Twilight Zone / Charlie's Angels

For hours a resident of Barta'a tried in vain to get his dying mother through the checkpoint, but the guards and their boss - from a private security company - would not let the ambulance through.

"For the first time in my life I see my mother suffering and I can't help her. For 46 years, from the time I was born, such a thing never happened - that I couldn't help my mother," says the son sadly, after he tried in vain to take his mother from their home in east Barta'a to the government hospital in Jenin, a 20-minute drive during ordinary times, which haven't been ordinary for a long time.

It's possible that it was his mother's time to die in any case, but why did it have to be such a humiliating death, on the floor of a van at the checkpoint? How many more such articles will still be written, and how many times will the Israel Defense Forces explain that "humanitarian cases" are allowed to pass through the checkpoint, an explanation that repeatedly contrasts with reality? On Monday three weeks ago, Kamela Kabha, 78, died that way at the Reihan (Barta'a) checkpoint, while her son Tawfik pleaded for her life.

The situation in Barta'a is misleading. There are about 5,000 residents in the eastern part of town, and about 3,500 in the western part - residents of the territories and Israeli citizens, respectively. An imaginary border passes between them. Israel built the separation fence east of the town, to annex more settlements, which actually has brought economic benefit to Barta'a - shopping on Saturday and very cheap dentists for Israelis - and therefore some people are pleased with the fence. But the town has been cut off from its natural surroundings and the main city, Jenin, and has become an enclave: Residents are not allowed to go to Israel, and it's hard to reach Jenin via the checkpoint, to work, shop or see a doctor.

During recent months, the main contact the Palestinians have had at the Reihan checkpoint, which closes in on Barta'a from the east, has been with the employees of a private security company. The residents miss the soldiers who were there before: With them, they say, you could sometimes talk. Instead the tough guys from the private firm came, with rifles and dogs, and the treatment, say residents, has become even more inhumane.

Recently we saw the men. The one responsible for the checkpoint on behalf of the security company, Charlie, spoke in a tone of authority: "Lots of people are waiting at the checkpoint? What's the problem with that? Do I owe you an accounting? What, are you a supervisor from the Defense Ministry?"

That evening Kamela didn't feel well. A heavy woman, she had suffered recently from high blood pressure and too much sugar. Her children gathered around her and her son, Tawfik, a member of the town council, called the doctor, who decided she should be rushed to the hospital in Jenin. But it was already late and the Reihan checkpoint closes at 10:45 P.M. Even if the guards would open the checkpoint, the family knew they would have to stop at the Dotan checkpoint, which is locked up tight at night. The doctor therefore recommended that they wait until morning.

Kamela's condition worsened and at 6 A.M. Tawfik, who is also in charge of coordination and liaison with the IDF on behalf of the council, began to phone the Office of Coordination and Liaison, in Salem. "My mother is ill and I want an ambulance to come and take us to Jenin," he explained to the woman clerk at the office. "Get back to me in a few minutes."

In order to allow a Red Crescent ambulance from Jenin to go to Barta'a, there must be coordination. About a month ago at a meeting with the Israeli official in charge of the liaison headquarters, Tawfik and other council members were promised that emergency vehicles, ambulances and firetrucks would be allowed to pass through the Reihan checkpoint quickly.

Tawfik says he phoned the headquarters five or six times about his mother, and each time was given the runaround: "I'm checking," said the clerk. Kamela, like all residents of Barta'a, had a permanent transit permit for passing through the checkpoint - "for entry and staying, including sleeping in a closed military area, the seam area, declaration No. 02/03." Tawfik gave the clerk the details.

Meanwhile he also called the Red Crescent offices in Jenin and ordered an ambulance. The ambulance arrived at the checkpoint at about 7 A.M. The security firm's employees did not allow it to pass. The ambulance waited for almost an hour, until it was forced to return to Jenin.

What happened at the checkpoint was described by the paramedic, Said al-Atrash, in testimony that appears on the B'Tselem Web site: "At about 6:50 A.M. I set out with my colleague Faiz in the direction of the Barta'a crossing. We arrived at about 7:05 and advanced to the gate because we knew that the crossing had been coordinated. Several guards demanded that we move back. We drove in reverse and stopped at a distance of 20 meters from the crossing. We thought that we were only waiting until they finished checking the vehicle in front of us, and then they would call us ...

