Twilight Zone: Birth and death at the checkpoint

Rula was in the last stages of labor. Daoud says the soldiers at the checkpoint wouldn’t let them through, so his wife hid behind a concrete block and gave birth on the ground. A few minutes later, the baby girl died.

They wanted to call her Mira. All their children have names that begin with M, from Mohammed to Meida, their youngest daughter. They borrowed baby clothes from Rula’s sister - their financial situation after three years of unemployment made buying new clothes out of the question - and they packed a bag to be ready for the birth. Now they are beside themselves with grief. Rula doesn’t say a word and Daoud can’t keep the words from pouring out.

Kafr Salem, behind the Beit Furik checkpoint east of Nablus, has been one of the most besieged locales in the West Bank over the past three years. It is rare that passage is granted to cars - even ambulances. A single dirt path leads to the village, and traffic there is usually prohibited, too. About 5,000 people live there, blockaded and beset by unemployment. An appeal to the High Court on the matter did not change the situation; the court approved the continuation of the blockade.

The Ashtiya family’s house sits on the outskirts of the village. “House” may be too genteel a word; perhaps “hovel” would be more apt. The walls are not plastered, flies swarm, there is an awful stench. There is nothing in the house apart from a pile of mattresses and a small, worn-out plastic table of the kind meant for toddlers, which has been brought into the living room to serve as a table for the guests.

Daoud Mahmoud Ashtiya, a 44-year-old laborer and father of seven, is missing several teeth. He is barefoot and has a slight wisp of a beard. Born and raised in the village, he is almost totally unemployed, finding work just one or two days a month. His wife Rula, 30, in a blue velvet dress and white headscarf, has very sad eyes. She was born in the nearby Askar refugee camp; her family is originally from Jaffa.

Two weeks ago, on Thursday, Rula woke Daoud at about five in the morning and told him that her labor pains had started. “I feel like I’m going to give birth,” she said, experienced from her previous births. She was two days away from completing the eighth month of her pregnancy. They took the bag they had prepared ahead of time and set out for the Rafidiya hospital in Nablus, a trip that in normal times would take no more than 15 minutes. Daoud phoned the Red Crescent in Nablus and asked them to send an ambulance right away. He was told that the ambulance could not enter the village, because of the IDF, but that it would meet them at the Beit Furik checkpoint, a five-minute trip from their home, and take them from there.

As morning dawned, Rula and Daoud walked down the path leading from their home to the village’s main road, the baby bag in hand. The road was deserted, but a taxi driver who was idling there took them to the checkpoint. Daoud says there was no one waiting. This is a regular checkpoint: a yellow iron gate - always closed, but not locked, several concrete blocks, camouflage screens, a shooting post, a post for the soldiers, barbed wire, sand and dirt. Rula and Daoud got out of the taxi, which quickly turned back toward the village, and stood there alone before the soldiers.

“Let us through,” Daoud said. Here is his account of what happened: “I said to the soldiers, ‘My wife is about to give birth. I’m waiting here for an ambulance that is supposed to come from Nablus. Let me through.’ At first, they didn’t answer. Then one soldier said: ‘Sit here on the ground, you and your wife.’ We sat down next to the barbed wire fence, on the ground. There were seven or eight soldiers and two jeeps and they had food and tea or coffee. They stood and talked and they all ignored us, except for one soldier.

“Her contractions got stronger. I went and asked again. I told them that my wife had to give birth, that soon she would give birth at the checkpoint. The soldier said: ‘Sit quietly.’ I showed him the baby bag. I held onto my wife, she leaned on me. I pleaded with him a number of times and asked [to be allowed to pass]. He told me: ‘Sit quietly. Stay here and don’t move.’ But the contractions got stronger and stronger.”

Daoud uses the overflowing ashtray and the cups of tea on the table to help describe the scene at the checkpoint: Here is where the soldiers stood and here is where Rula was. Rula sits silently as Daoud tells the story, listening intently, her brow furrowed. Daoud continues: “Next to the barbed wire there was a rock that was 40 centimeters high [one of the concrete blocks]. My wife started to crawl toward the rock and she lay down on it. And I’m still talking with the soldiers. Only one of them paid any attention, the rest didn’t even look. She tried to hide behind the rock. She didn’t feel comfortable having them see her in her condition. She started to yell and yell. The soldiers said: ‘Pull her in our direction, don’t let her get too far away.’ And she was yelling more and more. It didn’t move him. Suddenly, she shouted: ‘I gave birth, Daoud! I gave birth!’ I started repeating what she said so the soldiers would hear. In Hebrew and Arabic. They heard.”

