Rough road to my Bethlehem manger

Perhaps because I am planning to give birth in Bethlehem, our baby seems determined to wait for Christmas. As of Dec. 19, I was already seven days overdue.

Traveling the road to Bethlehem from our home in Jerusalem, the smart new layout escapes my notice. At the entrance to the town, the Israeli Defense Force is fixing a section of the road it ruined in October, when the tanks went in to reoccupy Bethlehem - "in time for Christmas visitors from abroad," explained a reservist helpfully.

Nor do I focus on the expanding Jewish settlements beyond the ancient olive groves, cranes swinging in their hurry to finish and therefore preclude them from being handed over to any Palestinian state that might be established - as recently called for by President Bush. I barely notice the massive bulldozers slicing through Palestinian farmland to build yet another settler road.

I am not focused on the marks of military closure and occupation that are all around me, bar one - the checkpoint.

The question is whether the soldiers manning the checkpoint will allow us through to Bethlehem and the hospital where I am to give birth. I have the advantages of diplomatic license plates, and a husband with lists of Israeli military contacts to call. Above all, I have the advantage of not being a Palestinian.

On Oct. 19, Rihab Nufal went into labor and tried to reach "my" hospital. Forced by Israelis to wait at the checkpoint, she and her unborn child died. Three days later Rawida El-Rashid went into labor at 7-1/2 months. She and her family tried twice to convince the soldiers that she had to reach the hospital, but were scorned both times, and had to resort to a 90-minute detour across rocky fields, by which time the child was born, and beyond saving.

Checkpoints are the outward sign and keeper of the closures that have kept 3 million Palestinians in a virtual prison, the occupied territories, for 15 months. Behind the closures, settlements grow and new roads are pushed through, carving the land into an ever less potentially viable state for the Palestinians.

Fathers are beaten or humiliated in front of their children by snarling or jeering soldiers. Farmland, buildings, and orchards are bulldozed. Whole communities, as in Hebron, are kept under curfew. Children cannot get to school, universities are effectively shut down, tourism and the economy are dinosaurs. According to the latest UN figures, unemployment has reached a staggering 50 percent in the Gaza Strip, largely as a result of the closure policy.

Israel says these restrictions are imposed to stop the atrocious terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinian militants that are an ever-present fear for many Israelis. But the checkpoints are of dubious utility. An internal Israeli Defense Force report leaked last month concluded that the checkpoints fail in their security role (preventing terrorists from penetrating into Israel), but do great damage to the Palestinian population they incarcerate.

When commentators describe Gaza and the West Bank as the largest open-air prisons in the world, they don't do so lightly. One American woman I met at the checkpoint said that although she can leave her home in Bethlehem, her husband cannot. He is Palestinian, and because he is Palestinian and also her husband, she is not allowed out of Israel at the moment.

The realities of closures are hidden from much of the outside world, including many Israelis, despite valiant efforts on the part of Israeli journalists like Amira Hass and Gideon Levy to describe them. They report the closures' cruelty, and the bitterness and radicalization that they produce - a "field laboratory" for growing more radicals, militants, and people desperate enough to blow themselves and innocent Israeli civilians into oblivion.

Every time I go for a checkup, there is an incident showing what it is to be subjected to the whims of an occupying power's forces. Getting to a hospital to give birth should not be a matter of convincing a soldier that your pregnant belly is genuine. At 39 weeks pregnant, I had to walk through the checkpoint (the line for cars was too slow). Ahead, a young soldier ordered another pregnant woman on her way to a hospital to go back. When asked why, he replied that he didn't know if she was really pregnant - "everyone is fat round here."

I have been prevented from getting through a number of times. Once, a group of Americans was visiting Rachel's Tomb, which prompted the Israeli Defense Force to close the road to everyone else, including the Palestinian doctor in the car in front of me who was trying to get to work.

And for two weeks, I was unable to reach the hospital after the Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Ze'evi, was assassinated and Bethlehem was one of six Palestinian towns reoccupied in retaliation. Tanks patrolled the streets, razing anything in their path, armored bulldozers flattened houses and stores arbitrarily, 20 Bethlehemites were killed, and snipers picked off individuals at random. I did not get to see my doctor. The hospital itself was shelled by tanks just 50 yards away; the newborns in their incubators and the traumatized orphans next door had to be evacuated.

Bethlehem prepares for its second consecutive Christmas without visitors, who cannot or dare not come. The famous baby born in Bethlehem had trouble with accommodation, and getting there on the back of a donkey can't have been much fun for his mother. My experience will be more technologically advanced, and certainly less uncomfortable. Our problem is that we may not make it to Bethlehem at all.

Emma Williams is a physician.

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