"About 25-30 minutes after we arrived, we contacted our headquarters. Faiz, who knows Hebrew well, approached the gate on foot to try to convince the officer in charge to allow us to pass ... but they didn't agree ... Before we left the place in the direction of Jenin a volunteer from Machsom Watch arrived and asked us why we were there. We told her we were trying to pass through to evacuate a sick woman whose life was in danger. The woman made a call on her cell phone and at the same time one of the guards signaled to her to approach the gate. When we reached the gate, the official from the security firm told us to go back. We decided to return to Jenin."

Meanwhile Kamela's breathing became increasingly difficult. Tawfik again told the clerk that his mother was in serious condition and she again told him to phone back. With her last ounce of strength, the mother begged her sons: "Take me to the hospital." The situation was desperate. In the absence of any other solution, Tawfik contacted one of the village men who has a Volkswagen Transporter and asked him to come to evacuate his dying mother.

The sons dismantled the seats, carried their mother on a mattress and placed her on the floor of the vehicle. It was almost 9 A.M.; three hours had passed since the first phone call to the liaison office. They arrived at the checkpoint some time later - the dying Kamela and her son, her daughter, her sister, and the driver of the Transporter.

A female security guard asked the driver for his papers and permits. Tawfik turned to the guard: "Do me a favor, my mother is dying. Hurry a little." The minutes passed. Tawfik recalls: "I behaved like a crazy man." The driver opened the door of the vehicle to show the guard the dying woman. "Look at her, she'll die at the checkpoint," shouted the son.

Charlie's angels were in no rush. Munir, the Civil Administration officer, arrived after hearing the shouts of the desperate son. About 20 minutes passed until the checking of the permits was completed.

When the officer Munir saw the woman's condition, he himself quickly ordered the ambulance from Jenin - the same one that had not been allowed to pass through about two hours earlier, also apparently at his orders. The ambulance set off and meanwhile the Transporter was finally allowed to cross the checkpoint on the way to Jenin.

Kamela died about 100 meters after they passed the checkpoint. Tawfik says that he called Munir so he could see what had happened. The ambulance from Jenin arrived as well, and the medical team could only pronounce the woman's death. On the way back in the Transporter with the body, the guards once again asked for the permits, including that of the deceased woman. Tawfik says that he spoke to Charlie, who said: "I'm not responsible for this, the army runs the checkpoint." Munir also told him: "I'm not responsible for this, the security firm runs the checkpoint."

Says Tawfik: "I'm not interested who's responsible ... What's important to me is that it doesn't happen again. That the world sees what they're doing to us."

After we relayed the details of the incident to Physicians for Human Rights, the association's researcher, Ibrahim Habib, sent a harsh letter of complaint to the Military Advocate General, Brigadier General Avihai Mandelblit: "In light of the unfortunate outcome of the incident, and in order to prevent a repetition of such incidents in the future, we ask that you investigate the behavior of the soldiers and the security guards at the checkpoint and at the Salem liaison office, including the officer who answers to the name Munir, and to try those responsible."

The IDF spokesman replied: "The IDF expressed its regret to the family of Kamela Kabha and clarified the procedures among the soldiers at the checkpoint and among all the forces operating in the sector. In this case, the ambulance was in fact delayed for over an hour until the required escort force arrived. The investigation of the incident did not result in an unequivocal conclusion regarding the connection between the delay at the crossing and the death of the woman."

Kamela is not alone. In Barta'a they can tell of Khabab Kabha, a woman in labor who was forced to give birth about two months ago at this checkpoint, after being refused permission to cross late in the evening; about Hosni Kabha, 48, who about a year and a half ago suffered a heart attack at the checkpoint after he was delayed there; and about Leila Ibrahim, who returned from the hospital after a Caesarean section, and was forced to cross the checkpoint on foot and to stand for hours in the examination rooms.

Since the security firm began working at the checkpoint, they say in Barta'a, people are sometimes delayed for hours, standing in cramped examination rooms. On a Sunday a few weeks ago we met Hayfa Kabha, in her eighth month and carrying twins, who says she stood for over an hour in the room, without being able to sit. She left for the hospital in Jenin early in the morning for tests, and returned at about 1:30 P.M., after the security check, exhausted. That same day others told us that they had been delayed between one and two hours at the checkpoint, on their way home.

Kamela's funeral was also delayed. After they brought her body back to Barta'a, they waited for about two hours until her sisters could receive permits to pass through the checkpoint and get to the funeral. "God will help," says Tawfik, citing his mother's last words, and adds, "God will help at the checkpoint."

When we returned there with him the following Sunday, we saw Charlie. Armed with dark glasses, he ignored us. "At least he could have shaken my hand," added Tawfik, "and told me that he shares my sorrow."