Under threat: international humanitarian law in the occupied territories

Two Palestinian Red Crescent Society ambulances destroyed by the Israeli army
Two Palestinian Red Crescent Society ambulances destroyed by the Israeli army (© Eric Beauchemin)

Since the outbreak of the 2nd Palestinian uprising in the autumn of 2000, Palestinians’ freedom of movement has been severely limited. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, checkpoints and the security fence are cutting off families and friends from each other. Palestinian ambulances and medical personnel are also suffering from these restrictions in violation of international conventions to which Israel is a signatory. The Israeli authorities say this is because Palestinian ambulances have been used to transport weapons and suspected terrorists. A report on the “other” conflict in the Holy Land, the one over international humanitarian law.

Photos: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: December 19, 2004

Transcript

Since the outbreak of the 2nd Palestinian uprising in the autumn of 2000, Palestinians’ freedom of movement has been severely limited. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, checkpoints and the security fence are cutting off families and friends from each other. Palestinian ambulances and medical personnel are also suffering from these restrictions in violation of international conventions to which Israel is a signatory. The Israeli authorities say this is because Palestinian ambulances have been used to transport weapons and suspected terrorists. Eric Beauchemin reports on the “other” conflict in the Holy Land…the one over international humanitarian law.

It’s a weekday evening in a suburb of Jerusalem. I’m with a team of paramedics from the Palestine Red Crescent Society. We’re on our way to pick up a pregnant woman in labour.

Two years ago, before Israel built the security fence, it would have taken the woman 5 to 10 minutes to get to a hospital in Jerusalem. Now, the journey takes half an hour or more, depending on delays at Israeli checkpoints.

The paramedics run over to the checkpoint with their identification papers as well as those of the pregnant woman and her mother, who is travelling along with us. The woman’s moans are becoming increasingly desperate.

Within about 5 minutes, we’re back in the ambulance. We arrive at the hospital and the woman is rushed into the delivery ward.

I want to ask Israeli soldiers one question.

Ambulance paramedics Feras Samara (right) and his colleague Basem Sadaka
Ambulance paramedics Feras Samara (right) and his colleague Basem Sadaka

Feras Samara is a paramedic working for the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

If their women or their mothers or sisters want to deliver, and there is a checkpoint for Palestinian and Palestinian soldiers refused to allow for them to go to hospital, what they feeling?

In all circumstances, we give top priority to allowing ambulances to pass.

Captain Jacob Delal is a spokesman for the Israeli Defence Forces, the IDF.

Unfortunately as the conflict wore on and as the terrorists began to abuse the free movement of the ambulances as a means for them to move around, we do have to check the ambulances. That means we do a check simply of the people and of the ambulance itself, and then let it pass. So that’s something that’s unfortunately a requirement just because of the nature of the conflict because the terrorists abuse the ambulances, not because that was the original policy. But in any event, the people are allowed to pass as quickly as possible.

It’s not only Palestinians who suffer from these delays: in late September, a British member of parliament visiting the West Bank had a stroke. The Palestinian ambulance transporting the MP, Dr. Ian Gibson, was held for 90 minutes at this checkpoint north of Jerusalem. The soldiers refused to let the ambulance pass, and eventually Dr. Gibson had to get into an Israeli ambulance to go to hospital. Nearly 400 Palestinian ambulances were delayed over 30 minutes or turned back at checkpoints in the first 8 months of this year, according to OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. But two years ago, says the head of OCHA, David Shearer, the Israelis committed themselves to shortening the delays.

David Shearer, United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs
David Shearer, United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs

The UN sent an envoy out here to look at ways in which it could be improved and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, agreed with the UN envoy that ambulances should not need to wait any longer than 30 minutes. Now, 30 minutes is a long time when you’ve got a critically injured patient in your ambulance. I mean nobody in the West, in The Netherlands or whatever necessarily would like to wait 30 minutes when they’ve got a heart attack patient or something. Nevertheless, what we have been doing is monitoring the number of incidents, but incidents still occur regularly.

The 4th Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, states that medical personnel should not be impeded in their work and that people in need of medical care should get it. It does not mention any extenuating circumstances. According to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the occupied territories, over 40 Palestinians have died at checkpoints over the past 4 years because of long delays or the severity of their condition. 14 of the victims were children. More than a dozen women have been forced to give birth at checkpoints. In at least 5 cases, this resulted in stillbirths.

Palestinian Red Crescent Society headquarters
Palestinian Red Crescent Society headquarters

It’s when ambulance crews return from calls that they are at greatest risk. In August, Basem Sadaka of the Palestine Red Crescent Society was returning to Ramallah after taking a patient to a hospital in Bethlehem.

On their way back, coming from Bethlehem, the IDF stopped them on the container checkpoint and he pulled the driver out from the window and he told them turn off the motor and the siren. There’s no way that you can enter this checkpoint. The checkpoint is closed. So they had to spend the night, from 11 in the evening till 5:30 a.m.

Earlier this year, I spent over three-and-a-half hours getting through the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel. There were dozens of Palestinian workers hoping to get across too. After I passed the first check, a Palestinian in a wheelchair joined me. Ambulances from Gaza are not allowed into Israel. A Palestinian medical worker was carrying an oxygen bottle for him. The patient’s face was ashen…but he was forced to spend over two hours in the hot sun, before being able to get across to the other side and into an Israeli ambulance for treatment.

Security at the Gaza crossing is particularly tight. But the restrictions on ambulances there are not the norm in the rest of the occupied territories, says Captain Delal.

