Israel eases closure too late for villagers in the West Bank

Palestinians mourn a woman and baby victimized by policy

January 12, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT DAJAN, West Bank - Israel eased up on the closure of the occupied territories yesterday, but the change came a few days too late for the Abu Jeish and al-Baisi families of this hillside village near Nablus.

Fatma Abu Jeish, 20, died Jan. 7 from a bullet in the back while being driven home to Beit Dajan from her job at a Nablus hospital. Her brother-in-law, who was driving, says the shot came after he turned to avoid an encounter with Israeli soldiers standing in the road that leads in the direction of the village, a road also used by Israeli settlers.

A Defense Ministry spokesman acknowledges that a soldier at the scene might have fired in error.

That night, Insaf al-Baisi, 30, lost her newborn after being unable to get to a hospital in Nablus in time to give birth. The baby might have died wherever it was delivered, but the Red Crescent says its ambulance was not permitted to pass an Israeli army checkpoint between Nablus and the village. Instead, the ambulance had to wait for the woman to be brought to the checkpoint. Bleeding and in hysterics, Insaf al-Baisi gave birth en route to the checkpoint.

Both incidents were perhaps inevitable byproducts of a closure policy that has been enforced with varying degrees of severity since shortly after the violent Palestinian uprising broke out Sept. 29.

Dubbed the "siege" by Palestinians, the closure policy arose from the army's determination to protect Jewish settlers in the West Bank from death and injury on the roads, and to protect residents of Israel from acts of terror.

Settlers' vehicles have been repeatedly stoned and shot at, sometimes causing deaths, since the uprising began, and terrorists have managed to slip into Israel to plant bombs in Jerusalem, Netanya, Hadera and Tel Aviv.

`Collective punishment'

But the closure imposes what the Israeli human rights group Btselem calls "collective punishment" and a "strangulation of the occupied territories," damaging health, the Palestinian economy, education and family life.

It has sharply restricted movement of Palestinians between towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barred all but a small fraction from jobs in Israel, and intermittently closed borders and the Palestinian airport in Gaza.

Transport of industrial raw materials, building supplies and agricultural produce has been sharply curtailed, dealing a severe blow to the Palestinian economy.

The policy also pits an increasingly resentful Palestinian population against young soldiers at numerous checkpoints and roadblocks throughout the West Bank, requiring the soldiers to make quick decisions on whom to allow through and whom to block, often while fearing attack themselves.

Despite a declared army policy of not impeding the movement of the sick and wounded to hospitals, human rights groups say they have documented a number of cases where such movement has been blocked - sometimes with fatal results.

In a report published this week, Btselem described the experience of the family of 10-year-old Ala Abd al Aziz Ahmed, who died of a ruptured appendix after her father was turned back three times at military checkpoints on the way to a hospital.

Lately, the closure policy has come under strong criticism from within the Israeli government, with Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami telling Israel Radio: "The violence from the [territories] is today the result of a collapse of systems inside the PA [Palestinian Authority]. This is a very deep crisis, which is due, among other reasons - while definitely not the major reason - to the harsh economic stranglehold that we are imposing on them. In my opinion, this stranglehold must be lifted."

Yesterday, as a result of high-level talks among Israelis, Palestinians and the Central Intelligence Agency aimed at curbing the violence, Israel began a selective lifting of the closure.

Borders to Jordan and Egypt were reopened, commercial traffic resumed into and out of Gaza, top Palestinian officials were allowed to move freely in the territories and into Israel, and the blockade of several major towns - Jenin, Qalqilya and the western part of Nablus - was lifted.

But villages such as Beit Dajan, which lie close to roads leading to major Jewish settlements, are unlikely to see much change.

A deadly ride home

Nasser Abu Jeish, 25, Fatma's brother-in-law, says driving to work at the Bank of Jordan used to take him 10 minutes. Now it takes one or two hours, running a gantlet of checkpoints, with detours via dirt roads to bypass roadblocks. Those who have kept their jobs outside the village often leave home very early, before soldiers appear on the roads.

After work on Sunday afternoon, he says, he left to drive home with his wife and her sister, Fatma, both of whom worked at the same hospital in Nablus. En route, their car got stuck in a traffic jam at a temporary army roadblock.

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