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From the field

Medical Personnel Harmed: The Delay, Abuse and Humiliation of Medical Personnel by Israeli Security Forces

December 2003, Joint report with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Summary

Israel's siege policy that has been implemented in the Occupied Territories over the last three years has unquestionably altered the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. As of early November 2003, the IDF had established fifty-six staffed checkpoints in the West Bank, as well as 607 physical roadblocks that prevent the passage of motor vehicles?457 dirt piles, 94 concrete blocks and 56 trenches.

These restrictions on movement impede the functioning of an emergency medical system. As a result of the physical roadblocks, ambulances must travel along winding, make-shift roads and patients must make their own way over mounds of dirt or be carried on stretchers to the other side. The absence of soldiers at these physical roadblocks makes it impossible for the sick to even explain the urgent nature of their medical problem.

Medical personnel frequently experience difficulties in crossing staffed checkpoints. The IDF does not have special procedures for ambulances to cross checkpoints, but have issued only a general procedure relating to Palestinians who seek to cross. The procedures do not provide a proper solution for the severe problems ambulances have in reaching hospitals; in addition, soldiers at times ignore the procedures. Ambulance medical teams have also reported that they are often humiliated by the security force personnel stationed at the checkpoints, and in some cases have been beaten. In a few extreme cases, medical personnel have reported soldiers' use of ambulances for military purposes.

As a result of these difficulties, ambulances are able to reach the sick and wounded only thirty percent of the time. The rest of the time, patients are forced to get to a physical roadblock or checkpoint by themselves. As a result, many Palestinians forgo calling ambulances. This phenomenon is demonstrated by the drastic drop in Palestinian women who give birth in a hospital. The rate of hospital births has dropped from ninety-five percent before the intifada to less than fifty percent.

International law is unequivocal on matters related to the protection of medical teams. Medical personnel are not to be unnecessarily delayed or harmed, unless they participate in military actions. The IDF has used this narrow, single reservation to justify a sweeping policy. Official sources repeatedly claim that Palestinians use ambulances to transport weapons and explosives, without ever bothering to provide evidence to back this up. The army's contentions easily lead the soldiers to act with suspicion, violence, and disdain toward ambulances and medical personnel. Challenging the status of ambulances as rescue vehicles critically harms the emergency medical system in the West Bank.

Israel uses "security considerations" to defend its operations in the Occupied Territories. The IDF justifies most of the harm caused to ambulances and medical teams on these grounds as well. As in other cases, it seems that in this case too, the IDF makes cynical use of security concerns to justify sweeping violations of the human rights of Palestinians.

B'Tselem and Physicians for Human Rights urge the security forces to respect international law regarding the sick, wounded, and medical personnel and:

  • Remove all the siege checkpoints;
  • Refrain from delaying ambulances at checkpoints. When specific information exists relating to a particular ambulance, a substitute ambulance should be made available to transport the sick and wounded;
  • Explain to soldiers the prohibition on humiliating or abusing medical personnel;
  • Refrain from using ambulances for military purposes;
  • Investigate every complaint sent to the Judge Advocate's office and take measures against the soldiers involved.