RAMALLAH, 4 June 2007 (IRIN) - Rights group Amnesty International on Monday said Palestinians were dying in the West Bank because Israel's restrictions on movement there are severely hampering access to health services.
Israel controls the 2.5 million Palestinians through a matrix of more than 500 checkpoints and roadblocks as well as a 700km barrier that encloses 10 percent of the West Bank on the Israeli side.
Amnesty listed Palestinians it said had died as a result of delays at checkpoints or who had been shot dead by soldiers manning the barriers, and called on Israel to tear down barriers inside the West Bank and lift restrictions at checkpoints.
Israeli government spokesman Shlomo Dror said the measures were vital to protect Israeli civilians.
"They reduce terrorism against Israeli civilians. We know it's not convenient for the Palestinians. But my life is more important than the Palestinians' quality of life. If they choose to attack us they must realize there are consequences," Dror said.
In its report "Enduring Occupation: Palestinians under siege in the West Bank" marking 40 years of military occupation, Amnesty said the real reason for the checkpoints and the barrier was to protect Israel's West Bank settlements, home to 450,000 settlers, which are illegal under international law.
"Palestinians living in the West Bank are blocked at every turn. This is not simply an inconvenience - it can be a matter of life or death," said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa programme.
"It is unacceptable that women in labour, sick children, or victims of accidents on their way to hospital should be forced to take long detours and face delays which can cost them their lives."
"Unnecessary humanitarian situation"
Liz Sime, country director for CARE International, told IRIN the barrier and internal roadblocks were creating an unnecessary humanitarian situation in the West Bank.
"One of the key reasons we have such a huge humanitarian programme here is because the Palestinians cannot move. They can't get their produce to market and they can't get to the doctor, even if he is only 10km away," Sime said.
CARE drives mobile clinics to isolated communities and tries to help farmers get their produce through checkpoints. The organisation's humanitarian budget has gone from US$4 million in 1999 to $27 million a year today to deal with the impact of movement restrictions.
Among the hardest hit are about 50,000 Palestinians, whose homes and villages are on the western or Israeli side of Israel's West Bank barrier. The International Court of Justice ruled in July 2004 that the barrier's route was illegal under international humanitarian and human rights law.
In villages such as Azzun Atma, Palestinians enter and exit their village through a gate manned by soldiers and locked between 10pm and 6am.
In February, 21-year-old Adel Omar died before doctors could treat him in the West Bank town of Qalqilya after his passage to hospital was blocked for an hour at the barrier. The soldiers refused to come down from their tower because it was after 10pm, according to the Israeli human rights organisation Btselem.
After the incident, the Israeli military said it would staff the gate 24 hours a day.
Pregnant women from the village leave their homes several days before they are due to give birth so they will not be blocked from getting to hospital if they go into labour at night, villagers told IRIN.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said that in April, 33 of its ambulances were delayed at checkpoints and denied passage on 14 of those occasions. The longest delay, near Jerusalem, was almost six hours.
"The Israeli and Palestinian authorities have the right to inspect ambulances. The issue is whether the delay caused is undue. There have been improvements but there is still a long way to go," said Bernard Burrell, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Jerusalem.
The ICRC was trying to organise humanitarian traffic lanes at checkpoints on narrow roads so ambulances could get to the front of the queue rather than be "stuck for an hour behind waiting cars", he added.
"The Palestinians use ambulances to smuggle terrorists who are coming to do a terrorist attack," Dror said.
Sime said the checkpoints had divided the West Bank into three areas, with the northern West Bank and the Jordan Valley also particularly hard hit by restrictions. Men aged between 16 and 35 have been banned from leaving Nablus, the West Bank's biggest city, for the past six years.
"They can no longer work in Israel and they can't get down to Ramallah to work in the construction sites there because they can't get a permit to move," said Sime.
But the consequence is that poverty amongst Palestinians is spreading, and with it food insecurity. In March, the World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization reported that 60 percent of West Bank residents had reduced their spending on food.
Families are reducing portions, eating only one meal a day, buying lower-quality food and eating less fruit, vegetables and fresh meat, the report found.