For most families, the birth of a child is a happy and joyful event. But in Palestine, the situation is different. From the first days of pregnancy, Palestinian women face complications getting access to routine healthcare that most people in developed countries take for granted. Most notably, many Palestinian women have difficulties reaching their doctors because of Israeli checkpoints that separate Palestinian cities and villages. The stress of not being able to reach the hospital increases for pregnant women and their families as the months progress, and the situation is even worse at the time of birth. Oftentimes, women in labor are stopped at checkpoints and are not allowed to pass through to the hospital. These women wake up to find themselves giving birth at a checkpoint. Sometimes these women hear their babies' cries and sometimes they do not. It is not rare for women to wake up and find that their baby has died, all because they were not allowed to pass through the checkpoint. With the lack of medical assistance, sometimes these women do not wake up at all.
The Israeli checkpoints in Palestinian territories have imposed serious inconveniences to the Palestinians traveling throughout the territories. Hundreds of concrete barriers and dozens of checkpoints restrict the ability of many people who need medical treatment in the Palestinian territories to reach medical centers. Palestinian women, especially pregnant women, are most affected by these closures. Many health problems such as pre-eclampsia, anemia and high blood pressure that can be treated relatively easily through a doctor's assistance become unnecessarily severe because of denied access to healthcare by way of the checkpoints.
According to an August 2006 report from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 68 women were forced to give birth at military checkpoints. Consequently, four mothers and 34 babies died as a result of birth complications due to a lack of health care. Additionally, a study [PDF] about Palestinian women who gave birth at checkpoints between 2000 and 2007 indicated that ten percent of pregnant Palestinian women were delayed at checkpoints during their transport to the hospital to give birth.
This situation is brought to life by one Palestinian's blog, in which the loss of a newborn at a checkpoint is recounted: Nahil Abou Reda was a twenty-two-year-old Palestinian woman and a resident of Qusra in the Nablus District. While she was seven months pregnant, she started to bleed severely. Nahil and her husband left for the nearest hospital in Nablus, but Israeli soldiers stopped them at a checkpoint and asked them to produce documents from the Israeli Liaison Office before they would be allowed to pass. Nahil's husband tried to reason with the soldiers, but they refused to allow either Nahil or her husband through. Instead, the soldiers directed them to another, farther checkpoint at Hwarra where Israeli soldiers still would not let them pass. Finally, Nahil's husband called for an ambulance, but the Israeli soldiers would not allow it to pass either. Nahil delivered her baby at the checkpoint, in sight of the ambulance that had come to help but could not reach her. After seven months of pregnancy, Nahil woke up to find that her baby had died at a checkpoint.
Lack of prenatal care during pregnancy is not the only problem that Palestinian women encounter. In order for families to pass through the checkpoints, Israeli soldiers require them to obtain permission from the health centers and hospitals. However, the permission is only temporary, lasting for one or two days, and it is difficult for women to predict exactly when they will go into labor or require medical assistance. Israel must also ensure that medical personnel are able to arrive at work without being harassed at the checkpoints. The many obstacles that a pregnant Palestinian woman must overcome in order to safely arrive at a hospital are mentally and physically exhausting. Women should have the uninhibited right to receive prenatal care and to deliver a baby in a safe environment. The actions taken by Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints is a violation of human rights.
Despite the many conventions that reiterate the importance of access to medical care, Israel has largely disregarded these directives. The sanctity of human life is spelled out under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: "Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life." More specifically, the importance of protecting access to healthcare is clearly stated under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights:
- (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, and housing and medical care and necessary social services...
- (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
Pregnant women enjoy special, specific protections under international treaties, such as Article 10(2) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which states that "[s]pecial protection should be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth." Additionally, Article 12(2) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women states that "[p]arties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation."
The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment speaks directly to the current checkpoint crisis. It specifically mentions Israel's abuse of checkpoints in its May 2009 report: "Notwithstanding the State party's legitimate security concerns, the Committee is seriously concerned at the many allegations provided to the Committee from non-governmental sources on degrading treatment at checkpoints, undue delays and denial of entry, including for persons with urgent health needs."
The Fourth Geneva Convention also emphasizes the the need for protection of pregnant women at checkpoints. Article 38(5) dictates that "children under fifteen years, pregnant women and mothers of children under seven years shall benefit by any preferential treatment to the same extent as the nationals of the State concerned." Also, Article (16) of the Fourth Geneva Convention clearly spells out that "expectant mothers ... shall be the object of particular protection and respect."
According to these conventions, the inability of Palestinian women to reach hospitals during their pregnancies or access safe medical care is a clear violation of human rights. Israel, as a party to the above conventions, must cease its discrimination against Palestinian women by ensuring them access to healthcare — especially during pregnancy, delivery and the post-natal period.
Abeer Hashayka is an LL.M. student at University of Pittsburgh. She received her bachelor's degree in law from An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine in 2008. She worked as a legal assistant at the Institute of Law at Birzeit University, providing training sessions on human rights issues to Palestinian judges. Hashayka is the recipient of a Palestinian Rule of Law Program Fellowship, administered by the Open Society Foundation.
Suggested citation: Abeer Hashayka, Human Rights, Pregnancy and Israeli Checkpoints, JURIST - Dateline, July 11, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2012/07/abeer-hashayka-israeli-checkpoints.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Emily Osgood, an associate editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org