Motivated to Serve: The Palestine Red Crescent Society

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post


On one side of a giant parking lot are hundreds of garbage bags, neatly stacked against an earthen embankment. Across from them are dozens of pallets, piled over a meter high with bottled water. A forklift operator is moving the pallets to organize them. Palestine Red Crescent Society volunteers, wearing their trademark vests, walk around the site. All of this is part of a massive project to collect donations for Gaza, where the UN has warned that food and water shortages are increasing as a result of the conflict. The plan is to have the International Committee of the Red Cross transfer the water to a branch of the organization in the Strip.

Shahd Taweel

Shahd Taweel

THE PALESTINE Red Crescent seems ever-present in the West Bank. Since its founding in 1968, the organization has played a major role in Palestinian society. Shahd Taweel, who has volunteered with the organization since 2010, describes it as a way of life for many people. “It is a place to make friends, we teach people life skills, we train them in different programs, we do activities for the youth and host ‘fun days’ for children at local schools.”

PRCS headquarters is on the main road entering Ramallah, just before al-Amari camp and next to the town of El-Bireh, which has become a suburb of Ramallah, along with other neighborhoods that create a contiguous stretch of urban life all the way to the Kalandiya checkpoint and Jerusalem. Its building has an incongruousness to it, with large glass windows and nine floors, but with sections of Jerusalem stone that seem tilted, as if it is leaning.

One woman expressed the opinion that the stone may have actually moved after the foundation was laid. But in all likelihood, the architecture is supposed to symbolize a disjointedness, an unfinished work – much like the Palestinians themselves, who desire a state. The society has a deep connection to this national project, which has historically been part of the PLO.

It was founded by Fathi Arafat, the quiet and less well-known brother of PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Born in Jerusalem, he received his medical degree from Cairo University in 1957. In 1968, amid tensions in Jordan between Palestinians and the Jordanian monarchy, he founded the organization, modeled on similar national Red Cross and Red Crescent groups, to provide medical services to Palestinian refugees in Jordan. “He is the father of the Palestinian health system,” PRCS president Younis Khatib told the medical journal The Lancet in 2004, when Arafat died. By the time of his death, the society had built 76 clinics in the region. It operates some 27 branches throughout the West Bank and Gaza, and today has an estimated 4,200 employees and 20,000 volunteers in 15 hospitals with a fleet of 100 ambulances.

OVER THE years, a central component of PRCS has been its vast network of volunteers. In discussions with them, they describe an organization as a “home away from home”; much more than just volunteering, it provides values, guidance and a way of life. Taweel points out the “seven principles” that guide the organization: universality, unity, voluntary service, independence, neutrality, impartiality and humanity. “If someone comes here to volunteer at the age of 10, these principles grow up with them. It is not just a logo, it is something within you. It is inside you.” In Palestinian society at large, PRCS is respected as a unifying force that bridges social and political gaps. One volunteer observes that “in a time with bad politicians, or economy and conflict, this is one thing people can look to.” They are quiet humanitarians in a conflict that is often imbued with militancy.

Sitting in the lobby of the headquarters with Taweel and other volunteers on worn, fake leather chairs, we are surrounded by bustle. Workers are putting in display shelves, and another wing of the building is being renovated into a theater. It feels like a state within a state, I joke. “It is like that,” says a volunteer, smiling. “I used to think it was just an ambulance service, but we have a hotel, a restaurant; it is a home away from home for many of us.”

The headquarters of the PRCS

The headquarters of the PRCS

Two European members of the International Committee of the Red Cross walk past, along with a newly trained group of disaster management volunteers, resplendent in gray emergency service vests. Jameel Khalaf takes a drag on a cigarette. It’s the West Bank, so smoking is surprisingly common inside office buildings like this one. “I’m 19 and was born in Ramallah, and I’ve been volunteering here for five years.”

