The Red Crescent

29 November 2002

Doctor Hussein, a young surgeon at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society hospital in Gaza City showed me slides of PRCS emergency ambulance work during the current intifada (I am not using his real name). He told me that in 1999 11% of the land area of the Occupied Territories had been seized by the Israelis. Now the figure is 40%. Much of the best land has been taken and it is strategically placed, dividing the remaining Palestinian areas into islands. In the West Bank the PRCS has 18 ambulance stations, planned to provide services in all these islands. The Israelis have divided the Gaza Strip into three blocks for which the PRCS have provided a total of six stations.

From the start of the present, al Aqsa, intifada in Sep 2000, to Apr 2002, the PRCS attended 1500 killed and 19000 wounded. 36% of those killed were under 18 years of age. As examples of the deaths he had witnessed or been called to, Dr Hussein mentioned five children who set off for school and were killed by a mine laid by the Israeli army the previous night. A woman who had had a baby after 12 years of infertility was returning to Gaza from Ramallah. A settler shot her husband and her baby aged 3 months.

Extra-judicial killing is common. Hussein remembers a man who was arrested because he was believed to be a member of Fatah. He was shot without trial and his body was put in the road. I was shown a horrible photo of a woman who had been hit in the head by a high velocity bullet. This was done two months into the intifada by a soldier from the army camp in Netzarim settlement, from which the Israelis make incursions into Gaza City.

About the same time, two people were on the road between Deir el Balah and Khan Yunis to the south-west of Gaza City, travelling to work. Their vehicle was hit by machine gun fire. A PRCS ambulance came but the Israelis refused access to the injured people. The car was then blown up by a robot, although the passengers may have still been alive. The remains of the car and bodies were then set on fire. The Israelis have been using high concentrations of tear gas, not respecting the standards for the use of the gas. People have died as a result.

During a particularly violent period, PRCS ambulance crews set up field hospitals at ‘points of clash,’ where people were being attacked. In the three months from the end of Sept 2000, 2528 casualties were treated by PRCS in the Gaza Strip, 57% in the field.

In 18 months, the total number (ie West Bank plus Gaza) of military attacks on PRCS ambulances was 180. 25 of 100 ambulances were destroyed, ie write offs. Only 10% of the vehicles were undamaged. 100 ambulance personnel were injured or killed. One driver was killed when he went to rescue a small child. The doctor in charge of the Jenin PRCS emergency station was killed. The Israelis refused to let ambulance personnel go to treat him, though he was calling out for help. At check points within the Occupied Territories and at the Palestine-Israeli border, the Israeli military has often insisted that casualties be transferred from one ambulance to another. A number of people, including newborn babies, have died because of deliberate delays in letting people through check points in spite of urgent medical need.

Dr Hussein showed me a photo from behind an Israeli soldier who was aiming at a child. On the back of his helmet the soldier had painted, in English: "Born to kill." Dr Hussein asked me: "What sort of person could write that?"

Doctor Hussein’s family are refugees in Gaza, having been driven out of their farm of 1200 dunums (300acres) in a village near Ashkelon (a town a few miles north of the northern end of the Strip). The stolen farm is now part of a settlement, and a Moroccan makes money from the farm which the family had built up. Most Palestinian families have lost members, killed by the Israelis.

I asked if the PRCS had treated wounded Israelis. The only time he recalled such an occasion was when he went to an overturned bus, full of Israelis. Though the PRCS saved a number of lives, as soon as Israeli help arrived, the PRCS were ordered to leave.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society was founded in 1968 to help meet the health and welfare needs of the Palestinian people - needs much increased by occupation, imprisonment, displacement and exile. It cooperates with and supplements services provided by the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health. In addition to the ambulance service, the PRCS runs clinics and carries out health education, including first aid [Photo 1]. It has five hospitals in Palestine, and others in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. It also provides much needed psycho-social health care services for children and families.

Workers at PRCS centres, and in the community, help handicapped children and adults, and injured people, to develop their full potential. One of these rehabilitation centres is in Khan Yunis, on the edge of a refugee camp [Photo 2]. The refugee camps were set up to accommodate Palestinians driven out of their villages which were destroyed or occupied by Israelis in 1948. According to UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency which provides services for the refugees, the camps in the Strip are amongst the most densely populated areas in the world. Over 70% of the population in Gaza Strip are from refugee families. As the area of each camp is limited, there is little space between houses [Photo 3], and families have to build upwards.

In addition to the rehabilitation centre, there are workshops providing many different types of training and employment for disabled people, plus kindergarten, music and art rooms, a library, a museum, a gift shop selling things made at the centre, and a theatre. To train people to work with the disabled, the centre runs a four-year course leading to a Diploma in the Management of Disability.

My guide and friend at his front door

The PRCS does much to preserve and foster Palestinian culture. I saw very beautiful embroidery and weaving being done in the workshops, and there were painting and music classes. Youth work for able-bodied and disabled is another activity in which the PRCS is actively involved.

On the top floor of the Abilities Development Centre building there was seating for a café. It is not used as such because it has been fired on by the Israeli army - in contravention of the Geneva Conventions. There was a good view of Khan Yunis (popn 220,000), the refugee camp across the road (50,000). Not far away are a lovely sandy beach, which the Palestinians are prevented from using, and a big Israeli settlement, separated from the town by a broad swathe of land rendered barren by bulldozers. Where the suffering and deprivation inflicted on their fellow humans by the Israelis is so evident, this City of Hope is a triumph of the human spirit which allows the human spirit to triumph.

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