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20th May 2001
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Horror of checkpoint birth on Israel's birthday

By Cameron W. Barr

UM SALMUNA, WEST BANK - Nawal Issa Fawaghrah's water broke around 8 o'clock in the morning, so her in-laws piled her into a taxi and told the driver to get them all to Bethlehem as quickly as he could. Her contractions were sharp and fast.

Three minutes down the road, the bright yellow van was forced to draw to a halt in front of an Israeli checkpoint. There seemed little chance of prevailing on the soldiers to let the family through quickly. The soldiers were motioning people not to get out of their cars.

Ms. Fawaghrah's father-in-law, Khader, felt he couldn't even approach them. "I was scared," he says. "If I started shouting or screaming I thought they might start shooting."

He stayed in the van, which was four or five cars back from the checkpoint. The family waited for their turn.

One by one, the soldiers slowly ordered the cars in front to turn around. The level of anxiety in the taxi was rising.

As the minutes passed, Mr. Fawaghrah's wife, Khadra, could only sit in the back of the van and shudder in fear. Nawal said she could feel the baby coming.

Her sister-in-law, Khitam, who, like Nawal, is married to one of the Fawaghrahs' sons, took control of the situation. She helped Nawal take off her pajama bottoms, but things were so far along she started to think in terms of saving the mother more than the baby. For a second, she says, "I almost went crazy."

Then her own experience of childbirth clicked in. "Without even really thinking about it," Khitam says, "I pushed on her belly and pulled the baby out." With the baby in Khitam's arms, the family turned around and went home.

On the way, they stopped at the home of an older woman in their village who acts as a midwife. She used a blade to cut the umbilical cord.

So occurred, on May 15, the birth of Abdullah Fawaghrah, about 6 lbs., who has a squeaky cry and a full head of dark hair. His birthday is the day Palestinians mark as "the catastrophe," the anniversary of their displacement during the war and upheaval that marked the founding of Israel 53 years ago.

Because commemorations of the anniversary have often produced violent confrontations this year four Palestinians and one Israeli were killed; more than 120 Palestinians and a handful of Israelis were injured the family feared tight security on the roads.

Indeed, the checkpoint they encountered, just outside the large Jewish settlement of Efrat, is only sporadically enforced. Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, says no additional checkpoints were set up May 15, but that soldiers may have been more thorough in checking vehicles because of a high security alert.

Had they been aware of Nawal's condition, Mr. Dallal says, the soldiers would certainly have let the family pass. "There is always passage in humanitarian cases," he says.

The experiences of many Palestinians some of whom have lost their lives as a result of Israeli soldiers delaying or denying passage at checkpoints belie Dallal's assertion. But Israel has rescinded a strict "closure" policy as of April 29, following widespread criticism of the humanitarian impact of banning people from travelling among their towns and villages.

The birth of Abdullah Fawaghrah is partly a story about his grandfather's inability to overcome the intimidation that many Palestinians feel at the hands of Israeli soldiers. But it is also a story about the evolving, ebb-and-flow nature of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

The Israelis may have ended their closure of much of the West Bank, but the combination of checkpoints and fear can produce the same result: a mother unable to reach a hospital in time to give birth. (United Nations workers yesterday took Abdullah and his mother to a hospital in Bethlehem, where the baby is under observation.)

In some ways, a similar dynamic is at work in Gaza, where Israeli forces yesterday again entered territory that is under the sovereign control of the Palestinian Authority according to Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements.

The Israelis have made a dozen or so similar incursions in recent weeks, but always pulled out, in part because of international condemnation. Officials have denied any intention to "re-occupy" lands already transferred to the Palestinians. But this time, citing the need to defend their own people from attacks mounted inside Palestinian territory, officials say their presence there would continue indefinitely. - The Christian Science Monitor

BRUSSELS BELGIUM : French President Jacques Chirac speaks as (L) Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (R) listens on during the third United Nations Conference on Least Developed Countries, 14 May 2001, in Brussels. AFP
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