Khalaf’s teeth are adorned with braces and he alternates between nervous smiles. Studying languages at the Military College of Jericho, he got to know PRCS because of work it did with youth. “My friends encouraged me to come and work here.” He believes that although the training he participates in, such as emergency medical services, may not help his career, “I learn to work with people and be open to their needs. It helps with socialization; I also feel my behavior changed.” Male and female volunteers come and go as we talk, and he seems to know them all. “It is, for sure, a huge part of my life. All of my friends are here and I am always here, and I hang out with them after [work],” he says.

The society receives extensive support from outside the country, primarily from various Red Cross organizations in Europe. Much of their funding targets specific programs, such as psychosocial services, rehabilitation for the disabled and disaster management. The latter is to prepare Palestinians to cope with natural disasters, such as an earthquake or fire. At 16 centers, they provide services to the disabled and maintain six educational facilities for the deaf.

A PRCS ambulance evacuate wounded (Seth J. Frantzman)

A PRCS ambulance evacuate wounded (Seth J. Frantzman)

BUT FOR the volunteers, the major task often relates to evacuating the wounded during clashes with Israelis, primarily relating to the IDF or Border Police. In some cases these clashes take place regularly, such as at Nabi Salih and Bil’in. Others are a result of mass protest rallies or spontaneous incidents. Taweel admits this is a very complicated issue, as she and many volunteers are passionate Palestinians and oppose the so-called Israeli occupation deeply. But she remarks that “we have to be unbiased here, if you want to talk about [IDF] soldiers. I know volunteers who helped injured Israeli soldiers in Nabi Salih. We wear the logo and it should protect us [during conflict], even though it doesn’t. When we wear the logo, we forget about some of the crises; I know it is hard, and I get very emotional about that.”

Jameel Khalaf

Jameel Khalaf

Khalaf describes his feeling of putting on the PRCS uniform as a kind of protective shield. Often, he and his friends are called upon to transport wounded Palestinians in the midst of clashes with Israelis. They don’t think that Israelis, as a matter of course, distinguish between Palestinians during stone-throwing incidents or protests. “I feel that in protests the soldiers become blind. They don’t differentiate between a person throwing stones and a foreigner who is there in solidarity, or a paramedic or journalist. There is no respect.

They don’t understand that I am cleaning up the mess you are making,” says Taweel. One of the places there have been frequent clashes over the years is on the hill overlooking Ofer Prison, a large concrete stockade on Highway 443 between Jerusalem and Modi’in. Rock-throwing Palestinians often confront Israeli Border Police who disperse them using riot control methods and non-lethal force. However over the years many Palestinians and Israeli police have been injured.

Khalaf recalls being there on Friday, August 1. With tensions high due to the Gaza war, violence was expected. “I saw a guy who was injured. They said he had been shot in the back with a [rubber] bullet. He was lying on the street and I ran over to him and made sure it was a rubber bullet.”

As he was trying to help the man, he recalls an army jeep fired 20 tear gas canisters next to him. “I was trying to carry the guy and I even had a [gas] mask and stretcher, and the jeep turned right into me and was firing gas canisters. I tried holding the stretcher over me as a shield. I didn’t put my mask on and I couldn’t breathe. The last thing I saw was a man in black.” He was pulled from the scene by another volunteer and had to be treated for the effects of the tear gas, along with the man he had tried to help.

ONE OF the worst evenings for many of the volunteers came several weeks ago on July 24, during a massive protest that coincided with Laylat al-Qadr, a night during Ramadan in which a massive march was planned to Jerusalem. Khalaf recalls that violence was expected from early in the evening. “The goal of this march was to go pray in al-Aksa. We already knew that the Israeli army wouldn’t let anyone under 50 go; we knew there would be clashes and violence. We also saw the preparedness on the Internet. We went there because we knew it would be very crowded. We had to organize to help; there are cases of fainting and everything.”

A volunteer went to the checkpoint area earlier on to see what was happening. Kalandiya checkpoint is one of the largest and busiest between the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank Area A and Jerusalem. But the area immediately beyond the large checkpoint is a sort of wild no-man’s-land. A large divided road stretches toward Ramallah, and on the right is a congested refugee camp called Kalandiya Camp. On the left, or southern side, are the eight-meter- high concrete blocks of the security barrier. A pillbox tower manned by the army looks down on congested traffic.

