Israel's grip squeezes Arab villages

Israeli officials eased restrictions this week, but Palestinians can't yet get crucial supplies.

Around 10 p.m. on Feb. 8, Ibrahim Abdel Hamid was unbearably frustrated. His wife Samah was delivering their first son, but he was in a breech position, and she was bleeding heavily.

For three hours this serious-minded construction worker had failed to help his wife. A little after 7 p.m., Ibrahim says, Israeli soldiers refused to let the family pass a checkpoint on the road that connects their village of Jania with Ramallah, the major city of the Palestinian West Bank. A local doctor said he could do nothing, and the Israelis refused to let an ambulance enter the area.

They went home, and Samah's situation grew "critical," says Ibrahim's cousin Zakaria. So the family got back in Zakaria's 4-door pickup and went to another Israeli checkpoint, one on a roundabout and bumpy road to Ramallah. Samah, in bloody pajamas, was lying on the rear seat.

These soldiers relented. "We'll let you go," one said after seeing Samah. "But we are going to cover our eyes and say we never saw you."

The Abdel Hamids reached a Ramallah hospital at about 11:00, but the baby was dead. They buried the little body in a patch of earth behind their house, under a lemon tree.

Their toddling daughter Mahzuza is a reminder of different times. When she was born nearly two years ago, the trip to Ramallah took 15 minutes.

Abbas Hassan Yousef, the head of the village council in Jania, which has 1,000 residents, says two other villagers have died in the past six months because of Israel's policy of "closure."

Israeli officials say the policy is designed only to protect Israel and Israeli targets from attack by militant Palestinians. That means preventing most Palestinians from attending their jobs in Israel and an aggressive monitoring presence in the territories in an effort to find and arrest those engaged in plotting attacks.

"Everything is open," says Maj. Yarden Vatikay, spokesman for the coordinator of the Israeli government's activities in the Palestinian territories. He insists that Israeli checkpoints have always been open to the passage of food, humanitarian supplies, and people. Accounts to the contrary are attempts to "frame" the Israel Defense Forces, he adds, but he acknowledges that there "are incidents where soldiers are not acting as they should."

Palestinians in the West Bank say closure goes way beyond the maintenance of law and order. Because their movements between and among villages and towns are so harshly restricted in the name of security, Palestinians say they can't work, attend school, treat medical problems, eat properly, or participate in many of the myriad interactions of daily life.

At a West Bank demonstration this week, a hand-lettered sign read: "must visit my mother - open the roads."

In recent days, faced with growing international scrutiny of the policy, Israeli officials have lifted some curfews, withdrawn a few tanks from public view, and partially eased the passage of people and goods in some parts of the West Bank.

"We think that the economic pressure, the restrictions on movement in particular, contribute to a deterioration ... in the [Palestinian] territories," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday. "They place hardships on families, undermine relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and they don't quiet the security situation in the region."

But Palestinians in the West Bank dismissed the recent changes. "This is a cosmetic change that aims at deceiving the world that the closure has been lifted," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told reporters Tuesday.

That afternoon, at a checkpoint in the hills outside Ramallah, a handful of Israeli soldiers, backed up by an armored personnel carrier, faced a long line of cars, trucks, vans, and pedestrians waiting to pass. After close inspections of identity cards and vehicle trunks, many were allowed through.

But one truck the Israelis turned back contained 20 110-lb.-bags of chicken feed bound for the poultry farm of Mahmoud Ismail Khamis, who lives in a nearby village.

After months of closure, Mr. Khamis has already begun to see some of his 1,000 chickens die from starvation; without the feed he worries he may lose all of them.

"I didn't feed my children to feed my chickens, and they are not letting me feed the chickens," he says, nodding toward the soldiers. "I asked them many times - calmly, politely - to let the truck pass, but they refused."

Israelis and Palestinians disagree bitterly over whether closure amounts to a strategy of collectively punishing all Palestinians for the deeds of a few. Some Palestinians argue that closure is state-sponsored terrorism - the use of violence against civilians for political aims.

This rhetoric appalls Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman. Standing up from his desk, he slides a videotape into a VCR. The screen displays the mutilated body of an Israeli teenager who was killed in January near Ramallah after striking up an Internet relationship with a Palestinian woman.

Colonel Rafowicz says the violence of recent months is a "very planned and very organized political strategy from the Palestinian leadership" that includes terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens. He adds that Israel must do whatever it can to prevent terrorism.

The spokesman slightly dodges a question on allowing people to pass in emergency situations. "You are looking at the result of what we have been dragged to," he says. "We are not at war with Palestinian people; we are in a struggle against terrorism."

Even so, the Palestinian people say they have a lot to complain about. Mustafa Barghouti, head of the private Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute in Ramallah, says the vaccination system in the territories has stopped. A variety of sources indicate that unemployment in the territories affects well over half the working population; Ibrahim Abdel Hamid says he hasn't worked on a construction job since September.

In Jania, shopkeeper Mahmoud Dawoud Sheikha opens his near-empty store-room to show he has run out of flour and has perhaps a five-day supply of sugar.

He has to pay a premium to have any foodstuffs at all delivered, and even then the drivers refuse to bring heavy loads - such as flour or fuel bottles. Most people in the village are cooking on wood stoves instead of using gas.

The school is open, but residents say only eight of 30 elementary school teachers can make it to class, since they live in other villages.

Samah Abdel Hamid says that after losing her child she wanted out - to go back to Jordan where she was raised, but has decided to stick it out. Her husband is adamant about their future. "This is my homeland. I won't leave here even if they cut my head off," he says, drawing a hand across his neck.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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