Dec. 18 2003, 8:15am — The Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that an occupying power must provide for the health and well being of the people under occupation, and not interfere with their medical services or needs.
We start out from the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) HQ (what the Red Cross is known as in Palestine) in Al Bireh (next to Ramallah) for a pick up and transfer of patients south of the Qalandya Israeli army check point. Our ambulance, donated by the Norwegian Red Cross, is well equipped for most emergencies. The ambulances are clearly recognizable as such.
I am riding with two Emergency Medical Technicians, Emad and Mohamed. They dress in bright red uniforms with large Red Crescent patches and reflective tape.
15 minutes later, we are blocked at the Qalandya checkpoint traffic jam. Even on a good day, the checkpoint creates a multi-directional traffic jam as vehicles and pedestrians dodge each other. Qalandya is next to a section of the electronically monitored separation fence, an Israeli only settler road, and their industrial compound of Atarot.
Many Palestinian cars and trucks are let through without a search, but not the ambulance. Israeli soldiers with rifles enter and make us open up medical kit bags, the side bench seat and the oxygen tank storage door. Emad our ambulance driver speaks Hebrew to the soldiers as the inspection continues, and of course we must show our IDs. Meanwhile, outside, another soldier behind a concrete barrier has his rifle trained on us during the inspection.
Returning back to the A-Ram checkpoint with a mother and her one-year-old boy who has leukemia, we are once again, the only vehicles searched. Emad convinces the soldier, in Hebrew, that the baby must get to his medical appointment, even though this is not strictly speaking an “emergency”.
We are allowed to continue back to the Qalandya checkpoint area where another ambulance is waiting for the baby and his mother. Ahmed explains that often, the soldiers do not permit ambulances to pass through the checkpoints.
The calm and professional attitude of the EMTs is impressive. It is an already difficult job. Daily, in order to do the most basic tasks, they have to put up with being stopped and questioned, soldiers aiming rifles at them, their IDs checked, their ambulances searched, and often being refused to cross a check point. As Ahmad, another EMT said, “This is our life. Beginning in the morning with checkpoints, and ending with checkpoints.”
We pick up another patient — an elderly woman suffering from diabetes and cardiac disease. Although, she is going to the Palestinian hospital Al Maqased in Jerusalem, just 15 km away, we have to pass through another checkpoint. Besides the usual search and ID check, the Israeli soldiers want to inspect the woman — her husband duly lifts her blanket revealing her amputated left lower leg and a urinary catheter.
Our next call is to pick up an elderly man with cardiac disease from Bethlehem. We meet the patient at the Gilo checkpoint about 10km south of Jerusalem waiting in another ambulance. Again, a few cars are casually searched and one truck undergoes a cursory inspection. However, our ambulance is thoroughly searched, plus our IDs. The soldier focuses on me - what am I doing with them? Emad does the talking in Hebrew for me. The irony of a Palestinian translating for two Jews is not lost on me. The soldier tells Emad that he was previously warned that he was allowed to bring only his assistant EMT, not any volunteers like me. Emad replies “No, I never heard that before.” The soldier says, “Now you know.”
Total time at check point: 1 hour.
On my next run, I ride with Luay and Ahlam in a slightly more modern ambulance donated by the American Red Cross. We return to the Qalandya checkpoint, as there is a car accident just across from it. This time, the Israeli soldiers check no IDs as they look inside the ambulance and then let us through.
Two cars have collided on top of a hill and thankfully the impact wasn’t forceful enough to push either over the edge! One driver, still in his seat, is wearing a neck collar placed by an Israeli soldier that protects his cervical spine. With the soldier’s help, we move the patient safely to the stretcher, and get him in the ambulance. Another soldier gives me the man’s ID. The young man is suffering from pain to his upper back and left shoulder. (If he had been wearing a seat belt, which Israelis and Palestinians are loath to do, he would probably be just sore, not banged up). Ahlam starts an IV on him, we re-secure the neck collar and proceed to take him to the Israeli Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
However, a minute later at the A-Ram check point, we’re put on hold: The soldier doesn’t want us to pass because the patient is not obviously in critical condition. He checks the patients ID, hands it over to another older soldier. This soldier belongs to Dept. of Coordination, set up to coordinate between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Luay explains that the Palestinian accident victim has Israeli residence, adding that if required, we can call the International Red Cross Society to seek authorization for his passage. This seems to convince the soldier. They once again thoroughly search the ambulance before we can continue to Jerusalem.
At the gates of the Hadassah Hospital, we go through checks and inspections by two different security guards. Before leaving the hospital, in order to confirm the inspection, a security guard makes Luay sign a sheet that we were properly inspected.
It’s more of the same for the rest of my shifts with the ambulances. Short drives, numerous checkpoints, countless repetitive delays, inspections and questioning. We never leave the West Bank: Palestinian territory illegally occupied by the Israelis.
Dr. Wael, the PRCS Emergency Medical Services General Director explains that the Israeli army justifies these practices based on an incident two years ago, when arms were found in an ambulance. “Western journalists, who investigated the incident at that time, were not convinced; not only because the ambulance had just passed through several checkpoints without being detained, but also because the army had already notified journalists to be present when arms were ‘found’ when it was stopped and checked again”.
The checkpoint searches have the depressing feeling of being routine and normal. The EMT’s maintained a calm, professional rapport, and even act friendly towards the soldiers. The soldiers seem bored for the most part, sometimes friendly, but nevertheless, rarely waved us through like they do to most other vehicles. I on the other hand, was simply outraged at this basic violation of human rights and decency.
It is not always safe. Soldiers firing at EMTs have wounded Ahmad twice in the last two years - once when he was exiting the PRCS headquarters. PRCS EMTs Ibrahim Assad and Bassam Bilbasee, and Dr. Khalil Suliman have been shot to death while on the job. PRCS ambulances have been damaged and destroyed by the army firing rifle and tank rounds at them.
Since the start of the current Intifada, the Israelis have placed over 600 roadblocks throughout the occupied territories: 65 manned; 464 mounds of dirt and rubble; 58 trenches; and 95 concrete barriers. (Data from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).
What is done during an emergency when a bypass road around a roadblock may be a long, slow and treacherously eroded dirt road? The PRCS then will coordinate two ambulances to meet each other on either side of the roadblock.
The night of December 20 in Bethlehem, we were called to pick up a 62 year old man with cardiac and respiratory difficulties at the Hebron/Bethlehem roadblock. We met the other ambulance there, and the young EMTs decided that it would be easiest to simply carry the old man in their arms over the steep mound of mud and concrete rubble to our ambulance.
Later on, we rushed over to the Beit Jalla roadblock to meet another ambulance bringing Kathur Fanoon, a 25 year old women with labour contractions four minutes apart. We placed her on a portable stretcher, and carried her over 30 meters of slippery mud and rubble. An Israeli jeep was there, shining a spotlight on us. I thought they were being kind enough to illuminate our way in the dark, but they left when we got half-way over the mound. She arrived in the Beit Jalla Hospital delivery room before her baby did.
I have been in Palestine during a period considered calm and routine, compared to previous high alert and high security phases. There have been no suicide bombings. After a week of riding inside an ambulance, I have to say that while theoretically, an ambulance has the capacity to transport hidden people or arms - so do cars and trucks. I observed an unmistakable discrepancy in the consistent inspection of ambulances - as opposed to cars and trucks - at numerous checkpoints. This seems to be Israeli policy clearly intended to sabotage the Palestinian’s emergency medical services and needs.
Scott Weinstein is a member of the Montreal based Jewish Alliance Against the Occupation. He is currently in Palestine working with the Palestinian Red Crescent as an RN.