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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  1. #1 van 13 Jul 11

    Surely this constitutes cruel and degrading treatment under the UN convention against torture. Such an important story, thanks for sharing.

  2. #2 primpo 15 Jul 11

    This is just horrendous. I am not on anyone's side. The isreali's, the palestinions.. they are all human and in God's eyes. However the people that are doing this, if aren't even the least bit compassionate for what is going on are going to pay... There is a higher power. God is there and he is watching and though things may be getting worse all over the world, it is going to come to and end and when it does who ever is wrong is going to be severely punished. How come everyone has God in their minds but how can they treat people so wrong? God knows hearts and I don't care about religion, and I don't think God does either. He cares about people, that is why he created them. How come it's this bad all over the world?

  3. #3 Petter 18 Jul 11

    For many years i try to be neutral to the conflict. But it is not possible anymore, as one see how cruel the israel nation has become.
    I dont recognice israel as a country anymore, for me its only a terror-nation that i think the rest of the world should deal with, as they deal with any other terrorist group.

    They will not be satisfied until the last Palestinian is death or out of the country, and then they will start to look at their nabors and start the terror there, as they have don before..

    I support any nation or person who have desided to end this terror-nation that call them self israel.


  4. #4 frankyboy01 19 Jul 11

    As a jewish person I find the Zionist state of Israel as both a criminal and pariah state and it is below the pale how even pregnant woman can be a target of the fascist miliatary in that country. You would think that after suffering the Holocaust that they would be compassionate towards others,but Israelis have always thought that they were better than others and everyone of the ruling government should go back and study how ordinary jews were exterminated and then look again at the way they are treating the Palestinian people and if they really cannot change their ways they should go on trial for brutality of the worst kind.
    They are far worse than el quida or any other so called terrorists..Why don't the people of Israel wake up and kick out this hopeless excuse for a government..after all wasn't it the Israelites who called for our Messiah's death! WAKE UP BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE!!!LEST YOU BE THROWN INTO HELL WITH SATAN!!!!

  5. #5 Adamten 20 Jul 11

    I find it a sad situation that Palestinians women must suffer
    fearing they are unable to make it to the hospital with as you
    suggest no good reason. If you know this can be the case why do
    you not make other arrangements that would not offend the set laws of Israel; instead of blaming them once again for their inhumane practices adding to your propaganda campaign to make Israel look as evil as possible.
    Are there any midwifes available? Some desire them over hospitalization.

  6. #6 internationalist 21 Jul 11

    I knew this was happening but I'm glad to see The Lancet's doing something about it. The previous commenter asked why different arrangements aren't made: how? The people are locked into tiny enclaves and it isn't possible to have a trained midwife in each of these areas. Added to that, many women require hospitals because of complications; this is why women and babies used to die during childbirth in the 19th century. We are now in the 21st century. This is not propaganda, this is fact. Israel is to blame. They should stop stealing other people's land. Isn't 88% of it enough?

  7. #7 mzrob 14 Aug 11

    is there no hospital on their territory? why keep using israeli resources when they prove to be inefficient? they should use the money they get in international aid to build a hospital, schools and the like and stop using israel as a skapegoat for all their problems. if they want a country they should show they are capable of sustaining one. put this into perspective - canada has no hospitals so it sends all its patients to america for free treatment (sine that is what the arabs are receiving when they use israeli hospitals), how long would the americans let such insanity continue?

  8. #8 Monique Buckner 28 Apr 12

    Poster #7 mzrob says that Palestinians do not pay to use Israeli hospitals- this is not true. Palestinians pay privately or else the Palestinian Authority pays the bill. I find the rest of the post by this person tinged with racism. Palestinians do have their own schools, clinics and hospitals, by the way, but often they lack the latest technology or resources because of a few things- lack of funds, the siege on Gaza which has prevented staff training, new equipment and spare parts being transported across the border, or else Israel simply targets clinics,hospitals and schools for missile strikes, as was seen in the Cast Lead massacre. It is not that Israeli hospitals are inefficient, it is the checkpoints that prevent normal life for ordinary Palestinian people. These checkpoints are moved around at regular intervals and have the purpose of causing disruption, danger and humiliation. And they are built on Palestinian land, of course. No people can live under brutal military occupation indefinitely. How can a state be created on 12% of what remains of historic Palestine, and while such apartheid and colonial racism curtails their freedom and basic rights? Palestinians have approached the United Nations to get recognition and the reaction from the USA and Israel on Palestinian independence was quite telling. It suits Israel fine to have the Palestinian nation fragmented, with most living in the diaspora and no allowed to return, and to have a dependent, captive population with no political or economic power to challenge the occupation. The poster mzrob calls Palestinians 'arabs' (not by their specific identity, as though 'arabs' are one homogeneous group without differentiation) and feels that Palestinians should continue to exist on international aid instead of living with freedom, independence and dignity. This is the sort of zionist attitude I encounter often from those who defend Israeli apartheid and colonialism.

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About the author

Libby Powell a New Internationalist contributor

Libby Powell won the Guardian International Development Journalism prize in 2010. She has worked for several years in Palestine and the refugee camps of Lebanon, on humanitarian aid and health. Her work documents the human stories behind military occupation and displacement through film, photography and print.

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