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Palestinian, Israeli medics caught in turmoil of conflict

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DAHRIYA, PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: When a Palestinian doctor stopped to help a family of Israelis targeted in a West Bank shooting; it was hailed as a rare moment of compassion in a bitter conflict.

Ten months of violence between Israelis and Palestinians have deepened suspicions between the two sides, with doctors and medics saying they come under greater scrutiny at times of increased tensions.

Some Israeli and Palestinian medics say they have been attacked while working, but all insist that politics is far from their minds when they respond to a medical emergency.

Ali Shroukh, who lives in the town of Dahriya in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said he did not think twice when he rushed to assist the Israeli shooting victims, and rejected the label “hero”.

Shroukh was on his way to Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to pray on July 1 when shots were fired at a car carrying a family of Israeli settlers south of the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, causing a crash that killed the father.

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He said he stopped to help even though he knew from the car’s number plate that the passengers could be Israeli settlers.

“I am not a hero,” Shroukh told AFP. “I followed my religion, my conscience and my profession. It is a humanitarian mission to stop and help.”

Stark example

He said doctors “make an oath to help an enemy before a friend”.

Shroukh said he has received messages of congratulations from around the world, including from Palestinian and Israeli doctors, praising him for putting politics aside.

But keeping politics out of the medical profession, like most things in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is near impossible. Medics have been accused of bias and of abandoning wounded people from the other side.

One stark example of this is in Jerusalem.

The Israeli government does not formally draw a distinction between predominantly Jewish west Jerusalem and Palestinian-dominated east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 and later annexed.

But the Israeli medical service Magen David Adom (MDA) says it will only enter parts of east Jerusalem with a police escort for security reasons – which can lead to delays of more than 30 minutes in people receiving vital treatment, some medics say.

In their absence, the Palestinian Red Crescent (PRCS) tries to fill the gap, while MDA first responders who live in east Jerusalem or volunteers from the United Hatzalah group also rush to the scene, often on motorbikes, to provide first aid until ambulances arrive.

Palestinian Ramzi Batesh, who works for United Hatzalah, said the rescue group established an east Jerusalem branch of the originally Jewish organisation because the time gap was leading to lives lost.

Medics threatened

Responders in east Jerusalem are all Palestinians, except for Jewish volunteer Josh Wander.

He said he has had stones thrown at him as he raced to provide care while wearing his yarmulke skullcap, but that those in need are rarely concerned about his religion.

“I have never faced hostility from the people calling me,” Wander said.

“I have only found appreciation from the people in need. (But) I have had issues in the past going into certain neighbourhoods and coming out of certain neighbourhoods.”

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Violence since last October has killed 217 Palestinians and 34 Israelis, with Israeli authorities claiming that most of the Palestinians killed were carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks.

Palestinian medics say they are regularly prevented from reaching wounded people by Israeli soldiers, and AFP journalists have witnessed soldiers threatening medics.

A video that circulated last year showed Israeli forces firing pepper spray at PRCS medics during a dispute amid clashes in the West Bank.

Last year, an Israeli woman claimed that PRCS medics refused to treat members of her family after an attack near a settlement in the West Bank in which her husband and son died.

A fine line

The Israeli government accused PRCS of failing to remain neutral, with wide Israeli media coverage condemning the medics.

However, an internal probe by the International Committee of the Red Cross later rejected the claim that its Palestinian affiliate refused to treat Jewish victims.

International medical organisations that work with Palestinians have also been accused of failing to remain neutral by campaigners such as NGO Monitor, an Israeli right-wing group, creating a reluctance among some to speak out.

Several NGOs contacted by AFP declined to be drawn into the debate for fear of being accused of anti-Israeli bias.

The representative of one international medical organisation said foreign medics and groups have to walk a fine line in terms of criticism in order to avoid losing access to those in need or face an Israeli backlash.

The source, who declined to be named, said groups opposed to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians face a “very difficult balancing act”.

Outspoken Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert provided crucial medical care to Palestinians in Gaza during the 2014 50-day war that killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and 73 Israelis.

Nevertheless, he was banned from entering Israel after being among two dozen European doctors who signed a letter published in leading medical journal The Lancet in July 2014 that described the Gaza offensive as a “crime against humanity”.

Gilbert has appealed against his ban, but confirmed to AFP that his case remains unanswered two years on.

 

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