the bag holding their dead son. The doctor started shouting: “What happened? Why is she bleeding this way?” Mu’ayyad explained: “An hour and a quarter at the checkpoint.”

“Actually, I felt like it had been a year, but we left home at 12:40 A.M. and arrived at Rafidia at 2:45 A.M.,” he recalls now.

It also pains him that no one at the hospital opened the bag to examine his dead son: “I heard they gave the soldier a 14-day sentence. This is a person who not only killed my son, he killed me and my wife. What kind of punishment is that? This is something horrific, what happened to us. I don’t wish it upon anyone, not even the soldier. He killed my son. With a cold heart, he killed my son. Everyone should try to put himself in my place. What would happen if something like this happened to the soldier’s wife? He’d kill 100 people. My son died and I couldn’t help him. What kind of father am I?”

They were thinking of calling their son Zaid. They have another baby, a girl, at home. On the way back, the couple placed the baby’s body in a cardboard box. At the Hawara checkpoint, the soldiers asked to see what was in the box.

“It’s my son, who died yesterday at the checkpoint when you wouldn’t let me get to the hospital,” Mu?ayyad told the soldier.

The response from the IDF Spokesman’s Office: “This is a difficult and unfortunate incident, following which a comprehensive investigation was carried out by the battalion commander of the soldiers at the checkpoint. The Coordination and Liaison Office also clarified the circumstances with the woman in question. The findings were presented to the head of the Samaria brigade, and the officer in charge of the checkpoint sentenced the squad commander to imprisonment in a military facility and dismissed him from his position.”

“From the investigation it appears that on September 4, a civilian vehicle arrived at the Hawara checkpoint at about midnight with a resident of Qusra, his pregnant wife, his brother and mother. The soldiers on duty did not allow the Palestinian to enter Nablus, as he did not have an entry permit for the vehicle. An ambulance was ordered and the woman was treated on the spot; the infant was stillborn. The woman was evacuated by ambulance for continued medical treatment in Nablus.”

“In light of the fact that this was a humanitarian incident, it would have been proper if it had been dealt with differently, and the IDF regrets this.”

Nahil is not willing to talk or have her photograph taken now. For two weeks, she hasn’t spoken, and has hardly eaten or slept. Signs of trauma are obvious in the slim, pale woman in traditional garb. Mu’ayyad says he also has trouble sleeping.

On the day we met this week, the couple had spent about six hours waiting in the Coordination and Liaison Office in Hawara until their testimony was taken down by an investigator. Six hours, during the Ramadan fast, after giving birth at a checkpoint. That’s how it works.

Attorney Michael Sfard of the Yesh Din human rights organization has written an urgent letter to the military advocate general, requesting a postponement of the disciplinary sentence imposed on one of the soldiers involved – two weeks of military detention – so as to allow a possible criminal proceeding.


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