Laura Sznajder talks to an Israeli soldier

SHEIKH SA’AD, West Bank (WOMENSENEWS)–At the entrance of this small village near Jerusalem, Palestinian grandmother Khadijeh Musa Alaan was told at an Israeli checkpoint that she could not leave to visit her daughter in a nearby village.

Two Israeli volunteers, Laura Sznajder and Tamar Bilu, politely tried to persuade an Israeli army official to let the 59-year-old woman pass on that hot August afternoon.

He refused. Alaan, a Palestinian resident of the West Bank, did not have a temporary permit from the district commander’s office, he said.

She was also turned back at the checkpoint in July while trying to visit a doctor for treatment of her diabetes, she says.

Alaan is just one of many women whose health and safety have been placed in jeopardy as a result of Israel’s nearly 40-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and increasingly restrictive security measures.

“Health is one of the most basic needs of a human being,” says Sznajder, who as part of the Israeli women’s organization Machsom Watch monitors military checkpoints in the West Bank for potential human rights abuses and violations. (Machsom means “checkpoint” in Hebrew.) “The minute that you hurt mobility, you hurt health. They go together.”

Palestinian women have for decades faced a multitude of health risks shared by the overall population, including restricted access for patients and medical professionals due to the occupation, the deteriorating economic situation, traditional cultural beliefs, and lack of adequate services and facilities. Since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in September 2000, those hardships have been aggravated.

Between Sept. 28, 2000, and Aug. 20, 2006, for instance, 10 percent of women in the West Bank and Gaza who needed to give birth in medical centers or hospitals were delayed by Israeli forces from two to four hours, according to the Palestinian Health Information Center, an agency of the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

Sixty-eight women gave birth at checkpoints during this period, considered a factor in the deaths of 34 newborns and four mothers.

‘Constantly Anxious’ Pregnancies

“Palestinian women live in frustration of not being assured that they can reach a maternity facility on time,” said Rita Giacaman, professor of public health at the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “That means they are constantly anxious during their pregnancy.”

An already weak economy has been worsened by sanctions by the United States, Israel and the European Union that followed the election of the militant Hamas government earlier this year. In the Gaza Strip, recent Israeli military actions and a tight siege on goods have resulted in shortages of food, water and medicine that increase the prospects of malnutrition and disease for the more than 1.4 million Palestinians who live there.

About 65 percent of the population in the Palestinian territories lives under the poverty line and about 30 percent of the population is unemployed, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, 18 civilians in Gaza were killed in a shelling that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said was caused by “technical failure.” In response, Hamas threatened to resume suicide bombings for the first time since striking a partial cease-fire with Israel in 2005.

Military checkpoints and the new dividing wall known as the “Security Fence,” located partly within the West Bank and partly along the border between the West Bank and Israel proper, are meant to deter such attacks, but pose travel problems for Palestinians.

“Militarily, it works,” said Capt. Noa Meir, spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, who spoke with Women’s eNews before the most recent shelling in Gaza. “The number of suicide attacks has gone down. To a large part it’s due to the security fence and checkpoints. And the fact that terrorists have been stopped at checkpoints shows that they try to get through them.”

Humanitarian Groups Step In

On a humanitarian level, however, several Palestinian and Israeli organizations consider the defensive barriers a humanitarian problem to be alleviated.

In 2004 the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, the largest Palestinian nongovernmental health organization with at least 350 employees that works throughout the West Bank and Gaza, established the Mythaloon Maternity Home near Jenin in the Northern West Bank. The facility is intended to reduce the number of women who deliver babies at checkpoints or on roads and to provide services to expectant mothers, such as birthing counseling, home visits and health instruction for the mother and her family.

Dr. Khadijeh Jarrar

The relief society is trying to raise enough funds to open two more maternity homes in the West Bank areas of Ramallah and Hebron. About 60 to 70 deliveries take place at the Mythaloon clinic each month and the need for similar facilities, particularly for communities separated from health services by the security barrier, is great, says Dr. Khadijeh Jarrar, women’s health program director.

The Palestinian Medical Relief Society also offers affordable clinical services for women in 26 primary health care clinics throughout the West Bank and Gaza, including breast exams, pap smears and family planning services.

Since 1984, the organization has trained close to 300 women–mainly in villages–to serve as community health workers. The women go through a two-year program of nursing and public health.

Another organization is the Tel Aviv-based Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. Founded by Israeli and Palestinian doctors, it advocates on behalf of patients and medical personnel in the West Bank and Gaza who are refused passage into Israel on security grounds.

The organization succeeds in attaining permits for Palestinians in about 98 percent of the cases it advocates for, said Maskit Bendel, director of the Occupied Territories Project for the group in Tel Aviv, which submits about 1,000 appeals for patients denied entry each year.

Palestinians “don’t know they can appeal. Nobody tells them,” Bendel said.

Waging a Court Campaign

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel is also waging a campaign in the Israel Supreme Court to allow Palestinian ambulances from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem, something that has been forbidden since 2002.

Today, Palestinians in the West Bank who need emergency care in Jerusalem must take a Palestinian ambulance to a checkpoint, then be transferred by stretcher to an Israeli ambulance and pay for the expense themselves, Bendel said.

Machsom Watch, which has approximately 400 members and opposes both the Israeli occupation and West Bank military checkpoints, has Israeli women monitoring checkpoints, documenting any violations and intervening to prevent violations, whether it is unwarranted detentions, the prevention of passage of citizens or violence. In extreme incidents, the organization files complaints to the Army.

Many Palestinians haven’t been able to leave their towns or villages for years and permits are often given arbitrarily, says Adi Dagan, spokesperson for Machsom Watch.

The organization’s goal is to inform the Israeli public and the world “and tell them the story of what is going on there so eventually one day, this will stop,” Dagan said. “We don’t believe in a nice occupation or an enlightened occupation.”

Jarrar of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society agreed, saying that her women’s program is merely trying to help Palestinian women survive a crisis.

“We are trying our best to help our women bear their life, not to live a quality life,” said Jarrar from her office in Ramallah. “It is impossible. There is no quality in occupation.”

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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