Sunday, February 8, 2009

Running the Gauntlet

Last week I was asked to escort a medical team from The Augusta Victoria Hospital on their daily visit to one of the three clinics they serve in small villages in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The need for these clinics surfaced six years ago as a result of the increasing movement restrictions placed on Palestinians, making health care inaccessible for these people. Augusta Victoria is the only specialty hospital serving Palestinians in all of the West Bank and Gaza. It is located on the Mt of Olives in East Jerusalem. Every day for the past six years this team, in a specially marked van and with all the proper permits travels through three checkpoints to reach the clinics. For the most part they have not has any difficulty but beginning about two weeks ago they have had tremendous problems at the checkpoints. I went along as an international observer and to see if my presence, and US passport, would help them get through.

We had no trouble getting through the checkpoints on the way into the West Bank from Jerusalem. The clinic we visited was funded by the German government and it was very nice. It had clean and professional exam room, a small lab and a pharmacy. On the day I was there they had a special day for the local diabetes patients. On the team there is a doctor, nurses, a medical assistant and a dietitian. About 25 patients were seen and each was saw the doctor and a nurse for a preliminary exam. They received training in how to manage their disease with food choices from the dietitian and had the opportunity to ask questions both in a group setting and privately.

It was a very good day until we tried to get back to the hospital in Jerusalem late in the afternoon. We went back the same way we came, through the checkpoint that this team passes through six days a week. We pulled up to the booth and were pulled over which almost always happens to Palestinians. I knew we were in trouble when we got a cute, 18 year old girl soldier, carrying an M16 that was as big as she was. I had heard that the girls are the toughest and the cuter they are the worse they are. They act as tough as possible to show off for the boys. It is a way they flirt. When the girls get push back the boys jump in to defend them. That is exactly what happened to us. She immediately told us we could not pass because some of the team did not have the proper permits and that we had to go to a different checkpoint over an hour away. When our driver protested the boys, with their M16’s converged on us. Our driver, Haitham, who is well used to this daily dance, and speak fluent Hebrew, argued vehemently that the permits were in order and that we had the approval to pass. He worked his way up the chain of command at the checkpoint including talking to the senior army officer, and a senior military police officer, who personally checked our permits on the way in that same morning. Nobody was interested. They all defended the decision of the girl.

The hospital has special access to top Israeli officials within the authority that issues permits. After a 20 minute stand off, the team called the hospital administration, who in turn called the top person within the Israeli government for humanitarian affairs. After another 40 minutes of waiting for this process to work. The Israeli official called the checkpoint and told them to let us pass. Even this did not work. Haitham translated for me. They told the official we are the army and you are only the civil administration. We are the kings of the checkpoint and we do not care about your permits. We will decide who passes and who does not. We will not let them pass. While we waited, dozens of Israeli cars coming from the various settlements in that part of the West Bank sailed through without even stopping.

In the end we were forced to turn around. We dropped of the team at a remote crossing where they started walking toward Ramallah with the hope of getting ride. Haitham and I had to go back to the checkpoint because we had dropped off another nursing team at one of the other clinics on the other side of the checkpoint. We had to pick them up and the only way to get to them was through the checkpoint. Haitham has a Jerusalem ID and my US passport allows me to go anywhere so an hour and a half after we approached the checkpoint we were able to pass and get back to the hospital so they could get ready to do it all over again the next day.

60 Minutes - Is Peace Out of Reach?