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THE MIDDLE EAST

Siege Can't Halt Life and Death in Ramallah

April 06, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Lubna Ramadeen felt the labor pains coming on, and she knew she couldn't reach the hospital. Israeli tanks ruled the roads, and venturing out in the middle of the night could prove fatal.

But military siege and necessity breed ingenuity. She telephoned her obstetrician, and by long-distance he guided the birth of Rania, a wrinkly red-faced baby girl who on Friday came into a world seized by war.

With the Israeli occupation of Ramallah entering a second week Friday, Palestinians are experiencing both life and death under siege. Babies have been born, some languishing in maternity wards, unable to go home. People have died, or been killed, their corpses forced to await mass burial in a hospital parking lot because the trip to a cemetery was deemed too dangerous.

Food and basic services such as medical care, electricity and water are in short, spotty supply.

Except for two brief interludes when Israeli forces allowed Palestinians out of their homes, families have remained hunkered down, unable to go to work or school, struggling to conserve precious water, to distract terrified children and to pass the time.

Israel, which says it is trying to stop a wave of suicide bombers, has occupied every major Palestinian city except one, Jericho, placing an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians under virtual house arrest.

Every time the Israeli tanks roar down Abeer Bahour's street, day or night, the house shakes. She braces for the jolt, then for the screams of her 2-year-old daughter.

Like many Ramallah families, the Bahours spend long hours watching television news, when there is electricity, following the events taking place a few feet or miles outside their doors.

They sleep and play or do homework with the children. Bahour, whose husband is a prominent Palestinian American businessman, said her 8-year-old daughter has become clingy and afraid to go anywhere in the house by herself. The 2-year-old is agitated and nervous.

"The electricity comes and goes, and we hardly have any water left," she said. "I wash a few dishes, but we're not washing clothes and not taking baths. We use the water just for drinking and making coffee and tea. It's too hard to collect rainwater. To tell you the truth, I'm too scared to go outside to try."

In many parts of the city, electricity has been lost because Israeli armor slammed through utility poles, smashed transformers and ripped down power lines. Water is usually supplied by electrical pumps: No electricity, no water. And in some cases, the water tanks that most Palestinians have on their roofs have been shot, the water lost.

Palestinian engineering crews trying to repair utilities have come under fire or been chased away by Israeli soldiers.

In addition to the sheer fright that comes with having tanks, soldiers and snipers on many a street corner, being confined indefinitely to a small space takes a psychological toll. People are bored and depressed. Some Palestinians said they try to read books, but can't. They obsess over housework or surfing the Internet or mindless tasks.

"There is fear and terror and humiliation, and then you kind of organize yourself," said Adila Laidi-Hanieh, a politically active director of a cultural center whose husband edits a Palestinian newspaper. "We make ourselves busy." It's the only way, she said, to keep up morale.

Laidi-Hanieh copes by keeping a "siege diary" that she e-mails to friends and associates the world over.

Medical services have been especially impaired. In Ramallah alone, Israeli soldiers have invaded hospitals three times, searching patients' rooms, ransacking medicine cabinets and, at the Red Crescent Maternity Hospital, rousting new mothers from their beds during a two-hour search of the premises, doctors and witnesses said.

"We were dragged, us and the patients, down into reception," anesthesiologist Nadir Aiyesh said, recounting the Thursday raid. "There were newborn babies--I'm talking 3 hours old. Then they started searching, centimeter by centimeter, from the fourth floor to the first floor."

Two doctors, two male nurses and a custodian were handcuffed, blindfolded and taken away by the troops, Aiyesh said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross announced Friday that it was reducing its operations in the West Bank to "a strict minimum" after its staff was threatened at gunpoint in Bethlehem and shot at in Nablus and Ramallah, and its vehicles were run over by tanks in Tulkarm. Ambulances have repeatedly been blocked from reaching victims; the Israeli army says it's afraid the vehicles might be transporting weapons or fighters.

"This behavior is totally unacceptable, for it jeopardizes not only the lifesaving work of emergency medical services, but also the ICRC's humanitarian mission," the Red Cross said in a statement.

At government-run Ramallah Hospital, six mothers are sleeping on the floor of the room where their children have been patients. The children are well now, but no one can go home.

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