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Sunday, August 8, 1999

The unbearable lightness of the decision to impose closure

By Gideon Levy

This item didn't even rate a footnote in the papers: Since last Tuesday night, 150,000 residents of Hebron have been deprived of their freedom of movement.The 35,000 Hebronites who live in the Israeli-controlled part of the city are under full curfew - no one may leave his house - and the 115,000 others who reside in the area under the control of the Palestinian Authority are under closure: No one leaves the city and no one enters. Why? Because there is a standard procedure that whenever a terrorist attack is perpetrated, that's what you do. The pretext - security, of course - is without foundation: Everyone knows that the perpetrators have long since found shelter in the PA's territory. Everyone knows that curfews and closures won't help, and that only intelligence work and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation will perhaps bring about their arrest. But this way the settlers are partially satisfied and the crime has its punishment, collective and infuriating (though not to the settlers) as it may be.

Never has a similar punishment been inflicted on the settlers, who have also produced their share of assailants. Imagine that every time a settler took a shot at somebody, Kiryat Arba would be placed under a week-long curfew. No, it's too far-fetched even to imagine. But when it comes to Palestinians, curfew and closure are a matter of routine. They have long since become accustomed to life under curfew and closure, to the fact that, at any given moment, Israel can turn their lives upside down. No work, no school, no socializing - just curfew. But it's more than a matter of inconvenience; some people have paid with their lives for the capriciousness of closure and curfew.

A year ago this month, during the last closure of Hebron, also imposed in the wake of an attack by a lone terrorist, Naama al Addam and Kusei Haddad died. They were infants - Naama was less than a day old, while Kusei had been alive for 100 days. Soldiers refused to allow their mothers to go through a closure roadblock. Fadwa al Addam was about to give birth and the soldiers refused to let her proceed to the hospital; Shirin Haddad tried to rush her sick son to a hospital and was detained.

Following press reports about the two deaths - they were hardly the first two cases in which infants died because of Israeli roadblocks - the IDF spokesman explained that "the soldiers did not identify signs of a medical emergency" in Fadwa al Addam. She was groaning in the back seat of her brother's car and her elderly mother tried with tears and shouts to explain the situation to the soldiers, but they "did not identify signs of a medical emergency." And how are soldiers even less insensitive than these supposed to identify a medical emergency? And if they are incapable of that, isn't the solution to allow the woman who appears to be in the throes of labor to pass?

The IDF promised at the time to thoroughly investigate the two incidents. A month passed, a year passed. Two groups, B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and Physicians for Human Rights did not relent. Both organizations thought that someone must be responsible for the death of the two infants, that someone should face trial, that new orders should be issued regarding procedures at roadblocks in order to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

A few days ago, a year after the infants died, a reply was received from the chief military prosecutor. Concerning the death of Kusei Haddad, Colonel Einat Ron wrote, "Despite the efforts and the debriefings that were conducted, the relevant soldiers were not located." Concerning the death of Naama al Addam, she stated, "The Military Police investigation found that the complainant arrived at the roadblock together with her relatives in a car and did not have medical documents about her condition."

Is Colonel Ron serious? What medical documents does a woman in labor from a remote village need to carry with her on her way to give birth? Two months earlier, the IDF's judge advocate general, Brigadier General Uri Shoham, wrote: "Even if the decision not to permit the complainant to pass by the roadblock turned out in retrospect to be mistaken, the material evidence in the file does not indicate that the soldiers deliberately or indifferently ignored the complainants' claims." Were they really not indifferent? The prosecutor and the judge advocate general promised, nevertheless, that lessons would be learned.

The IDF made the same promise following the death of the twins of the Za'id family from Bethlehem, whose mother was delayed at a roadblock in March 1996, and after the death of the newborn infant of the Hadour family from Hebron four days later at another roadblock, and after the death of the newborn infant of Faiza Abu Daouk two weeks later and again after the two cases in Hebron a year ago. No one was brought before a disciplinary board - to the IDF, everything was normal. In all these cases, apart from one, no one even thought of apologizing to the families or compensating them. No one thought that if there were doubts about whether the pregnant woman writhing in pain was faking and was really a dangerous suspect, it might be possible to rush her to hospital in an IDF vehicle, as Abu Daouk pleaded with the soldiers to do, in fact.

But even though the infant's head was emerging from the mother before their eyes, they refused even to rush her alone to the hospital, which was two kilometers from the roadblock. Last week the Physicians for Human Rights group asked the new defense minister to order the IDF to allow people in need of medical help to be permitted to go through roadblocks during the present closure. There is something very sick about a country that needs to issue such orders to its soldiers. Even then there is no guarantee that those orders will be heeded.

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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