Death by Siege

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Secretary of State Powell has called for the lifting of the siege of towns and cities in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet few Americans know how cruel that siege has become.

What do we think of an army that lets a little girl die by denying her father the right to bring her to a hospital? The girl, Ala Ahmed, died of a burst appendix when she and her father were unable to leave the village of El Sawiyeh to get to Nablus. The death was reported by Israeli columnist Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz on January 9th in his expose of the effects of the ongoing siege of Palestinian towns and cities.

The story tears your heart out. The girl got sick at night. The Magen David Israeli ambulance service refused to come. Ala’s father was told he had to get a Palestinian taxi. None could be gotten. The father took the girl from checkpoint to checkpoint. The soldiers refused to let them pass so they had to go home. They tried again the next morning and were again refused. A few hours later the girl died. She was 10 years old.

There were no photographers in El Sawiyeh so the world outside of Israel/Palestine is ignorant of Ala’s death. Likewise the death of Asia Abdel-Karim Nassar. She had a heart attack and was kept waiting at a roadblock for 45 minutes. Her frantic relatives called the Red Cross, but by the time they got there her pulse had stopped. Israeli authorities deny the story and claim Nassar died during childbirth. However, Palestinian medical personnel say she had given birth a month earlier!

These deaths can’t be excused away as a result of a “cross-fires” or “collateral damage”. They are the cold-blooded results of the collective punishment of the Palestinian population. Ala’s death was only the first death. At the end of February two women who had heart attacks died on the roadway after being turned back at Israeli checkpoints.

B’Tselem, an Israeli organization which monitors human rights in the territories, says “Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are under siege: they do not receive shipments of basic supplies, and they cannot leave their communities, even to travel to neighboring areas for medical care, or to go to work or school.” (Civilians Under Siege January 2001)

It’s getting worse. Ala’s father begged soldiers unsuccessfully for permission to pass, but now in many places there is no one to beg. Some parts of roads to Palestinians towns have been bulldozed. Concrete blocks and mounds of earth have been placed on others. Soldiers shoot at those who try to remove the barriers from hundreds of yards away. Ambulances can’t pass the barriers. B’Tselem reports, “The residents must evacuate the sick or wounded individual by themselves to the checkpoint where the ambulance is waiting, thus imperiling the person’s life.”

Recently the Israeli army has started to surround towns with trenches. Jericho was the first about a week ago. Then on March 7 Birzeit, a small city that is home to Birzeit University, was cut off from the rest of the world. In the middle of the night the IDF dug three meter deep trenches across the last road leading out of town. They also cut through water pipes and phone lines. Soldiers in armored cars are preventing people from leaving the town on foot. No one has any idea why Birzeit was chosen for this total isolation.

In Hebron there’s another twist. In one section of the city 30,000 Palestinians have been confined to their homes since the new intifada began. This is for the safety and convenience of 400 Jewish settlers who live in that area. This curfew goes on 24-7 with a few hour breaks every once in a while. Settlers shoot Palestinians and damage their property all over the territories, yet settlers have never been put under curfew!

Some Palestinians get permits to move around during the curfew, but even this has its perils. On January 1st a photographer captured video of Jadallah al-Jabari after a soldier shot off his leg. Al-Jabari had an official pass to move about, but evidently he didn’t respond to the soldiers questions in the manner the soldier wanted. This was in Hebron.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense defends the siege. In answer to B’Tselem it says the measures it takes are for security reasons and not for collective punishment. It claims it does allow free movement of Palestinians with medical emergencies. But why is it a security measure when hundreds of towns and villages are isolated in response to a violent act tens of miles away? How is there free movement when there are barriers that can only be moved by construction equipment? Why is B’Tselem getting so many reports that the transport of desperately ill people depends on the whim of soldiers and settlers? What happens to a population that is denied medical care except during emergencies?

Some Israeli Jews have been involved in protests. On February 4 five hundred women staged a demonstration outside of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. The group called itself Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. They dressed in black and carried signs saying, “Closure” in Hebrew, Arabic and English. They planned to cross the street slowly, but some spontaneously sat down in the street.

One participant, Gila Svirsky reported , “The sight was so dramatic — some women were sitting across the road, others were standing behind them with arms linked, the closure signs forming a solid black message clear across the road. The police drove up, shrieking up with sirens. They didn’t waste time asking for cooperation — they just plowed in and grabbed, dragging women to the sides, and wading in for more.” Women walked backed into the street. The police started arresting them. 12 women and 4 men were arrested.

Other Jews have formed car caravans to bring supplies to besieged villages. On February 3, a caravan of 21 cars brought 10 tons of rice, flour, salt, sugar and canned food as well as clothes and toys to villages in the Salfit area of the West Bank. It was well received but it was just a drop in the bucket. The World Bank has estimated money loss to the territories since October to be $630 million.

Forget about the Palestinians for a moment. Has the siege made Israelis more secure? Or has the growing poverty, humiliations, and restrictions led to more bitterness and more violence? Now remember the Palestinians and demand that Congress take measures to make our Israeli clients abide by human rights standards.

(The writer is a Jewish-American who has chaired the Middle East Crisis Committee of New Haven since 1982.)

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