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Last Updated: Monday, 19 January, 2004, 16:45 GMT
Lost hope in Mid-East conflict

By Chris Morris
BBC correspondent, Jerusalem

The metal gate is open when we drive through the Israeli checkpoint into the green fields surrounding the Palestinian village of Deir Balut.

But at night it's always closed and the main road into the village is blocked off by lumps of concrete.

'There's a woman in labour' the driver shouted. 'Wait' came the reply.
"Don't fall ill here between six in the evening and eight in the morning", says Raad Mustafa. "If you do, you'll die". And he should know.

Last month his heavily pregnant wife, Lamis, awoke with stomach pains and contractions in the early hours of the morning.

The village doctor said they had to go to hospital quickly and an ambulance was called to take them to Ramallah.

But what about that gate? In the bitter cold, Raad and Lamis approached the checkpoint at the edge of the village. The husband carrying the wife in his arms.

From the grey observation tower came the voice of a soldier - "Stop or I'll shoot, don't move". And so they waited.

Agonising delay

"Five minutes, then 10", said Raad, then half an hour and more - just standing there in the freezing wind.

The ambulance arrived at the other side the checkpoint but it too was ordered to keep its distance.

Israeli gate blocking access to a West Bank village
Most roads are blocked to Palestinians
"There's a woman in labour" the driver shouted. "Wait" came the reply.

More delay - another half-hour.

After a while, a military jeep arrived with a key to the gate. But the ambulance wasn't allowed through.

So the driver crawled under the bars of the gate pushing a stretcher. Lamis's condition wasn't good. He covered her with a blanket and tried to get back to his vehicle.

But the soldiers wanted to check papers first and they wanted to check under the blanket as well - more delay - another half-an-hour.

An eye for an eye

The first little girl, Latifa, was born at the checkpoint before the ambulance had a chance to move more than a few metres.

The soldiers weren't happy, they wanted the vehicle out of the way.

"She was fine to begin with but then she started to turn blue, it was so cold," says Raad of his daughter

He runs his fingers back though his hair and runs the images back through his mind.

Raad wasn't allowed to go with the ambulance so he wasn't there when the second little girl, Moufida, was born a few minutes further down the road.

Israel soldier at Kalandia checkpoint
You can't blame soldiers for being jumpy at checkpoints
By the time they'd reached the hospital, Latifa was already dead and Moufida lived for just a few hours. They now lie together buried in the village graveyard.

Do Israelis know what's happening in their name at places like Deir Balut?

They do if they want to. I first saw this story reported in moving detail in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

That in turn has prompted a military inquiry.

Some Israelis are ashamed, others have become numb to the consequences of occupation. And then there are those who simply don't want to know.

This is an angry nation - angry because there are Israeli victims too, children among them, killed by snipers and suicide bombers from the West Bank.

What would you have done?

Change the perspective in this story and what do you see? Conscript soldiers wary of attack at a checkpoint surrounded by darkness.

What would you have done, really? Would common humanity have won through? Would you have taken the risk? Or would you have played it safe, fearful of a trap?

Who knows? There are no easy answers. I'd like to think the soldiers on that checkpoint, on that cold winter night, didn't want two new-born babies to die.

But die they did, and Israel is damaged and devalued by tragic tales such as this.

Human misery caused by mideast checkpoint
All the talking has led nowhere
And so it goes on - another week in the Middle East. A Palestinian mother in her early 20s blows herself to bits and takes the lives of four young Israelis, after tricking them into believing she was ill.

The British peace activist, Tom Hurndall, dies in hospital, nine months after being shot in the head by an Israeli soldier.

A Jewish settler is killed on the West Bank, leaving five children without a father, including triplets just three months old.

Peace in who's time?

And what of the politicians? Ariel Sharon is doing what he's always done - playing for time as he builds his own solution.

And Yasser Arafat is master of what little he surveys in the blitzed ruin of his headquarters in Ramallah.

The emperor truly has no clothes.

I come here to Jerusalem every few months and every time things seem to be a little more hopeless.

We've been talking for years about bridging gaps, about confidence-building measures and roadmaps.

But perhaps there is no agreement to be had here - not in our time anyway.

Never mind whose fault it is - all the talk, all the well-meaning mediation will come to nought. I think now that there is a real possibility that this will simply drag on and on.

I hope I'm wrong. For if it turns out to be true, many more Palestinians, many more Israelis, will die before their time, laid to rest in this Holy Land, alongside Latifa and Moufida, who never even had a chance to experience the wonder of living.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 January, 2004, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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