On 7 January, as Spanish human rights advocate and documentary filmmaker, Alberto Arce, and I accompanied Palestinian medics to retrieve the body of a man shot earlier by invading Israeli forces, we were also shot at as the medics carried the body towards the ambulance. It was in Dawwar Zimmo, eastern Jabaliya, near the area which has been occupied by Israeli soldiers since the land invasion began. It’s an area where tens are thought to have been seriously injured by bombing and shooting by the Israeli army, and where many, many more will lie dead, uncollected for days, or weeks, out of reach of the medics whose duty is to retrieve them.
Hassan al-Attal and Jamal had gotten out of the ambulance, a clearly-marked 101 ambulance, and approached the corpse lying in the middle of the street. They wore their Palestine Red Crescent Society uniforms — Hassan’s was bright red with reflective tape, Jamal’s bright orange and white, also with reflective tape — and approached slowly, hands empty except a stretcher to take away the body. Arce filmed as the medics picked up the dead man, put him on the stretcher and began the retreat towards the ambulance. Arce was still filming when the shots cracked out, rapidly but evidently a targeted sniper’s shot, not a machine gun. Incredibly, Hassan and Jamal continued to try to evacuate the body, running with the dead man, before finally dropping the stretcher and fleeing for their lives.
Jamal, in his volunteer medic vest, next to the clearly-marked ambulance. (Eva Bartlett)
It was about 1:30 pm, the first day of Israel’s self-declared “ceasefire” and the sniper was aiming at the medical personnel. The ambulance’s siren was still screaming, the driver had been moving quickly away from the sniper, to avoid further hits on us or himself, and we were frantically scouring to find Hassan and Jamal. In the days prior to this attack, seven medics had been killed since the start of Israel’s air and ground assault on Gaza’s population. Tens more had been injured, and Hassan was to join their ranks. A sniper’s bullet caught his thigh, and as he scrambled into the ambulance, the blood seeping through his pants alerted us to his injury.
These medics are all too aware of, many all too familiar with, the mortal risks of their job in the face of invading Israeli soldiers with, apparently, no regard for the Geneva Conventions which should allow and oblige medics to reach the injured and the dead, without being fired upon by the invading army.
It was frightening. I thought we’d lost them both, and they are both young, wonderful men doing a job worthy of medals. The 10 to 15 seconds it took before Hassan and Jamal could jump into the ambulance and pull down its back door were a painfully long stretch, during which I’d feared the worst. As we pulled away, a final bullet caught the back door of the ambulance.
Medics worked quickly on Hassan’s thigh injury: the bullet had penetrated the inside of his upper left thigh, digging into muscle, and exiting a couple of inches from the entry wound. He was impressively brave about it, though obviously in a great deal of pain.
Arce’s video footage caught the incident, and is testimony to what we’ve seen, what medics have told us they’ve long endured, and what Israeli authorities beligerently continue to deny: Israel is targeting medical personnel, as Israeli forces target journalists, civilians, and these days in Gaza anything that moves. No sanctuary, no safety, no guarentee of medical service.
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities and four months in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing. She is currently based in the Gaza Strip after having arrived with the 3rd Free Gaza Movement boat in November. She has been working with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza, accompanying ambulances while witnessing and documenting the ongoing Israeli air strikes and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.