by Dana Moss and Mahmoud Abu Arisheh, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel
2015 ended and 2016 began with an uptick in violence in Israel and Palestine. Healthcare teams - whose role as neutral bystanders and whose protection is enshrined in international law – were among those directly affected. From September 2015 until today the Palestinian Red Cross reported over 400 cases of attacks by Israeli Army and Border Police on personnel and transport teams treating those in need. So far, 29 complaints of attacks have been filed by Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, with documented attacks taking place primarily in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Al Bireh.
One such case occurred on October 2015, in Al Bireh, as an ambulance of the Palestinian Red Cross attempted to evacuate a wounded individual at a protest, Border Police fired bullets at the vehicle. The wounded individual was removed from the ambulance by force as border policemen pointed their guns at the ambulance driver and closed the ambulance door forcibly on his leg, and an ambulance crew-volunteer was kicked as he tried to prevent the removal. The incident ended with the throwing of stun grenades at the ambulance and the medical volunteer and driver needing hospital treatment. Other complaints submitted echo this case, and document injuries sustained by medical personnel, including the use of bullets and tear gas, removal of injured people from within ambulances and interference with the work of medical teams.
Yet, instead of directly and immediately dealing with such complaints, the Israeli authorities have opted for a policy of ongoing delays and dismissal of these cases. Of the 29 complaints, none have resulted in finding guilt on the part of Israeli authorities. In fact, most have been systematically delayed, with the army responding up to nine months after the filing of the complaint, blaming the delay on “technical difficulty”. Ten cases have so far received no response whatsoever. The Police Investigations Unit refused to investigate another nine cases, arguing that they “investigate suspicions of criminal offenses only, undertaken by a policeman or a volunteer, whose maximal punishment is over a year”, despite the cases involving behavior with a potential risk to life, including shooting at ambulances.
Delays impact investigations, with the quality of evidence deteriorating as time goes by. Moreover, these delays and the closing of cases that allegedly do not merit investigation, suggest the unwillingness to protect healthcare professionals. It communicates that such attacks are legitimate, and that those carrying them out will not be punished. This is a dangerous message to send, and leaves those working on the ground more vulnerable than they have previously been.
The international community can become involved by sending a clear message that these cases must receive the necessary attention, demanding accountability for such actions so that security forces honor the protection of medical teams. Resolution 2286, voted by the UN Security Council gives the necessary impetus for this. International organizations working in the field of health can lead this call. Without such outside pressure, the next round of violence will bring great vulnerability to those healthcare professionals working day in, day out on the ground.
The video below illustrates these attacks, showing Israeli security forces spraying pepper gas directly on Palestinian Red Crescent personnel after medical teams tried to evacuate a wounded man, on October 31st, in al Balou', in al Bireh.