Jerusalem, Israel (HRW) – A 65-year-old Palestinian woman suffering respiratory problems died on October 19, 2015, after police closing of roads leading to a hospital and delays at a checkpoint in East Jerusalem delayed her access to medical care. Israeli police had sealed the roads leading from her neighborhood to the nearest hospital, turning what is normally a 6-minute drive to the hospital into a journey of at least 45 minutes.
The apparent lack of any measures by the Israeli authorities to ensure that direct roads to the hospital were kept open and that people with medical emergencies traveling in private vehicles are speedily dealt with at checkpoints raises concerns that the travel restrictions may violate residents’ right to health, as well as freedom of movement.
“The delay in Hoda Darwish reaching the hospital raises questions about the checkpoint and road closure regime that Israel is establishing in East Jerusalem,” said Sari Bashi, Israel/Palestine director. “Israeli police face tough public safety challenges, but people with medical emergencies need to be able to access care quickly.”
Israeli police began erecting checkpoints and closing roads in East Jerusalem on October 14, following a series of stabbing and shooting attacks on Israeli civilians and security forces, many of them by residents of East Jerusalem. The attacks come in the context of an escalation of violence, including attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians, clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli forces, rocket fire from Gaza, and Israeli air strikes in Gaza. Israeli forces and civilians have killed more than 40 Palestinians since October 1. Palestinian attackers have killed eight Israeli Jews, and one Eritrean asylum seeker was killed by an Israeli security guard and an angry crowd of Israelis who mistook him for an attacker.
Authorities have sealed off roads leading from 10 Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, including Issawiya, where Hoda Darwish lived. Police have not sealed roads leading out of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, and they have sealed roads even in Palestinian neighborhoods from which no attacks were claimed to have been made. All vehicular traffic leaving Issawiya now has to pass through a single police checkpoint. Approximately 14,000 people live in Issawiya, a village elder, Darwish Moussa Darwish, told Human Rights Watch.
On the evening of October 18, Hoda Darwish complained of breathing problems immediately after a teargas canister of the kind used only by Israeli security forces exploded near her home, her sons, Youssef and Kareem Darwish, told Human Rights Watch. Her condition worsened, and at approximately 3:30 a.m., her sons tried to take her to the hospital by car, ordinarily a 1.5 kilometer drive that would have taken six minutes, they said.
However, police had closed three of four exits from Issawiya to vehicular traffic, including both western roads leading most directly to the hospital. The brothers drove 1.4 kilometers, at least five minutes in the opposite direction, to the only exit open to cars, on the eastern end of the neighborhood, where police were searching each car, said Youssef, the elder brother. Yelling that they had a medical emergency, they drove slowly around the line of cars, filled with workers on their way to early-morning jobs. Receiving no response from the Israeli police officers on the checkpoint, they came to within four meters of the checkpoint. At that point, police officers ordered them to stop and fired shots in the air.
“We got out of the car,” said Youssef, who was driving. “They took Kareem [the younger son], pointing guns at both of us, pushed him against the wall and searched him. I was screaming that my mother can’t get out of the car, that she’s unconscious.”
Youssef said that after a further delay following their search the police officers looked into the car, saw his mother’s condition, and let the car pass. They said that police delayed them at the checkpoint for a total of about a half-hour, although they also acknowledged that in their distress over the situation, they did not record the time. The brothers drove an additional five kilometers, at least 10 minutes, to make a detour around the neighborhood due to the road closures and reach Hadassah Hospital, where doctors pronounced their mother dead.
A hospital death certificate listed the cause of death as “prolonged ventricular fibrillation” and “sudden cardiac death,” with the time of death listed as 4:50 a.m.
The police spokesman, Mickey Rosenfeld, when asked about the woman’s death by Human Rights Watch on October 19, said that he was not familiar with the incident. When asked if police had instituted special procedures for emergency cases, he said that there were no new procedures but that ambulances were allowed through the checkpoint without delay.
Palestinians living in East Jerusalem hold Israeli residence, meaning that, in addition to their right to travel within the occupied West Bank, they have a right to move freely throughout Israel.
That right can be restricted to further legitimate security goals, but any limitation must be proportional to the danger being confronted, taking into account the impact that the measure has on those affected. Discriminatory measures disproportionately targeting entire communities should be avoided. Israel needs to ensure that any restrictions on movement do not violate other rights, including access to medical care.
“Security measures to protect against attacks should be proportional,” Bashi said. “Israel should take care to ensure that any restrictions do not prevent timely access to health services.”
This report was prepared by Human Rights Watch.