We are done with the tears we are on to the next step. We have to stay strong because we are fighters. It is our land. – Mariam,* Palestinian, 17 years old.
Recently I was lucky enough to attend the Joint Advocacy Initiative– Journey for Justice of the YWCA of Palestine and the YMCA of East Jerusalem. Journey for Justice brings together young people mainly from YMCAs and YWCAs all over the world to experience and share the reality of life under occupation with Palestinian youth. For nine days, we joined Palestinian youth and traveled around occupied Palestine to witness the effects of Israeli occupation. It is often said that women and girls suffer the most in conflict and war, as reports of abuse, murder and sexual violence are rampant. In Palestine, the effect of the conflict and occupation on women and girls takes a different form.
Mariam, a Palestinian young woman, described returning home in 2003 after visiting their dying grandfather in the city of Nablus. Along with her 37-week pregnant mother, two younger siblings, father and his father, Mariam attempted to cross over Houarra checkpoint. Although only seven years old at the time, Mariam still remembers this nightmare vividly. As they approached the checkpoint, a Muslim woman lay weeping inconsolably and holding her newborn baby on the floor surrounded by laughing soldiers – the baby would later be pronounced dead.
A few soldiers stopped Mariam’s family car and told everyone to get out and then proceeded to search the car. One soldier started yelling at the family in Hebrew, Mariam didn’t understand but her father asked the soldier to please calm down and stop yelling. The soldier continued and shouted aggressively in her mother’s face, her father repeated and said, “Please she is pregnant and could give birth any minute.” The soldier pointed the gun at her mother; Mariam grabbed her brother and sister and held them tightly to her chest. Then she heard the fatal gunshot, and the screams that followed. The soldier had shot her mother directly in her abdomen killing the unborn baby instantly. Her mother survived after 3 months of hospitalisation.
Mariam sits on the coach retelling this story without tears or emotion in her voice, she tells this matter of fact. Personally, I have tears in my eyes but try my best not to cry. I ask Mariam how she can tell this memory so calmly, she replies: “We are done with the tears we are on to the next step. We have to stay strong because we are fighters. It is our land.”
Reports of Palestinian women being forced to give birth at checkpoints is not an uncommon story, reports of killing and torture are equally not uncommon. Between January and May 2012, the main Emergency Medical Services provider, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), conducted a total of 591 ambulances transfers to East Jerusalem, of which only 41 were able to access directly, with the remaining 550 transferring patients using ‘back- to-back’ procedures at a checkpoint (i.e. moving the patient from a Palestinian-plated ambulance to an Israeli-plated ambulance). The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), estimates that even before the escalation of conflict in 2000, one-fifth of pregnant women in Gaza and the West Bank could not receive prenatal care because of the difficulty travelling through checkpoints. Delays at these checkpoints have resulted in dozens of unattended roadside births, some of which have ended in deaths. This issue is one of UNFPA’s top priorities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
As the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations continue, both sides must face the injustices and human rights violations committed by individual extremists and at times their own political parties. Forcing Palestinian women to give birth at checkpoints is one of these human rights violations. The time for peace is now and women and girls must be part of the peace process and their voices must be heard.
Cover image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
*Not her real name.