Giving Birth in the Holy City
In Spite of Shellfire and Roadblocks
24 December 2001
Is there something special about baby boys born in Bethlehem? Ours was born two days ago, having made every effort to hold out until Christmas. At nine days late, I was so pregnant I could have screamed. My husband, a UN negotiator, had joked that our baby was determined to be born at Christmas because I had chosen Bethlehem as its birthplace.
The choice caused consternation among our British and American friends. Seeing live coverage of an urban war zone where the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) battle the Palestinians, instead of the little town of Bethlehem (shepherds, flocks, hosts on high), they imagined I'd be bombed during delivery.
Israeli and Palestinian friends doubted my choice on obstetric grounds. I trained as a doctor in the British system, and delivered people's babies in Israel and Afghanistan. Having given birth to three children in New York, I wanted to avoid the very technological American approach to obstetrics pursued in Israel.
I had visited a number of hospitals in the area, and the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem came top. Its staff practise a mother-centred approach that contrasts favourably with hospitals in West (Israeli) Jerusalem.
The Holy Family Hospital was clean and had excellent statistical results. The nursing staff and policies are more patient-friendly and liberal. What I did not get at the hospital were the trappings that fake an air of comfort to the brutality of delivery. There are limestone arches and airy corridors, trees heavy with oranges, and roses that are tended by the lab technician.
We did risk being forbidden entry to Bethlehem. Not Augustan Rome this time, but Sharonista Israel. Soldiers man checkpoints on every road into every Palestinian town and village, often denying entry or exit.
It should be a 10-minute drive from our house in south Jerusalem, but every time I went to Bethlehem for appointments I had problems. Once I had to go home because there was a rally at Rachel's Tomb for Jewish visitors from the US. The road was closed for anybody else.
In October, Israeli tanks and troops reoccupied Bethlehem and rained destruction (20 were killed) on the town. "My" maternity hospital (which houses an orphanage) was fired at by a tank . No one can work out why the IDF picked this target, sending the occupants of neo-natal intensive care trundling for cover. We knew our main problem would be the IDF checkpoints. Getting to hospital to give birth should not be a matter of persuading the soldier on duty that your pregnant belly is genuine. This happened to a woman in front of me last week.
She was unable to convince him, and had to walk home without seeing a doctor. I asked the soldier why. He said: "I don't believe she was pregnant. Everyone is fat round here."
I had the advantage of not being Palestinian, and stood a greater chance of getting to the hospital. Our car has UN licence plates, and my husband had a list of IDF contacts to call, should the soldiers not let me through. Journalist friends offered to follow, waving cameras and recording equipment; others promised armour-plated vehicles.
Some have not been so lucky. In two instances during the recent Israeli reoccupation of Bethlehem, a woman and two newborns died after being denied passage as they tried to reach "my" hospital. The neonate who died on 22 October was the result of five years of waiting and IVF. When his mother, Rawida, went into premature labour, she and her family were scorned twice by the soldiers. They took a 90-minute detour across rocky fields, by which time the baby was born, and beyond saving.
Three days earlier, Rihab Nufal was travelling from her home near Bethlehem to give birth, but was stopped by Israeli soldiers. Mother and unborn child died, while detained at the checkpoint.
Checkpoints are what outsiders see of the military "closures" that have been imposed on the occupied territories for 15 months. They form part of a range of military and economic measures that make life miserable for the three million Palestinians who live there.
When commentators describe Gaza and the West Bank as the largest open-air prisons in the world, they don't do so lightly. My husband deals with the prison factor daily. He works for the UN in Gaza, and pales when he gets a call from colleagues stuck there. Since he is "international staff", and not Palestinian, he was able to leave Gaza, and has recently been with me in Jerusalem.
His office was damaged by the bombing last week – but thanks to Junior's tardiness, he was not in it.
The prospect of labour has always filled me with dread. This time, I had the extra dread of giving birth in our Land Rover because the IDF wouldn't let me through. Because the baby was late, I had to go through many times. The more I went through, the more my fears increased.
Eventually, as the contractions increased, we managed to get through, to our surprise and relief. Our baby now lies in my arms, cuddled by his father and siblings. After the waiting and worrying, the relief is huge.
The women who delivered alongside me in Bethlehem are not so fortunate. They and their newborns face a bleak midwinter as Sharon stands hard as iron. They – and we – wonder how much longer they will have to live under humiliation, occupation and bombardment.
* Emma Williams is a British doctor who is married to a UN negotiator.