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A Tale of Broken Lives, Fractured Care

Siege: Israel's blockade has made it hard for medical supplies to get in, leaving doctors at a loss.


BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Abdul Ghani Hussein, 62 and a manic depressive, has spent the last year in the West Bank's only mental hospital. The British-built facility is desperately short of medicine and food because of the Israeli siege and, like the other 172 patients, Hussein for weeks has not been receiving the medication he needs to maintain a shaky balance between darkness and reality.

His doctors can't say for sure that the lack of tranquilizer drugs was to blame for what happened. But they do know that a suicidal Hussein rose from his bed the other day after a lunch of rice and water, pried open a window and jumped. His fall from the second floor onto a cement walkway broke his left femur and caused internal bleeding.

So Hussein lay on a gurney, mumbling incoherently, while a doctor stroked his hand to comfort him, and Issam Bannourd, deputy director of Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital, was forced to call the Israeli military and ask permission to ferry Hussein to a surgical hospital by ambulance.

Without needed medicines, Bannourd says, what his hospital offers is tantamount to anti-therapy, and as he contemplates the occupation of this biblical city, he sees the line between sanity and insanity blurred.

"All the patients have become more disturbed, more irritable, more troublesome," he says. "They howl at night."

There have been perhaps more dramatic scenes of Israel's crushing attack on the West Bank than that of an old man in a frayed blue sweatshirt sprawled on a cement slab, wanting death: families buried alive in the rubble of their homes in Jenin; 35 bodies laid out in the basement of a Nablus hospital, unclaimed because relatives did not dare break a curfew; humanitarian aid convoys bearing food and medicine turned back by Israeli soldiers at the entrance to Ramallah.

But the scene at the Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital was a microcosm of the shattered lives and facilities in the West Bank. Hussein, his doctors and fellow patients--and many like them--were what the U.N. Security Council was speaking of Friday when it expressed concern about the "dire humanitarian situation" of Palestinian civilians and demanded that Israel give medical and humanitarian aid agencies access to the occupied region.

The Security Council voted 15-0 to send representatives to Jenin, where the refugee camp was all but leveled in the offensive, "to clarify facts." Israel, which denies conducting a massacre in Jenin and says its campaign was directed solely against terrorists, has agreed to cooperate with the mission.

International humanitarian aid agencies have been among the most vocal critics of Israel's policies in the West Bank. Their emergency convoys--which have always included a foreign diplomat--have been denied access to Palestinian areas or, more recently, allowed in only after checkpoint delays that could last six or seven hours. Jewish settlers passing the convoys on the road often have raised their middle fingers at the aid workers and thrown bottles at the vehicles.

"Our work has been hindered over 18 months, not just the last three weeks," said Nassim Nour, operations director for World Vision, a U.S.-based international aid agency. "Because Israel basically doesn't let Palestinians use the main roads, we've had to switch to four-wheel-drive vehicles. That really increases our costs. We have to literally go through fields to reach our projects, and that is very, very dangerous.

"It's ironic--when I was working in Africa during the Rwanda massacre--how free I felt being able to cross borders easily because I didn't have car plates identifying me as a Palestinian," Nour went on. "Then I decide to come home to help my own people, and I find I am a prisoner in Bethlehem."

Israel has loosened its blockade in the last few days, but agencies still have no assurance that they can get through checkpoints, and delays can run into hours. The harassment has forced aid groups to rely on foreign workers instead of Palestinians--another move that increases costs--and to suspend long-term development projects in favor of emergency work.

"I honestly don't know why Israel takes this attitude," said Michael Clark, chairman of the Assn. of International Developmental Agencies, an umbrella group comprising 55 nongovernmental agencies. "It just doesn't seem in Israel's best interest. The only logical reason I can think of is that Israel doesn't want these people to receive water, food, medicine."

Even Haaretz, Israel's most respected daily newspaper, commented that the nation's blockade of aid has been a public relations disaster. After a convoy of 30 trucks was held up trying to get to Ramallah and soldiers fired tear gas at a coalition of leftist Jews and Arabs demonstrating at the checkpoint in support of the shipment, the paper wrote:

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