Over the years, the tower has been hit by numerous firebombs, and is blackened. A huge mural of jailed Fatah official Marwan Barghouti is one of the iconic Palestinian images on the concrete wall. That July 24, a huge crowd of 20,000 marched on Kalandiya and was stopped short of the pillbox by riot police. A standoff ensued with a mound of burning tires creating thick black smoke, lending the area the appearance of a war zone. Fireworks lit by Palestinians burst overhead, and young men with rocks and slingshots fired at police, who received light wounds, according to the Israel Police spokesman. Palestinians hurled stones and men with slingshots fired marbles; some Molotov cocktails were thrown.

A 25-year-old volunteer with a boyish face named Raed Jad-al- Haq served as the coordinator that night. Through Facebook, he asked all the PRCS volunteers over 19 to come and assist, and around 100 assembled. They were paired with ambulances, to ensure a combination of professional staff, such as a first responder, driver, paramedic and volunteer. Jad-al-Haq explains that on such a night, the volunteers would take the wounded to a temporary field hospital and then on to one of four other hospitals in Ramallah.

On July 24, the 14 ambulances of the PRCS drove in rotation back and forth for hours. A sort of ambulance rank formed close to the front of the clashes, so that each time a Palestinian was wounded he could be evacuated immediately. The ambulances had to navigate their way back through the massive crowd, which was only made possible by people forming a human chain to make a path; a megaphone from a mosque was used to remind people to move aside.

You have to do what you have to do. Even if it is your brother, you put your feelings aside until you go home

Jad-al-Haq recalls that he dragged his own wounded brother from the scene. “They [PRCS volunteers] are used to that,” says Taweel. “You have to do what you have to do. Even if it is your brother, you put your feelings aside until you go home. There is no place for feeling.” Khalaf won’t forget that night, because he held a man dying in his arms. Muhammad al-Araj, 17, from Kalandiya was shot several times. “I saw he had four bullets in him,” recalls Khalaf. He points to his head “one here,” then to the side of his head and then to the middle of his chest, and in the leg. “You can’t trust the Israeli army, everything must be expected from them,” he says. “When I deal with a case, I can’t take photos while leaving him to die, that is for a journalist.”

He explains that the PRCS has a volunteer photographer, “but that night he left his camera and worked as a paramedic.” It was a traumatizing evening. “We had five injured in each ambulance. We were swimming in blood.” It was reported that over 150 were hurt, but Taweel argues that the real numbers were much higher. “For instance, if I got shot with a rubber bullet, I would treat myself and help others.” She thinks Israelis don’t understand the level of harm done by the ordnance that the police are quick to employ.

“When people say a rubber bullet is easy [less harmful], they don’t understand. If you are hit in the head or chest [it can be lethal]. When I wear my logo I feel like I am protected, when you get shot you feel terrible and it hurts. You have this adrenaline and you don’t feel the pain initially.” She recalls having bruises that lasted six months, and are still sensitive. “On Nakba Day in 2013, I was hit three times. The head of our youth division was hit in the head; he was targeted.”

THE FACT that the volunteers are mostly called upon during riots and protests results in a variety of unique issues to confront. Their families worry about them. Khalaf notes, “Every time I leave the house, I say goodbye [as if for the last time]; it is very dangerous.” As a woman, Taweel feels her mother wanted to shelter her. “There is a feeling that you must be kept safe. There is more concern for a girl’s safety. In the beginning, I wouldn’t tell my family if I went to a checkpoint [during clashes].”

Palestinian society is, for the most part, very conservative, and many women cover their hair as Taweel does; sometimes it might seem strange to work in such close proximity to men. “We have been under conflict so long, they respect what I do. We do have a conservative society and so some girls in a protest wouldn’t feel comfortable with a male volunteer. But as long as society respects what I do, it isn’t an issue.”

It was obvious at Kalandiya how many women were among the crowd, many chanting slogans and some even bringing rocks and marbles for the men to use as weapons. Among the volunteers, it seems almost half are female. “Women are very tough in our society. A woman doesn’t need police, she can protect herself,” explains Taweel.