About 15 meters separated the soldier from the woman, and Daoud was in the middle, between the two of them. “He had his weapon out, threatening me: ‘Bring her here.’ And I’m trying to convince him that she is giving birth. She was afraid of the soldier with the rifle. “I gave birth, I gave birth,’ she screamed. I said to her: ‘Now they’ll shoot me.’ She stopped screaming. She had already given birth, behind the rock. She was quiet for a few minutes and then she started to scream again: ‘The girl died, the girl died!

“The soldier came over and saw her from up close. He looked and didn’t say anything. I said to him: ‘Now can I bring a car from the other side?’ The ambulance hadn’t arrived, but there were a lot of cars and any car would have taken her to the hospital. He mocked me: ‘Perhaps you’d like me to bring you a car?’ I got away from him and started to run toward the cars, on the other side of the checkpoint. In all my fear for my wife and pain over the baby, I was hoping that maybe they could save the baby if we got her to the hospital.

“I ran toward the cars, I went about 300 meters. I didn’t even look back. And then I brought a car 20 meters away from the yellow gate of the checkpoint. I felt uncomfortable for them to see her in this state, even the taxi driver. I burst out crying and she cried, too. The umbilical cord was on the ground, between the baby and the mother. The girl was in her arms, all covered with blood. Even Rula’s scarf was covered with blood. Everything was all bloody. And the umbilical cord was full of sand and dirt.

“I asked her: ‘What is this? What should we do?’ and she said: ‘The girl is dead. She came out, moved a little and died.’ Then I saw the blood coming from her nose and mouth. The girl looked dead. Her hands were just lying there. We had to get the umbilical cord off. I brought two rocks, I put one under the cord and then I cut it. I covered the blood with sand and we hurried into the car that took us to Rafidiya.

“We got there and they brought a stretcher right away and took her into the intensive care room. They told us that nothing could be done, that the girl was dead. We stayed there until the afternoon. My emotional state wasn’t good and neither was Rula’s. We didn’t want to stay in the hospital, I couldn’t take it. I asked them to give us the baby, so we could bury her. I thought that would make it easier for us. They released Rula and gave us a burial permit. I went down to the morgue and took the baby out of the refrigerator. They wrapped her in a white sheet and we brought her to the mosque. We prayed and we buried her next to her grandfather.

“The human mind cannot make sense of something like this. It’s something that transcends nationality or religion. We were put in a situation of the most terrible humiliation imaginable. Nothing could be worse. The whole time I was pleading with the soldier - in Hebrew, in Arabic. Every word that my wife yelled, I told him. So he would know.”

The IDF spokesman: “IDF soldiers are instructed to allow passage at checkpoints in humanitarian cases, such as this one, at any time and in any situation. In the thorough investigation that was carried out following the complaint, the commanders and soldiers who were at the checkpoint at the time of the incident were questioned, and the woman was summoned to the Liaison and Coordination headquarters to give her testimony. The investigation found that as soon as the vehicle arrived, the soldiers directed an ambulance, which arrived at the checkpoint and picked up the woman within approximately 15 minutes. Contrary to the claims that have been made, the woman did not give birth at the checkpoint, but passed through the checkpoint before [giving birth]. Also, no one prohibited the vehicle from passing through to the hospital before the ambulance arrived. It was the decision of the passengers to wait for the ambulance to arrive. In any event, any case in which it is found that soldiers deviated from the directives concerning humanitarian cases will be treated with the utmost severity.”

The Red Crescent ambulance driver, whom the IDF says transported the woman, denies this outright. The driver, Khaled Khalili, told field investigator Ibrahim Habib of Physicians for Human Rights that the family called an ambulance at 6:15 A.M. and that they asked for more time to get organized. At 6:40, they called again and said that they were on their way to the checkpoint. Khalili says that on his way to the checkpoint, near the Balata refugee camp, at a place called Ein Yaakov, he was suddenly stopped by soldiers at another checkpoint and ordered to turn around. He had to find an alternate route, which took another 10 minutes. He arrived at the Beit Furik checkpoint around 7 A.M., but the woman wasn’t there anymore. He says the soldiers told him that a regular car had picked her up.

Midwife Abir Mahlouf, who works at Rafidiya hospital, says that at around 7 in the morning, the intensive care department called her to rush to the delivery room. There she saw a woman holding a baby wrapped in a blood-soaked cloth. Mahlouf says that she took the baby and saw that she was dead. She was going to remove the umbilical cord and then she saw that it was already gone. She asked the woman how the cord was removed and she told her that her husband had cut the cord with a rock after she gave birth on the ground.

The doctor, Dr. Bassam Alawna of Rafidiya hospital, said that the baby died from a serious blunt force injury received when she shot out of the birth canal.

Daoud Ashtiya: “The thing that shocked me the most was when she was crawling toward the rock and he told me to pull her. That’s all I can tell you. Do you want me to sign something? At the Civil Administration, they asked me to sign. Even before I started telling him what happened, the investigator there said I was lying.”

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