Death came to Deir Balut on the cold winter night of December 21st. It came at the Israeli military checkpoint near the village. It took the lives of two baby girls born in the freezing winds that night.
I first heard Lost Hope in Mideast onflict on the BBC World Service reported by Chris Morris. Morris referred to the Haaretz article which was its source, And the Twins Died by Gideon Levy. It is an extraordinary story and an extraordinary piece of journalism. I just finished reading the story online and I wish I possessed the passion for justice and poetic outrage of a Bialik so I could write as eloquent and impassioned a jeremiad as Ba’Ir Ha-Haregah (City of Murder) or Al Ha-Shechita (On the Slaughter), poems which denounce the 1903 Kishniev pogrom. But alas, all I can do is write about Deir Balut and the death of the two twin innocents here in this weblog. And that must suffice…
Let Gideon Levy introduce the story:
Lamis Mustapha, 25, Raad, 36, and Sabaa, 15 months old. They are a young and attractive couple with a daughter, a house in the village and horses in the yard. They married five years ago. Raad studied accounting for four years in Bombay, India, worked as a croupier in the casino in Jericho and is now unemployed, and makes a little money from agriculture, in his family’s olive grove. A tattered black leather jacket and gel in his hair. The couple was eagerly awaiting the birth of the twins that Lamis was carrying. She was in her seventh month, and they knew that she was about to give birth.
Lamis woke up at 1 AM on the night of the 21st with contractions and told Raad to prepare to take her to hospital. Unfortunately, getting a pregnant woman to a hospital on the West Bank is terribly complicated and sometimes nigh unto impossible. And so it was this night.
The Mustaphas could not travel to Nablus, the nearest hospital, because the multiple military checkpoints guaranteed they would never arrive. So they decided to head for the Ramallah hospital. But first, Lamis needed a medical referral from her physician for admittance. So Raad headed in a neighbor’s borrowed car for the doctor in the next village where he received his referral. The doctor called an ambulance service to arrange meet them at the village’s military checkpoint.
Raad returned home, picked up his wife, mother and sister and they started off to meet the ambulance. Here the story turns ugly. But to do it justice we must quote Levy’s source:
Next to the concrete blocks of the village checkpoint he stopped the car. It was shortly after 2 A.M. “I have no words to describe the weather outside. Freezing cold and wind,” recalls Raad. From the checkpoint he phoned the ambulance, which reported that it was on the way. Lamis’ condition deteriorated, her pains intensified, and Raad’s sister suggested that until the ambulance arrived they should wait in one of the houses near the checkpoint, in order to protect Lamis from the cold.
The soldiers turned the spotlight on the car from their watchtower. The couple managed to walk only a few steps, Lamis supported by Raad, until the voice of the soldier was heard from the tower: “Stop or I’ll shoot. Stop or I’ll shoot.” They froze in place. Raad says that he tried to explain that Lamis was about to give birth, but they only shouted, “Stand, stand.”
And so they stood outside, in the freezing cold, the young woman in labor and her husband. The minutes seemed like hours. Raad says that they stood between 15 minutes and half an hour. When he saw that Lamis’ suffering was becoming unbearable, he decided to take her back to the car, no matter what. “You only die once. If he shoots, he shoots.” He placed the bag of clothes in his hand on the road, and carried his wife to the car. Lamis was trembling and crying.
Afterward the ambulance arrived. Raad shouted to the medical team to quickly bring a stretcher, but the soldiers in the tower also prevented the ambulance driver from leaving his vehicle.
The ambulance driver, Rawahi al Haj, sounded very upset and angry this week. To a researcher for Physicians for Human Rights he said: “At 1:45 A.M. I received a call to pick up a woman about to give birth, at the Deir Balut checkpoint. After about 20 minutes I arrived at the checkpoint. I entered the checkpoint area and stopped. I began to honk to the soldiers. I honked a number of times, and not a single soldier came out. That lasted for five to eight minutes. Then I decided to take a chance, and to continue in the direction of the checkpoint. I got out of the ambulance and continued in the direction of the iron gate at the checkpoint. I hoped I would at least be able to reach the woman in the car, on the other side of the checkpoint, on foot. I checked and saw that there was barbed wire beneath the locked iron gate.
