New Internationalist

Palestinian newborns are dying at checkpoints

In their home just outside of Bethlehem, a young couple, Farid and Nadia, put their son to bed. First-time parents, they tiptoe in and out of his nursery. The view from the window is dominated by the drab grey slabs of the Separation Wall, which stands just 20 metres from the house. ‘I fear that he will grow up thinking this is normal,’ Farid says.

Nadia is a Jerusalem ID holder. Farid, however, only holds a green West Bank ID card and is prohibited from owning property or driving a car in the district. ‘The night that my wife went into labour,’ Farid recalls, ‘we made our way to hospital. Because I wasn’t allowed to drive I had to sit beside her. She was in severe pain. I thought she was going to deliver in the car. At the checkpoint, we were made to wait. They wouldn’t allow us to switch so I could drive, although she was clearly in severe pain.’

After the delay, the Israeli military who guard the checkpoint forced Nadia to drive herself to hospital.   

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 10 per cent of pregnant Palestinian women were forced to endure labour or childbirth at a checkpoint between 2000 and 2007, resulting in the death of at least 35 babies and five women during the seven-year period. This data is at the centre of a new research abstract published this week in the leading medical journal, The Lancet.

Checkpoint near Bethlehem: a place to give birth? Photo by James Emery under a CC licence.

The abstract's author, Halla Shoaibi, is a lawyer at the University of Michigan. She believes there may be grounds for Israel to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity for obstructing pregnant Palestinian women as they try to reach medical care during labour.  

Israel has over 500 checkpoints and barriers across occupied Palestine; a journey that should take minutes can take hours. Approximately 18,000 pregnant Palestinian women each year will develop complications.

Sexual and reproductive health consultant Carol Bradford says that checkpoint delays complicate an already fragile situation: ‘The Thaddeus and Maine “Three Delays Model” identifies the main causes of needless death of a mother and, often, her newborn. The first delay is getting out of the home when a woman needs emergency care; the second is in getting to the facility; and the third is when the facility can’t help her because it doesn’t have the right equipment or supplies. All three are at play in the occupied Palestinian territory.’

Checkpoint outside Qalqilya, West Bank. Photo by Vadim Lavrusik under a CC licence.

The Fourth Geneva Convention states that ‘expectant mothers shall be the object of particular protection and respect’. Yet, in 2009, the Committee Against Torture said it was ‘seriously concerned’ by the ‘undue delays and denial of entry’ at Israeli checkpoints of those seeking urgent medical care.  Shoaibi’s analysis will investigate a claim against Israel based on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 7 (1) (k), which prohibits ‘inhumane acts…intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health’.

Individual testimonies lodged with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights  certainly indicate inhumane treatment, great suffering and the loss of life as a result of checkpoint delays. A testimony given in August 2003 reported the birth, and death, of a baby girl at a checkpoint in northern West Bank. The mother was prevented from reaching an ambulance on the other side. The baby died after the father was forced to cut his baby’s umbilical cord with a stone.

Yet, despite the gravity of individual cases, Shoaibi will need to show that Israel’s actions are intentional, widespread and systematic. The statistic of one in 10 [women giving birth at checkpoints] would suggest a widespread problem. But it’s very likely that even this number is a huge underestimation, because many cases from isolated rural areas never get reported.

Proving Israel’s strategic intent to cause suffering will be a challenge. However, there have been indications of an attitude of aggression amongst the Israeli military towards childbearing Palestinian women. In March 2009, there was international outrage over a set of t-shirts commissioned by Israeli soldiers depicting a pregnant Palestinian with a target over her belly. Over the image were the words One shot – two kills.

Graffiti on the Apartheid Wall. Photo by upyernoz under a CC licence.

Whether or not Shoaibi is able to validate a claim to the International Criminal Court, the fact that a significant number of pregnant women have routinely been denied safe passage to a hospital must raise alarm bells. The international rule of occupation requires Israel to enable the people of occupied Palestine to live as ‘normal’ a life as possible.

‘Is it normal that our women are giving birth at checkpoints?’ asks Farid. ‘If you think it’s normal I have nothing more to say.’

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