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Ambulances at bay, wounded unrescued

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 4, 2002


BEIT JALA, West Bank -- With Israeli-Palestinian gun battles raging less than a mile away, you'd think the Beit Jala Hospital emergency room would be full of casualties.

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Family and friends help Ibrheem Yousef cross an Israeli-made roadblock near Beit Jala on Wednesday. Yousef, who has a bad heart, needed to see a doctor, but Israeli soldiers are blocking ambulances. Yousef says he's lucky because he made it to a doctor.

But the 70-bed hospital seemed eerily quiet Wednesday. Idle staffers chatted; the ambulance remained parked outside.

"For the last 48 hours we couldn't reach any wounded person," nurse Murad Amro said. "Most stayed on the streets and roads -- we tried to have an ambulance go there, but they prevented us."

"They" are soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, which has mounted a massive military offensive in Bethlehem, Ramallah and other Palestinian cities in an effort to stamp out the terrorism that has killed more than 400 Israelis in the past 18 months. But in the process, critics say, soldiers are making it hard, if not impossible, for ambulances to reach sick and wounded Palestinians, some of them civilians with no part in the fighting.

"We're in a situation where hundreds of people are calling and we can't respond," said Dr. Hussam Sharkawi of the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

On Tuesday, ambulance service in Ramallah came to a halt for much of the day after Israeli soldiers stopped three ambulances and detained the occupants, including the Red Crescent's president. One driver said he and the others were blindfolded, handcuffed and made to sit in a cold, hard rain for hours before they were released without charges.

In the past month, two paramedics have been killed when the ambulances in which they were riding came under Israeli fire. And a doctor burned to death March 4 when bullets hit his ambulance, igniting an oxygen tank that exploded. Three men were critically injured.

The Israel Defense Forces acknowledge that ambulances have been fired at or delayed because of security checks. However, it insists that such actions are taken only when ambulances travel without authorization or are suspected of smuggling weapons, explosives or terrorists.

"Under the circumstances, we do everything we can to make sure ambulances move quickly," said Yael Hartmann, an IDF spokeswoman.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society, the local equivalent of the American Red Cross, operates about 100 ambulances in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, home to 3-million Palestinians. In times of conflict, ambulance movements are supposed to be coordinated with Israeli authorities to assure the vehicles are on legitimate humanitarian missions.

But the Red Crescent's Sharkawi says the organization sometimes must dispatch ambulances without clearance because the Israelis are so slow to respond.

"For 24 hours they did not even pick up the phone to answer calls," he recalled of one recent incident. "People are pleading with us for help -- what can we do?"

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which provides support and training for ambulance workers in Palestinian areas, agrees that coordination with Israel has been poor at times.

"And yesterday there was a complete breakdown," Aleksandra Matijevic, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said Wednesday.

Tuesday's incident, in which Israelis stopped three ambulances in Ramallah, illustrates not just the coordination problems but also the difficulty in pinning down the truth in a conflict where each side is so suspicious of the other. Palestinians and Israelis give vastly different accounts of what happened.

Driver Ibrahim Ghouli said Israeli tanks blocked his and two other ambulances around 8 a.m. as they headed out of Ramallah to pick up patients.

In addition to him, Ghouli said, six men were in the ambulances, including Palestine Red Crescent President Younis Al-Khatib. A soldier pointed an M-16 rifle at them, Ghouli said, and ordered all seven to strip for a search. Then they were handcuffed, blindfolded and forced to sit in the rain in a gully.

"All the water of Ramallah was coming toward us," Ghouli said in a phone interview Wednesday from the West Bank city, a closed military zone. "We feel very, very wet. We feel very, very cold. I asked, 'What is our problem,' and (a soldier) said, 'It is the war, we are in a battle.' "

Ghouli said soldiers kicked one of the ambulance workers in the chest and threatened another with a gun to the head, saying "I can kill you. I'm not afraid of you." He said the troops set off explosives in a nearby building, shattering the door and breaking the windows. Glass rained down near Ghouli and the others, who were blindfolded and unsure of what was happening.

"It was a terrible thing," he said, "having an explosion by you."

Ghouli said he and the others were released about 3 p.m., seven hours after they were stopped. "If they had arrested Osama bin Laden, what more miserable actions could they have taken against him?" asked the 31-year-old driver, who has a wife and three children. "We were treated very miserably. I was very frightened."

Hartmann of the Israel Defense Forces denied the men were strip-searched or mistreated. She said they were held for only an hour and a half, and that the three ambulances contained 17 men, not seven. That none of the occupants appeared sick or wounded aroused suspicions that there might be terrorists among them, prompting a thorough search of the vehicles and a careful check of identifications, Hartmann said.

Since the start of the most recent Palestinian uprising in September 2000, the IDF has maintained that Palestinian ambulances are being used for nefarious purposes. One dramatic example, it says, came March 27 when an explosive device was found under the stretcher of a wounded boy being taken to a hospital. The ambulance driver purportedly confessed and is under arrest.

"Ambulances are cynically used by Palestinian gunmen to move from place to place and to move weapons from place to place," Hartmann said.

The Red Crescent Society has requested an independent investigation and "we will take full responsibility" if the driver indeed was smuggling explosives, Sharkawi said. But he said he is suspicious of the Israelis because they summoned the media so quickly and even had a robot on hand to blow up the device.

"We don't know all the facts, but it is believed that it was planted there by Israel to justify their attacks on ambulances in the last year and a half," Sharkawi said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it has repeatedly asked Israel for proof of its claims that ambulances are used for terrorist activities. "But they have given us none," said Matijevic, the spokeswoman.

With the ambulance crisis getting worse as fighting intensifies, the Beit Jala Hospital staff waits for patients that never arrive. On Tuesday, they got a call that a 64-year-old woman and her 38-year-old son had been shot at their grocery store in nearby Bethlehem. But an ambulance was unable to get to the scene.

On Wednesday, Norwegian and Swedish journalists made it to the shop and found the two still there. Both were dead.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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