During the first weeks of April 2007, Al-Haq documented three cases involving the humiliation, harassment and beating of Palestinian ambulance drivers at checkpoints in the Jenin area. The number of incidents, all of which involved disturbingly similar facts, indicates that, far from being isolated acts, the abuse of Palestinian medical personnel by Israeli soldiers has become a widespread practice. Accordingly, Al-Haq has contacted the Israeli Military Judge Advocate General requesting that investigation be opened into these incidents, the facts of which are summarised below.
Summary of Facts
On Tuesday, 10 April 2007, a Palestinian Red Crescent Society ambulance was dispatched from Jenin to al-Fara refugee camp, which is 30 kilometres to the south of Jenin, to bring a woman in labour to Jenin Hospital. At around 9:50 am, upon arrival at the al-Kfeir intersection, the ambulance came across two Israeli army jeeps and four soldiers preventing any traffic from passing. The ambulance driver therefore decided to bypass the blocked cars, stopping 10-15 metres away from the group of soldiers. Three of these soldiers then ran towards the ambulance with their weapons pointing at it. Once level with the ambulance, the soldiers held the driver at gunpoint and demanded to know what was in the ambulance. The driver explained in Hebrew the purpose to his travel to al-Fara. He was then ordered, at gunpoint, to get out of the ambulance and open the back doors. Upon opening the back doors, he was shoved violently from behind into the ambulance and forced to remove medical equipment from the vehicle while it was searched. The search ended after 10 minutes whereupon the ambulance driver was told to return to Jenin.
The driver then asked to speak to the soldiers’ commander. When the three soldiers all responded that they were in charge and that they made the decisions, the driver resigned himself to not passing. While making his way back to the driver’s seat, one of the soldiers violently pushed him against the side of the ambulance and began to shout and swear at him, while the other two soldiers kept their weapons pointed at him. The soldier then began to beat and slap the ambulance driver as he got back into the ambulance. Once in the ambulance, he began to turn around in order to return to Jenin. While manoeuvring the ambulance, a soldier approached and told him he could cross the checkpoint. Both the ambulance and its driver were clearly identifiable as belonging to the medical services.
On Saturday, 7 April 2007, an ambulance belonging to the Medical Care Committees was dispatched from Jenin city to Kufr Ra’i to pick up a child suffering from a very high fever, and bring him to Jenin hospital. In order to reach Kufr Ra’i, the ambulance needed to pass through the northern entrance of the town of ‘Arraba. There, it encountered a flying checkpoint consisting of three Hummer jeeps and six Israeli soldiers. The ambulance driver bypassed the queue of vehicles and, turning on the ambulance lights, stopped 20-30 metres from the six soldiers. Three soldiers ran towards the ambulance with their weapons pointing at it, shouting at the driver to move back. Before he was able to comply the soldiers were level with the vehicle. One soldier broke the left wing mirror of the ambulance with the butt of his gun, while the two other soldiers began to kick the front of the vehicle. When the ambulance driver attempted to explain, in Hebrew, the purpose of his travel to Kufr Ra’i, and showed them his personal ID as well as his certified medical ID, he was told no one was allowed to pass. The soldiers then began to swear at the driver, dragged him from the vehicle by his arm, and beat him with the butts of their guns on his shoulders. Throughout this the soldiers were shouting, “Where are the weapons?” The driver told the soldiers that he was not transporting weapons and that they were free to search the ambulance.
The soldiers aimed their guns at the ambulance driver and demanded that he remove his clothes. Upon refusing to do so, they threatened to shoot him, a threat repeated after he refused to do more than lift his shirt. After this refusal, the three soldiers began to beat him violently with the butts of their guns, forcing him to walk towards the Hummer jeeps. The driver was then detained while the ambulance was searched and many parts of it dismantled. Upon requesting to speak to the Captain and explaining to him that he wished to go on foot to try and reach the ill child, the Captain swore at the driver. At 6:30 pm, the driver was released and vehicles were allowed to pass the checkpoint. Both the ambulance and its driver were clearly identifiable as belonging to the medical services.
At 9:00 am on Monday, 2 April 2007, an ambulance belonging to the Medical Relief Committees left Jenin city to transport six medical staff to Seer village, which is located to the south-east of Jenin, where they were due to provide a free medical clinic. At around 9:30 am upon arrival at the al-Kfeir intersection, the ambulance encountered a flying checkpoint consisting of three Hummer jeeps and seven Israeli soldiers. There was a queue of approximately 25 vehicles, the searches of which were proceeding very slowly. The ambulance driver therefore decided to bypass the queue, stopping 10-15 metres away from the group of soldiers. Four of the soldiers then ran towards the ambulance with their weapons pointing at it. Upon reaching the ambulance, one of the soldiers began to hit the driver through the open window and to swear at him. The other soldiers then dragged the driver from the ambulance onto the ground where they beat him further using their hands and feet. The soldiers then dragged him towards the jeeps, while continually beating him all over his body. Thereafter, he was thrown to the ground, beaten and sworn at by the soldiers for at least five minutes. The soldiers also threatened to shoot and kill him. After all this, one soldier grabbed the driver by his hair and told him to go.
The driver returned to the ambulance, which he drove across the checkpoint without being searched or any of the passengers having to present ID. Both the ambulance and its driver and passengers were clearly identifiable as belonging to the medical services.
Under customary international humanitarian law, medical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. The term medical personnel includes those assigned exclusively to the search for, collection, transportation, diagnosis or treatment of the sick, and the prevention of disease. The physical abuse of the ambulance drivers described above, who were clearly identifiable as medical personnel, clearly violates this principle.
Further, the prohibition on torture, cruel or inhuman treatment and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, is a principle of customary international law. It is developed in numerous human rights instruments, as well as in the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols thereto. It must be noted that the prohibition covers not only physical attacks but also psychological injury and suffering. The treatment of the ambulance drivers outlined above falls squarely within this prohibition.
The actions of the Israeli soldiers not only violated the ambulance drivers’ individual rights, but also constituted a violation of the right to health of the individuals they were attempting to assist. Further, in the case of the child, special protection is derived from international law.
Article 12 (1) of the International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights requires States Parties to “recognise the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” In order for this right to be fulfilled, health services must, amongst others, be physically accessible. As clarified by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, this at a minimum, requires States to refrain from denying or actively limiting access to health. The lengthy delay and denial of passage to which the ambulances were subjected clearly violates this requirement.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes that States Parties have the obligation to ensure “to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child,” as well as to strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right to access health care services. Once again, the lengthy delay and denial of passage to which the ambulances were subjected clearly violates this requirement.