A day with the Red Crescent on the West Bank

A couple of years ago I accompanied my buddy Glen Johnson (whom you might have read about in the news recently) on one of his trips to the West Bank. He was finding it hard starting out as a freelance journalist at the time and if I remember correctly he was down to his last 200 shekels at the time. Since then his career has taken off, with regular pieces in the Monde Diplomatique and an op-ed piece in the New York Times. It was a pretty surreal day that included visiting a rather depressing zoo and amusement park sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Anyway after the day we spent on the West Bank we wrote a story together. I’m not sure if it ever saw the light of day so I thought I’d post it here. By the way, the picture that Al Jazeera used in their story of Glen was one that I took on that day on the West Bank.

It is a quiet day at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society office in the West Bank city of Qalqilya. Several men in red and white uniforms lie on couches. A fan in the corner of the room blows cool air to keep the late summer heat at bay and a Syrian soap opera plays on the television.

Alla, a 32 year old paramedic, is preparing a nagileh water pipe to smoke. He fills the bowl with apple flavoured tobacco and then tightly covers it with aluminium foil. Pulling a strategically placed thumb tack from the couch he punches a neat arrangement of holes in the foil. Using a pair of tongs, he arranges a few pieces of burning charcoal on top of the foil.

‘You can take photos,’ he says as he draws on the pipe to get it smoking, ‘but don’t take of the nagileh.’

‘Would you like to have a look around?’ asks Fares, another paramedic. In his office he points out a map of the district which shows Qalqilya at the head of a salient of land encircled by the Israeli dividing wall leaving Qalqilya isolated, linked by only one road to the rest of the West Bank.

Moving on he shows the beds where the men sleep when they are on duty, a supply room with shelves stacked high with equipment and supplies, a dispatch room where men are taking calls and working at the computers, and the centre’s ambulances.

The Qalqilya office has four ambulances: two Intensive Care Unit vehicles and two general purpose ambulances. The ambulances are equipped with an electrocardiograph, oxygen cylinders, a pulse oximeter, a defibrillator, intravenous drips and a collection of other materials that the paramedics use in their day-to-day lives.

Khalid, 27, another volunteer from Qalqilya, said that they used different ambulances for different assignments.

‘If a boy falls over, or an old woman has sore chest, we use general ambulance,’ said the 27-year-old paramedic.

‘For shooting we take intensive care ambulance.’

Returning up the stairs the tour is nearly over but Fares has two more things to show. The first is a poster on the door at the entry to the centre. It reads ‘Christmas: IDF style, the gifts keep on coming’ and shows an IDF soldier superimposed onto a montage of smaller pictures. Up close Fares points out that the photos are of Palestinian children with war-induced injuries, women weeping over bullet-riddled bodies, and piles of rubble. Then Fares returns to the dispatch room and points to a framed photo on the wall of a paramedic, Mahdi Jadda, who in Fares’ words became

a ‘shaheed’, a martyr, when he was killed on duty eight years ago. The point is clear, while it may be peaceful and relaxed today, this is not always the case.

The paramedics here often find themselves at the sharp end of the Israel-Palestine conflict, cleaning up the human casualties.

Over the past nine years, Red Crescent paramedics throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have treated 8,889 people shot with live ammunition, dealt with 6,823 instances of tear gas inhalation, and tended to 7,253 rubber coated metal bullet wounds. They have treated over ten thousand miscellaneous injuries sustained mostly due to bomb fragments and shrapnel.

And they have dealt with 5,365 deaths.

Alla, the broad-shouldered Palestinian paramedic smoking the nagileh provides a personal example of the kind of work the paramedics do. Impassively he recounts a story about a call-out he received during the al-Aqsa intifada.

‘At 5p.m. the dispatcher was calling, saying that three injuries behind the mosque.

‘We got to the mosque and the Israeli soldiers were there. They told us there were no injuries. So we go back to the office.

‘At 6.30p.m we got another call saying there were injuries there. So back again and the soldiers tell us again to leave.

‘At 7.30 another call. We got to the mosque and I see my brother. He and two of my friends were shot. He was shot in the legs. He was on the ground and the soldiers had told him that he wasn’t allowed to move.’

Perhaps conscious of the overall impression they are giving the paramedics move to another subject. They are keen to discuss a first aid course for the blind they ran in March, the first of its kind on the West Bank. Ten blind people attended the three day course and we awarded certificates, an event that garnered considerable media attention. Our visit to Qalqilya concludes with a trip back to Fares’ family home to view the first aid manual in Braille he produced especially for the course.


Campbell MacDiarmid and Glen Johnson


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