The official recognition in 2006 by the International Committee of the Red Cross of Magen David Adom as Israel's national aid society - and of MDA and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society as members of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies - has warmed up relations and cooperation between the two societies.
At a Mideast Press Club meeting sponsored by The Media Line at the American Colony Hotel in eastern Jerusalem on Sunday, top representatives of MDA, Jordan's Red Crescent and the Palestinian Authority's Health Ministry said that the transfers of seriously ill Palestinians to hospitals in Israel, including eastern Jerusalem, has greatly improved. The Palestinians, however, said much more needs to be done.
Jordan's Red Crescent Society president Dr. Mohammed al-Hadid was specially invited to Israel for the press club meeting and to be a guest speaker at an international conference on emergency medicine to open on Monday at the Tel Aviv Hilton.
Also at the press club meeting was Dr. Qasem Maani, head of the international cooperation unit of the PA Health Ministry.
Representing MDA was Yoni Yagodovsky, director of its international department, who began his career in the first-aid and ambulance service as a Jerusalem teenager treating the ill, delivering babies and resuscitating the injured.
The press conference - attended by Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists - was organized by Felice Friedson, president and CEO of The Media Line news agency, and her husband, Michael, who is its executive editor. She announced that for the first time, Knesset Speaker MK Reuven Rivlin has invited Palestinian journalists on a tour of Israel's parliament, to see how democracy works there.
Also present at the session was Dalia Bassa, the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria's long-time coordinator of health issues who works daily to arrange for the passage of Palestinians to Israel for urgent treatment, even without prior approval. She said that in 2009, she and colleagues facilitated the transfer of 3,000 emergency and non-emergency cases from Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances to MDA vehicles for treatment in Israel.
When a Ramallah journalist claimed that "many" died during the transfer, Bassa said that those in critical condition should not have been taken by ambulance "without coordination," as it was known they could not survive such a move.
Hadid, Yagodovsky and Maani all agreed that politics was best forgotten when working to save lives. Hadid noted that while Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994, "to really have peace, it is up to people to make it work."
Nine years ago, he visited Jerusalem as a guest of the Foreign Ministry and suggested to MDA that an international conference on coping with major earthquakes should unite "Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other countries," as the region is prone to earthquakes. "We can exchange our expertise in this area," he said, recalling that when he returned home in his car, he felt as if someone had hit the vehicle from behind. In fact, an earthquake had shaken it. "This made me more determined that something should happen."
Then in November 2005, MDA and its Palestinian counterpart signed a memorandum of understanding on how the societies would work together to alleviate human suffering. "We hope that next month there will be an international conference on earthquakes in Amman in which Israelis and Palestinians will participate, along with representatives of the US, Norway and other countries," he said.
Hadid concluded: "There are good people and some bad ones. But you must not let the bad minority in every religion and country make us hostages of what they believe in. We used to [wonder] what Jews and Israelis look like, as if they came from outer space.
"Now, with the media and Internet, we know. We are all the same and should make the world a better place... People who don't want us to live in peace focus on differences."
For the first time, 15 Jordanians are studying for their bachelor's degrees in paramedics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. They could have gone to Australia or the US for this, Hadid said, but a high-level curriculum was found much closer to home.
Yagodovsky recalled that soon after he first joined an ambulance team in the capital, he helped treat terror attack victims. "MDA treats people who call us for help - Jews, Arabs and tourists. My best experiences were the first time I was able to resuscitate an elderly lady who lost consciousness and the time I delivered the baby of a woman in Jerusalem's Old City.
"Today, other countries ask us for training and assistance after disasters to learn from our experience," he said.
The MDA official added that "many obstacles have been removed in the last 10 years. There are security problems, but there are five Red Crescent ambulances and 25 team members allowed to enter Jerusalem to bring Palestinian patients to east Jerusalem hospitals. There are now direct communications between the dispatching centers. It used to be much more difficult."
Maani, who lives in Nablus, said that the PA Health Ministry has had to "face continuous and rapid changes in Palestinian society, demography, illness, priorities and resources. We must reply quickly to these changes We are Palestinians under occupation, and have to think how to develop our health system, improve services and build our infrastructure under these circumstances."
While the PA has 24 government hospitals and more than 450 primary care clinics, patients are sometimes not suited for treatment there and have to be transferred to eastern Jerusalem hospitals; last year, about 20,000 such transfers were made.
Maani insisted that there were difficulties moving critically ill patients from a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance to an MDA vehicle so they could get advanced treatment in Israeli and eastern Jerusalem hospitals. He asked for the facilitation of these transfers and the movement of medical equipment and medications to eastern Jerusalem medical institutions.
"Now there is more cooperation," he said. There still are problems, "but talks are continuing. We are trying to establish centers of excellence in the PA to save money so more people can be treated inside Palestine... We had no teaching hospitals, and our doctors had to go outside to get specialization. Now we have established residents' programs in most of our hospitals, so most are teaching institutions," Maani said.
Asked why his organization had not managed to visit IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, held in the Gaza Strip, Al-Hadid said that it was the International Committee of the Red Cross that had the power to demand this, as the "guardian of humanitarian diplomacy. It is an international committee, all Swiss. It is not up to me. I can't go and visit anybody."