Monday, June 22, 2009
This is the occupation
Across the West Bank, Israeli soldiers at checkpoints stop Palestinian drivers to show them their permits. If these permits are said to be out of date or wrong, many such drivers then have to wait for the soldiers to make phone calls. Some are eventually let through. Others are told to go back. The reason is not always clear. It can often be expressed as a new rule that nobody had thought to tell them about. As many Palestinians will tell you: this is the occupation.
All this happens a lot less often to Israeli drivers – except at checkpoints like the one at Anabta on the Nablus road into Tulkarem – both designated (following the Oslo agreements) as Area A (that is, under the control of the Palestinian Authority in terms of both civil and security matters). After the second Palestinian uprising broke out in late 2000, Israel made it illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Area A, so Israeli drivers are not supposed to come here. If they do so, they are committing an offence.
When we arrived this last Saturday afternoon(as always, at rush hour time), a huge queue of vehicles were backing up. The heat was oppressive.
The cause of the jam became clear. The soldiers had stopped two white vans and were questioning their passengers. As we got closer, we saw that the passengers - like us - were wearing a uniform. It turned out to be that of the Israeli 'Physicians for Human Rights', returning from a day's voluntary work running a clinic in a nearby Palestinian village.
We joined them and learned more. They had driven there on a different road, without a checkpoint. Why were they being stopped? they wondered.
(‘It may be forbidden to enter “Area A”, as one says, ‘but why is it forbidden to leave?’ ‘We’ve had a very successful day’, says another, ‘but this is a very unsuccessful ending. Who knows? We might be indicted for illegal entry!’)
In twenty years of doing this work, the coordinator told us, this had never happened before.
The group of some 25 professionals included an endochrinologist, a gynaecologist, an orthopaedic surgeon, a paediatric dermatologist and a nurse. I got talking to Yosefa Sartiel. She is a retired GP (‘family physician’), living near Tel Aviv.
‘When I retired seven years ago, I decided to become active. At first I thought of Machsom Watch*. Then my partner said, ‘You have medical skills, why not this?’ I was nervous at first. But I’ve been coming ever since. I usually go in one day a month.
'I felt I could not stand by. Here we are living side by side, but the difference is so huge between what is obtainable to us and what is obtainable to the Palestinians. Our occupation prevents them from getting to a doctor. It is difficult for them to get a cat scan here. It’s difficult to get medication.’
Cases she had seen that day included a little boy aged 3 and a half, brought in by his father in need of an operation on his leg, and a child with a kidney problem. Both needed to see specialists. For both, she was able to give attention and a referral letter on official paper, marked urgent.
Hassan Matani, a general surgeon, told me he had seen 200 people that day and made some small surgical operations (cysts, warts, ingrown toenails). ‘I do this as a general commitment to people living under occupation. I have an affinity with them as I am a Palestinian, living in Israel. Their suffering is my suffering.’
While the soldiers wait for replies to their phone calls at the checkpoint booths, the doctors and nurses were kept by the roadside waiting to travel home for over an hour and a half. They were irritated, but they were also amused. Some of them are less than twenty minutes from home. One remembers the tray of Palestinian pastries they had been given by some patients at the clinic and starts passing them round. Another jokes, ‘This Is the occupation.’ And this time it’s affecting Israelis, too – even those on human rights work.
Eventually, an Israeli police jeep arrives. The policeman, looking somewhat embarrassed, says if they provide ID numbers he should be able to let them through. Then he gets another phone call. Turns out he can let them through, anyway.
* more on Machsom Watch in: Numbers add up, 13 May on this blog.
Physicians for Human Rights – Israel: www.phr.il
My team colleague Maria gave me a link to a profile of one of the volunteers in this group, that had been published only three weeks ago in an in rview by Mat Heywood. Pnina Feiler, an 86-year-old nurse and volunteer told him:
“Today, the real importance of our work with the clinics is not only the humanitarian or medical help we offer – in truth there is very little we can do in comparison to the demand. The significance is the fact that we come as citizens of Israel, showing our solidarity with [the Palestinian's] suffering, and against the occupation.”
4 June 2009, Guardian Weekly, http://www.guardianweekly.co.uk/?page=editorial&id=1101&catID=3