The Observer – 7 April 2002
Halema Hussein Atrash, a mother of five, went into labour last Tuesday afternoon at her home in al-Walaja village, near Bethlehem. Her husband, Khaled, called the ambulance from the local Beit Jala hospital but the crew said they could not reach them.
Al-Walaja on the West Bank is still under Israeli rather than Palestinian Authority control, so Khaled called the Israeli Magen David ambulance service. They told the couple to meet them at the army checkpoint at the entrance to their village.
‘Halema was in a lot of pain,’ Khaled said. ‘I drove to the checkpoint. The soldiers would not let us through and insisted on searching the car and looking at our ID papers. I kept repeating that my wife needed to get to hospital urgently.
‘They must have seen she was in labour, but kept on with the questions, even what business we had being here. It was like they were living in another world. We were held for an hour before they agreed to let us cross to the ambulance on the other side. It took us to the Bikur Holim Hospital in West Jerusalem [the Jewish part of the city]. We were held up again by the police at the gate and they insisted on searching the ambulance for weapons.
‘They let Halema in, but I was detained while they made more checks. Eventually she was brought out. We don’t have Israeli medical insurance and she had been told she needed to pay 7,000 shekels [£1,000] before they could deliver the baby. They wouldn’t provide an ambulance to transfer her, so we had to call a taxi to take us to an Arab hospital in east Jerusalem. The doctors there told us that the baby, a little boy, was already dead in my wife’s womb.’
‘I was used as a human shield’
Mohamed Iscafi is director of a Palestinian medical charity in Ramallah. He and 10 volunteers were in his clinic in the city centre last Sunday when a battle started between Palestinian gunmen in the building next door and the Israeli army in the street. The fighting ended when tanks shelled the three-storey block. Then the army moved to Dr Iscafi’s building, which contains several offices and a top floor of four family apartments.
‘We had been hiding, too afraid to leave. The army commander called us out by loudspeaker and I went to meet him. He said he believed that some of the Palestinian security forces had escaped and were hiding inside. He ordered me to tell everyone they had 10 minutes to get out. We emptied the building with about two minutes to spare. Then the commander said: “You’re coming with us. We’re going to search office by office, room by room”.
‘I refused to co-operate, saying I was a doctor and they had no right to hold me, but he wasn’t interested in my opinions. They took me to the first locked door on the ground floor and used explosives to open it. As the smoke cleared, I was told to go inside. They said they would come in behind me. I realised I was being used as a human shield. They thought there were gunmen inside and that they would give themselves away by shooting me.
‘There were 20 offices and I had to go in first each time, although a sniffer dog was sent in before me. Once they had searched all the offices and found them empty, they said we were going to the neighbouring building. Again they sent me into each room first. I knew there had been gunmen in there, so I was very frightened. On the top floor, two offices were still smouldering and giving off toxic fumes, but the soldiers insisted I went in. They wanted me to see if there were any bodies. Afterwards the commander thanked me, saying “Without your help, we could not have entered the building.” There were about 20 soldiers in the group and a few seemed really uncomfortable watching me being treated like that. But most of them didn’t seem to care.’