International aid agencies call for free and unrestricted movement

September 28, 2003 will mark three years of the “Al Aqsa” Intifada. In that time several political initiatives have failed to stop the cycle of violence and destruction. Even today, closure and curfew continue to prevent millions of Palestinians from moving freely within the West Bank and Gaza strip. The latest political initiative, the “Road Map to Peace”, has not improved the situation despite the fact that it calls on Israel to “take all necessary steps to help normalize Palestinian life.” There are still more than 450 barriers in the West Bank that severely limit Palestinian access to health, education and other basic services.

Ambulances still face unacceptable delays at these barriers. Education has been disrupted and students and teachers waste hours crossing checkpoints. The situation for the 1.2 million Gazans is desperate as well. External closure has sealed Gaza off; the average Gazan has very little hope of ever leaving Gaza.

Internal closure also affects local residents. In places like the Mawasi enclave where 5000 Palestinians live, access restrictions have led to shortages of medication and patients are being denied access at checkpoints. Teachers and students have also been unable to reach schools. Armed checkpoints, gates, earth mounds, ditches and concrete roadblocks daily obstruct and humiliate West Bank Palestinians in their normal lives. Rather than building the foundations of peace, this situation is increasing the frustration of Palestinians.

In addition, the building of the Wall, is confiscating Palestinian land and barring Palestinians from basic services. Because of its routing, some 120,000 Palestinians in the West Bank will be trapped on the Israeli side of the Wall, and some 200,000 Jerusalem Arab residents will also be cut off from any access to the rest of the West Bank once the barrier is completed.

The restrictions of movement and access seen in places in the West Bank and Gaza contravene key international laws and conventions, in particular articles 53, 55, 147 and 59 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Article 11 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. The undersigned organizations find this situation unacceptable and call on the Government of Israel to respect applicable International Law.

We also call on the international community to uphold the laws and regulations agreed upon, and to increase their efforts to ensure the full application of international law by signatory members.

Japan International Volunteer Centre (JVC) Lutheran World Federation Medical Aid For Palestinians – UK Medcins Du Monde – France Medcins Du Monde – Greece Medcins Sans Frontiers - Greece Mennonite Central Committee Movimiento Por La Paz, El Desarme Y La Libertad (MPDL) Norwegian People’s Aid Paz Y Tercer Mundo (PTM) Premier Urgence (PU) Save the Children - Sweden Solidaridad Internacional Solidarite Socialiste (FCD) Swedish Organization for Individual Relief (SOIR) Terres Des Hommes UNA International Services World Vision Jerusalem - West Bank - Gaza

Israeli checkpoints: inconvenient, dangerous, and in some cases fatal With the recent round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the Government of Israel has stated that they will ease restrictions for humanitarian aid organizations carrying out work in the West Bank and Gaza. Day-to-day experiences with checkpoints in the occupied West Bank paint a very different picture.

On Monday, June 2nd, 2003, five humanitarian aid employees from one organization spent a total of 18 hours waiting at checkpoints. In all cases the cars were marked with the logos of the humanitarian agency involved. Here are their stories: One late afternoon, Mohammad, a 35-year-old field manager, was returning from project sites in the West Bank to his home in Al-Ram, a village between Jerusalem and Ramallah. He was stopped at the Jab’a checkpoint, located one kilometre from his home, and was forced to wait in his car from 5:30pm until midnight.

Between 11 and 12pm, soldiers allowed people to cross the checkpoint on foot. Mohammad joined them, leaving his car in a nearby village and walking the 30 minutes home. Nabeel, a 32 year old field manager, spends an average of six hours each day travelling from his home in Bethlehem to his office in Ein Areek – normally a 45-minute commute by car. Because of three permanent checkpoints, Nabeel now has to travel first by car, then by taxi, and finally, for the last three kilometres, on foot.

On Monday, a fourth mobile checkpoint was added, delaying him another hour. Roger and Beatrice, international support staff, were on their way to visit a project partner in Bethlehem when they were stopped without explanation for an hour and a half at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. “These checkpoints and security measures manufacture frustration,” said Roger,” It eats into a lot of our time, which is just wasted, and we can’t always carry out our humanitarian aid work in a timely manner.”

With a four-wheel-drive vehicle sporting his organization’s logo, Robert, a 27-year-old international staff member, was able to circumvent the checkpoint at Bir Zeit (outside of Ramallah) on his journey from the field back to the home office. However, he was held up at the Jab’a checkpoint from 1 to 3:30 p.m. When the Israeli army’s District Liaison Officer was finally reached for comment, he said that there was a “high alert” and that there was a “security sweep” in progress. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case every day in the Occupied Territories.

For regular Palestinian citizens, checkpoints are more than just an inconvenience. Um Mohammad, a Palestinian mother of four, lives near the town of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza. Her home is sandwiched between a settlement and its surrounding fence. The only way to cross the fence is through a gate which is only open between 6 to 8 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. “Sometimes the gate doesn’t open at all if there is military activity, or if the soldiers say there is a security problem,” she told us. Um Mohammad must cross through the gate to buy food, to take her 2 1/2 –year-old asthmatic daughter to the clinic, or to walk her older children to school.

On one occasion, when her daughter was suffering from an asthma attack, the soldiers forbade her and her daughter to pass the gate. Her daughter survived the attack, but Um Mohammad worries that the next time could be fatal.

On August 28, 2003, Samar, a 32-year-old woman from a village near Nablus, had a baby at a checkpoint approximately 3 kilometres from her home. Samar reported that she was denied access at the Beit Furik checkpoint by Israeli soldiers and that her husband Qais helped her give birth. The couple’s daughter died moments after being born.

Her husband explained: “In the early morning Samar and I went to the checkpoint while she was in labour. I asked the soldiers to let us pass to the hospital in Nablus. After waiting for about 75 minutes, Samar’s situation was getting worse but none of my attempts helped us pass the checkpoint.

“Finally I was forced to place my wife behind a rock 20 meters away from the checkpoint to help her give birth. I didn’t know what to do! Later, I had no solution but to cut the umbilical cord using two stones. Unfortunately our newborn baby passed away after a few minutes.”

After the soldiers found out that the woman had given birth and that the infant had died, they let the couple pass. Qais carried their baby’s dead body to the Rafidia hospital in Nablus where the physicians confirmed the newborn’s death. Samar is still in shock. Since the incident she has been unable to move her hands properly due to the trauma of holding her dead baby.