Pregnant Palestinian Women and Israeli Checkpoints. A Deadly Encounter

 

{mosimage}Several United Nations agencies operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories recently submitted a report to the UN General Assembly at the convening of its annual summit in New York.

The report was researched and compiled by the UNFPA, UNRWA, and WHO, in conjunction with the Palestinian Ministry of Health (MOH) and presented to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The report highlighted the denial of basic human rights and obstetric health care to 61 Palestinian women, who were forced against their will to give birth at one Israel’s many illegal checkpoints scattered randomly throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

Even more frightening and inhumane, the report noted that 36 infants died as a direct effect of Israeli obstruction at checkpoints.

Regardless of whether these actions constitute official Israeli policy towards the occupied Palestinians, they represent a grave human rights violation and breach of internationally binding and accepted laws of war.

Israel’s premise for the construction of over 600 military checkpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza, and for the construction of the Annexation and Segregation Wall, is to fight what it calls Palestinian ‘terrorists,’ as a preventive security measure to protect its citizens.

However, the reality of Israel’s occupation is much different. As a recent UN report attests, Israel’s occupation is directed towards all portions of Palestinian society: young, old, poor, rich, male, female, teacher, student, doctor, and lawyer, regardless of their activities.

The report, which was submitted to the UN Secretary-General by John Dugard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur to the Commission on Human Rights stressed the detrimental effects of the Israeli checkpoints and the Wall on Palestinian women’s health.

It also noted that ‘Palestinian women are routinely harassed, intimidated and abused by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and gates…Women’s health has suffered as a result of their inability to reach health centers. Pregnant women are vulnerable to long waits at checkpoints.

A number of unsafe deliveries in which both mothers and infants have died have occurred at checkpoints. From the beginning of the second Intifada to march 2004, 55 Palestinian women have given at checkpoints and 33 newborns were stillborn at checkpoints, owing to delays or denial of permission to reach medical facilities.’

One could begin by trying to justify Palestinian resistance activities (which Israel refers to as Palestinian terrorism no matter what the nature of the actual operation), in this recent uprising, many of which are deemed legal by the Geneva Conventions in accordance with the articles pertaining to the rights and duties of an occupied population.

Though the Geneva Conventions explicitly and implicitly state these resistance activities whether violent or non-violent must be restricted towards combatants, and not the civilian population.

The precondition or prerequisite for both occupier and occupied is to avoid the targeting of their respective civilian populations.

It should be noted that the bigger burden of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the latter, namely the occupier, for the simple fact that all forms of colonial and foreign domination are categorically illegal. However, that is not the case this article wishes to make. What is at stake is the quest for common humanity and basic ethical principles in times of armed conflict.

According to the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Israel is a signatory and is hence legally obliged to abide, pregnant Palestinian women are to be considered as civilian ‘non combatants’ , and nothing else.

 If Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and people is being conducted under the pretext of a ‘War on Terror,’ it should then logically be subject to the laws of war. In a recent article written by Willian G. O’Neil, titled ‘War on Terror’ Subject to International Law, the author says, ‘If the war on terrorism truly is a ‘war,’ then the laws of armed conflict apply, both to states combating terror and to terrorists themselves.

These laws are commonly known as the Geneva Convention and Protocols and can never be suspended; they are designed precisely to apply in situations of great danger and violence. Certain parts of international human rights law, on the other hand, may be suspended in times of public emergency.

The freedoms of speech, association and assembly for example may be restricted under carefully defined conditions. Other rights, like the right to life and the prohibition of torture, can never be suspended, even in all-out war.’

Thus, the forcible obstruction of Palestinian pregnant women at checkpoints, which has caused death, psychological trauma and long-term health complications, represents a breach of the most basic human right-the right to life, which cannot be derogated, even in a time of heightened tension between the Israeli army and Palestinian resistance fighters.

One of these cases was documented in the article, ‘At Checkpoints, Babies Are Born, or Die,’ by Laila Baker. In 2002, a Palestinian woman named Houria Miri was prevented for several hours from accessing an ambulance by Israeli soldiers for no apparent reason. The woman eventually collapsed from severe hemorrhage, and following an emergency cesarean section at a nearby hospital, her baby died while she remained in critical medical condition for days. The psychological scars of this experience linger in her mind till today.

The phenomenon of Palestinian women giving birth at checkpoints illustrates the extent to which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has diverged from (1) the days of ‘once upon a peace process;’ (2) any universal moral or ethical standards; and (3) adherence to international human rights law and particularly the Laws of War.

Furthermore, in many ways this policy embodies the relentless and all-out war waged by Israel, to which all Palestinians without exception are prone.

Most importantly, to find out that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has spun so far out of control, only makes the case for a comprehensive and just peace settlement peace based on international law and legitimacy, and most notably UN Security Resolutions 194, 242, 338, 1397 and General Assembly resolution 181, which represents the back bone or perquisites laid out by the international community to recognize Israel as an independent and sovereign state.

What should be done? Politically, the most immediate measure that should be taken by the international community, is to force Israel through the unprecedented use of a Chapter 7 UNSC resolution, to comply with all previously binding UNSC resolutions, or face the threat of international sanctions.

 Secondly, a great deal of money and a number of soft loans have been pledged by the international community for the aid and development of the Palestinian Territories, most notably the pledge by the G8 at the recent Glenn Eagles summit, to give Palestinian National Authority 3 Billion Dollars in direct aid.

 Even though a portion of this money will be used to create new and develop existing health facilities, this is sadly far from enough. Economic aid in this case will only fight and prevent some of the symptoms of the illegal Israeli occupation.

Lastly, Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights activists should focus the world’s attention on the dire issues concerning Palestinian women’s health, and in particular, pre and post natal care. In order to put a complete end to such inhumane practices, Laila Baker concludes her report by rightfully noting, ‘Should we allow women or babies to die at checkpoints simply because a comprehensive solution to the conflict is needed? Perhaps, as with many humanitarian concerns, activists and professionals must question the need for balance between the ideal and the reality.

Furthermore, working towards a comprehensive solution and meeting immediate needs should not be viewed as mutually exclusive. Rather the two should go hand in hand.’

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