She says there is no comparison to the situation in Egypt, where protests have involved widespread harassment of women, with rapes at Tahrir Square demonstrations. “Here, many men bring their sisters as volunteers,” she says, and Khalaf concurs that he would be happy to have his sister there. It leads one to wonder whether, on another level, the organization sometimes serves as a dating service. “We have had people who got married who volunteered together; sure, many times.”

THE TV blares in the background, with scenes from the war in the Gaza Strip, obviously putting people on edge. Many of the volunteers keep in touch with their counterparts in Gaza. “I lived there until I was 14,” says Khalaf. “When I see what is happening, I am speechless.”
He puts his head down and doesn’t speak for a few minutes. “We put our volunteers first. Thirty-five of our ambulances have been targeted by Israel [in Gaza].”

The IDF has asserted, “Hamas uses ambulances for military purposes,” but has not alleged any of those used were from the PRCS in this recent conflict. Israel has also asserted that Hamas fired 597 rockets from next to civilian installations in urban areas, of which 50 were fired from or next to hospitals. A video distributed by the IDF on July 22 shows “Palestinian terrorists using an ambulance to travel in Gaza,” but the IDF did not provide details of who owned or operated the ambulance. “Some volunteers were killed,” says Taweel. “We know them from training sessions. I speak to my friends and they tell me about dead bodies and pieces of bodies.”

Khalaf describes a building in Tel al-Hawa, where his aunt lives, that was bombed three times. “It is much worse than in 2008.” Taweel says that universities, schools and mosques have all been destroyed. “In the Geneva Convention it says they have a right to resist, they are not doing anything wrong compared to Israel. Look at how many civilians died,” says Taweel. The latest conflict only compounds a loathing for Israel’s actions. “I worked in Jerusalem once, and it felt awful,” says Khalaf.

He describes people he knows who refused treatment at Israeli hospitals, due to a desire to avoid meeting the very people they believed harmed them. The perception in Israel is that medical personnel and groups like Physicians for Human Rights are either impartial or work with Palestinian colleagues. But Taweel says that “there is no direct work. We have no coordination with them.” She describes a convoluted situation where their ambulances won’t enter Israeli-controlled Area C in the West Bank, but the volunteers will go in to evacuate the wounded.

But doesn’t Magen David Adom evacuate Palestinians as well? Taweel recounts being at a terrible bus accident near Hizma (in the Jerusalem area) in February 2012, when eight children burned to death. “I swear to you I saw ambulances from MDA and they did not help, they only came at the end. I was on my way to university [in Abu Dis]; I saw people dying and burning.”

She says that all the wounded were evacuated to Ramallah, and one girl with severe burns was then moved to Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. A spokesman for MDA claimed that there is a good connection between the organizations. “They are always in the picture and we have a high level of cooperation dealing with everyday issues,” he explained. He noted that the PRCS often prefers to take people harmed in accidents to their own hospitals in the West Bank and in Gaza, where there is contact with the Palestinians to transfer cancer patients to Israel.

Yet Taweel also remembers once having an Israeli Jewish friend who was doing a PhD. “When I saw Tel Aviv being hit [by rockets], I went and found him on Facebook and saw he teaches at Tel Aviv University. I sent him a message.” She says she knows some Israelis believe in peace or oppose the death of civilians in Gaza. “We have to separate our feelings sometimes. We are weaker, we cope with the fact that we have to send people to Hadassah [University Medical Center] in Jerusalem sometimes.”

Taweel shows me some of the ambulances, and we speak to people who are loading water and clothing to be donated to Gaza. “I wish the world would know that people in Palestine are not terrorists. We are under occupation and we have had enough. People deserve to live a normal life, and my kids deserve that. They shouldn’t grow up under fire.”

She describes growing up in a generation who were kids during the second intifada, and never had a childhood. Trauma and the years of seeing injured people have taken a toll. “We have counseling. We have group sessions, and some of us learn Capoeira,” she says.
“I am honored to be a part of this movement.”

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