Remember, hundreds of ambulances travel daily throughout the territories, obviously, pass through checkpoints without incident, and that’s because we know the importance and that’s because the soldiers are instructed to let them go immediately.

But in some instances, says the Israeli army, security concerns make delays unavoidable. One such incident occurred last August. It again involved Basem Sadaka of the Palestine Red Crescent Society. He and another Emergency Medical Technician or EMT were responding to a call when they were pulled over at an Israeli checkpoint.

He told them, pull over and open the car and he searched the car very thoroughly. They started talking with other soldiers, and they told them there are explosives in this car and we need to break it. Then after half an hour, a police car came. It was a savannah car. They had a hammer, a drill and some equipment. Then they started breaking the car, tearing the ceiling, destroying the medicine. The EMT told him, did you find any explosives. He said no, but I want to destroy the car. The Israeli soldier actually said I want to destroy the car? Yes. As he told him, there is nothing in the car, no explosives but I want to damage the car. Then after one hour of destroying the car, they finished. EB: What was left of the car? He said that everything was damaged. All the medicine was on the floor. Even if they reached the patient, they couldn’t help him because everything was damaged.

It’s clearly unacceptable and it’s very much the norm in daily life throughout the West Bank and Gaza, not just for ambulances, but people’s homes being entered into, schools being used as detention centres…you name it.

Kimberly Crunkleton works for Médecins du Monde or Doctors of the World, an international medical relief group.

The patient that was picked up was picked up by a private ambulance company. So it meant that the family had to pay between 150 and 300 shekels whereas they would have gotten this service free if a Red Crescent ambulance was allowed through. So that’s between 30 and 60 dollars. That’s between 30 and 60 dollars which is for many families in Aiziria could be close to their monthly income.

Emblem of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)
Emblem of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)

I asked Captain Dalal about the incident. After an investigation, the IDF sent an e-mail confirming that they had received information about explosives on board. According to the IDF, the anti-terrorist brigade had to break some wooden panels for their investigation.

You have to again understand the history here. The history is that the ambulances have been used to ferry terrorists, to ferry explosive devices. That just can’t happen.

Captain Dalal cited two cases of ambulances being used to carry alleged terrorists or weapons: one earlier this year, the other one dating back to 2002, both of which were filmed by the Reuters news agency.

But again, for what there is documented and clear evidence, there are many other cases where it’s based on reports we get from the field and the international media isn’t always there all the time. So those are cases where we have clear, independent documentation.

But there have been numerous other incidents in which Israel has accused the Palestinians and the United Nations of using ambulances for terrorist purposes. The most recent was in October, when the Israeli army released a video allegedly showing a home-made rocket being placed in a UN ambulance. It turned out to be a stretcher. The army eventually removed the video from its web site, but it didn’t apologise for the incident.

Certainly the Israeli authorities have made and repeated such allegations very frequently.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty Interantional
Donatella Rovera, Amnesty Interantional

Donatella Rovera is Amnesty International’s researcher for Israel and the occupied territories.

They have, however, on the whole refused to make available the details, the information that would allow verification of these allegations because there is a pattern whereby the Israeli authorities make allegations and allegations are investigated. They are found to be baseless but the Israeli authorities don’t actually come out and say outright, ‘we made a mistake’. So basically it’s part of the propaganda war? There certainly seems to be an element of that.

The conflict is taking a heavy toll on the territories’ medical services. According to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, more than 130 of their ambulances have been damaged over the past 4 years, 28 of them beyond repair. 12 ambulance personnel have been killed in the line of duty and 200 injured, including Feras Samara of the Palestine Red Crescent. He was wounded two years ago.

I’m coming out from my ambulance to take an injured person who was behind my ambulance. They shoot him and I’m going to save him. They shoot me and another four. They were civilian. One of them is dead. The entrance from my knee, outlet from my pelvis and it cut the main vein with me. And I need surgery for 3.5 hour and they do graft. And I have three fragments at the left side. After two months from when I am injured, they arrested me and they put me in the prison for 10 days. EB: Why? Only because I am an ambulance and I am giving service for Palestinian people. Only this is the reason.

Throughout the territories, aid organisations are setting up clinics like this one to provide basic medical care to people who are being cut off because of the security fence and the restrictions on freedom of movement. But they’re no substitute for the medical services that the 3.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza used to be able to rely on.

Because it’s so difficult to move about and to reach medical facilities, people are increasingly neglecting their health because it being so difficult to move from one place to another, people will only go to the doctor or will only try to reach the hospital if they really cannot postpone it any longer. For the situation of pregnant women, it creates a very high level of anxiety as the time to give birth approaches. Women will in many cases try to have a Caesarean delivery because that’s the only way to control the time when they give birth because they know that if it happens at night, if it happens during a day when there is closure – and that’s very frequent – they will simply not be able to make it to the hospital.

It’s unacceptable. Of course, it’s contrary to international humanitarian law.

David Shearer of the United Nations again.

We do what we can to in a sense point this out as does the Red Cross in particular. But in a conflict situation, these things happen and unfortunately look like they are going to carry on happening.

Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights and humanitarian workers are very aware of it. There have been countless interventions by UN agencies, by the International Committee of the Red Cross, by international human rights organisations as well as by local human rights organisations on this issue. The problem is that because it has been going on for so long, it’s become such a routine matter that in most cases the media simply does not pick it up, and that’s why there isn’t a wider knowledge among ordinary people.

Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International. This edition of Wide Angle was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.