“The soldier in the tower started to shout: `Keep away from the gate or I’ll shoot you.’ I told him in English and in Arabic that there was a woman in labor in the car and that I had to get there in order to help her. I returned to the ambulance, took out the stretcher, pushed it under the iron gate, and together with the paramedic crawled under the gate and continued to walk toward the woman. We put the woman, who was trembling and wailing, on the stretcher, and continued in the direction of the checkpoint gate in order to try to transfer her somehow.”
Meanwhile, a military jeep arrived at the checkpoint with the officer who is apparently the only one with the key to the locked iron gate. The ambulance driver: “The soldier in the jeep started to ask us for papers while we were pushing the woman on the stretcher under the iron gate. I tried not to give them any papers, and to run quickly toward the ambulance, but the soldiers insisted on the papers, and so we were delayed for another few minutes. The woman’s situation continued to deteriorate. Finally I put her into the ambulance. I had just begun to drive when, after 10 meters, I was forced to stop. The woman gave birth. We were still in the checkpoint area.
“While I was trying to help her, a soldier came over to me and asked that we leave the checkpoint immediately, because standing there is prohibited. I shouted to him that the woman was giving birth. Two soldiers tried to peek into the ambulance to see the birth. I asked them to leave immediately.”
After the first girl was born, they sped toward Ramallah. The driver wanted to get there before the second baby was born, so that at least her birth would take place in a hospital. Remember that Lamis was in her seventh month, and the babies were premature. But after driving 10 kilometers, the second birth began. They stopped and Al Haj again served as midwife. In the ambulance it was very, very cold. Lamis later told her husband that both babies were born blue, but they cried and they were alive.
The first infant died in the ambulance just before they entered the hospital. On the way, her crying began to fade, until it was silenced completely. When they brought her in, the doctor could only determine her death. The time was almost 5 A.M. About four hours after the beginning of the contractions and about three hours after they embarked on their difficult journey. According to Raad’s estimate, they were delayed at the checkpoint for about an hour and a half. The ambulance driver estimates that from the moment he arrived at the checkpoint until they left, an hour passed.
Whatever the case, the second infant was immediately brought to the ward for premature babies, and connected to a respirator and placed in an incubator. She died the next afternoon. On the death certificate, it says that both girls died from RDS, respiratory distress syndrome. They weighed about 1,500 grams [slightly over 3 lbs.] each.
If this does not prove the absolute evil and inhumanity of the Israeli occupation then nothing ever will. I have friends who disagree with my views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They say that incidents like this one are the exception; that Israelis soliders are by and large humane and caring; that they try, within prudent limits, to show compassion to Palestinians; that the soliders in this case are an aberration and that they will be prosecuted if found guilty of negligence. That may assuage their conscience. But it does nothing for mine.
I can even empathize with a bunch of young Israeli recruits sitting up through the night at a lonely, remote outpost and faced with an oncoming vehicle that might contain terrorists…or a woman in labor. They had a right to be frightened. Even if they were guilty of negligence (as I would be inclined to believe), these poor soldiers are not the heart of the problem.
The truth is that this incident is not unique. It is emblematic of the injustice and oppression that is at the heart of the occupation–at the heart of all occupations by one people of another. This evil will not be ended by merely disciplining a few soliders and their commander. It will only be ended when the political leaders on both sides get off their asses and do something for both of their respective peoples.
Until then more twins, more innocent Palestinians and Israelis will die. And their deaths will all be for naught. That is the greatest tragedy of all.
We must let the victims have the final word here:
What did you feel? Lamis: “What did I feel? I should have given birth at home, and even died, rather than going to the checkpoint and begging the soldiers for hours to let us pass. I hope the Israelis will never taste what I tasted, and will not experience what I went through. And that they will explain to their sons who serve in the territories that they should be a little bit humane. That they should be human beings.”
They buried the two twins in the village cemetery, side by side, in one grave. Next to them are buried Raad’s two sisters, who died at an early age. Latifa died at the age of 22 and Moufida at the age of 25. The couple had been planning to name the two girls after them.
Lamis’ are words of deep compassion, especially when you consider that Israeli soldiers let her two babies die and she could do nothing about it.
I have a 3 year-old son and I find this story especially maddening and ineffably tragic. Were I Lamis Mustapha, I could only hope that I’d be as compassionate as she manages to be here. More likely, I would be enraged and try to channel that rage into action against those who helped kill my children. I say this with great sorrow because I am a Jew who supports Israel (but who adamantly opposes the occupation).