Fighting together to save lives

The haredi volunteers at the United Hatzalah rescue organization have welcomed a new group into their midst – Arabs from east Jerusalem.

United Hatzalah (photo credit: Flash 90)
United Hatzalah
(photo credit: Flash 90)
Asli Muhammad pulls ahead on his motorbike, driving in front of the ambulance driven by fellow volunteer Aharon Beck as they enter the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina in east Jerusalem.
Stopping several meters past the gas station at the entrance of the neighborhood, Muhammad and Beck explain to me why it is so significant that they are standing at that spot.
“This gas station,” gestures Muhammad, is the end of the line for “Magen David Adom. They don’t enter any further into the neighborhood without a police escort.”
He says that Hatzalah, an emergency services organization known for its haredi first responders, sends its volunteers into neighborhoods where the ambulances of MDA dare not go. United Hatzalah provides a complementary service to MDA, sending trained paramedics on mopeds and motorcycles to stabilize patients until ambulances can arrive. The volunteers usually arrive several minutes before an ambulance can navigate to the location, which can mean the difference between life and death for those in need of their services.
There are about 150 Arab volunteers working under the authority of United Hatzalah, some 50 of whom live in various neighborhoods and villages in east Jerusalem.
Muhammad was one of the first. He speaks in a jovial tone, but his piercing blue eyes and sudden bursts of earnestness belie an inner core of determination connected with what he regards as his life’s mission. Initially interviewed at United Hatzalah’s main offices and dispatch center on Yirmiyahu Street near the entrance of Jerusalem, Muhammad, a secular Muslim, explains that his decision to become a first responder came as a result of what he says is the abysmal state of medical services in his part of the city.
“I love to help people,” he says, recounting the tragedy that motivated him to begin volunteering.
“My father, of blessed memory, had to wait for an ambulance for more than an hour and a quarter.”
This, he says, is not an uncommon occurrence in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
“MDA has a problem,” he explains. “Simply put, the ambulances don’t enter [our neighborhoods] unaccompanied, so the time that a family or a sick person waits for medical treatment is very long. This waiting time can jeopardize a person’s life and, to our sorrow, there are many incidents like this in the east of the city.”
The reason, Muhammad explains, is that MDA medics and ambulances must wait for an escort before entering certain neighborhoods such as Shuafat and Isawiya.
These neighborhoods have a history of sectarian violence, and every year there are multiple incidents of ambulances being stoned or bombarded with Molotov cocktails, says Zaki Heler, the spokesman for Magen David Adom.
It is an “absurd” situation, he says, that rocks are thrown at ambulances, most recently during an incident last week, when all the medics were trying to do was help people.
“During the intifada, one of our ambulances was burned [in east Jerusalem]. Now it’s usually rocks being thrown,” he says.
While Heler says that MDA ambulances “go everywhere in Jerusalem,” he does admit that “there are some places that we require an escort for security reasons” in order to enter.
However, as Hatzalah volunteers in east Jerusalem live and work in these neighborhoods, they are able to respond quickly to emergencies and help people who would otherwise receive delayed care.
As one haredi medic who overheard Muhammad speak explained, the Jewish volunteers are also able to enter these presumably dangerous areas, as they have entered with local Arab volunteers on several occasions and have become known in the community.
“We enter freely because we are known. They know United Hatzalah,” he says.
Heler says that his organization also employs konanim, fast-deployment local medics, in east Jerusalem and that his organization has the same degree of operational freedom that United Hatzalah seems to have.
However, sitting behind the wheel of his ambulance, following Muhammad around east Jerusalem, Beck disagrees. MDA’s “Arab volunteers are ambulance drivers for the most part and are not konanim,” he says. “They have Arab volunteers, okay, but it’s not the same. We have around 50 Arab konanim from east Jerusalem who live in these neighborhoods,” says the haredi volunteer.
Beck believes that having locals there to help and introduce the Jewish volunteers serves to minimize friction and acclimate them to the communities.
Eli Beer, an American haredi and founder of United Hatzalah, agrees that his organization can operate in areas that are somewhat closed to MDA. Beer says he believes that “people respect us, especially because we are the only body that goes to these neighborhoods for free. Every ambulance corps charges money, and it adds up to a lot, and they don’t arrive immediately like we do.”
RAMZI IS a young man in his 20s who has been volunteering with United Hatzalah for two years. He says that his service “is seen as good” in his community and that his Jewish co-workers respect him, and he does the same. He says that a lot of the goodwill that the organization has built up is due to helping his neighbors in a concrete, ongoing fashion. His service, he believes, can help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews.
Muhammad agrees. Speaking about the rapport that has developed between the Jewish and Arab volunteers, he says that “there is a great understanding between the teams. We all know each other and help each other. Nobody says, ‘You have no connection to me, and I don’t know you.’ We are all volunteers in one organization.”
Muhammad says that there is a lack of basic medical infrastructure in east Jerusalem. This disparity, he says, makes his job as a volunteer even more critical and appreciated.
While he works as an X-ray technician at Hadassah University Medical Center, he returns at night to a neighborhood that is missing much of the infrastructure that many in western Jerusalem take for granted.
“Our lifesaving isn’t just in the field. There are elderly people in our neighborhoods who can’t travel to the medical center, so our people visit them and check their blood pressure and their sugar levels and take care of them. And if they need help with groceries, we help them. Each one in his own neighborhood,” says Muhammad.
When he started at Hatzalah, Muhammad says, “my wife wasn’t happy with my volunteering. I never could stay home for extended periods. This continued until my wife and children and I came across an accident at Jaffa Gate near the Sultan’s Pool. A child had been hit by a car and had a head wound and was bleeding, and his father was running around in circles.
The police didn’t know what to do, and people were yelling for help.”
Muhammad went to help the two-and-a-halfyear- old Jewish boy. “But to my sorrow,” he continues, “after four hours, the child died. At that moment, my wife said she understood why I had to be on call all the time.”
Now, he says, she rushes to tell him when his phone is ringing when he doesn’t hear it, and she pushes him out the door to help people.
One of the common themes expressed by many Hatzalah volunteers, both Arab and Jewish, is that their medics – settlers, Arabs and secular Jews – all work together, despite their vastly different world views and political allegiances.
“We go to every neighborhood,” says Muhammad.
“Even in Isawiya we have volunteers, and that is known as the most problematic neighborhood in Jerusalem. In Silwan, which is close to me, as I live in Abu Tor, we have been taking care of people for a long time. It’s funny to some, but we take care of both sides, both the Arab Palestinians who fight with the police and local Jewish security guards, and the police and border patrol officers. Both sides.”
Stating that he is above politics, Muhammad says that “for us, there is no politics in our work. We have one goal, and that is to go to the field and save lives.
We come, do our work [to stabilize the patient] until the ambulance can come, and we pass on the patient to the ambulance.”
The cooperation is incredible, he says. “You can also see this in the Old City. When there is an incident, you see haredim and secular, national religious and Arab all coming to take care of the same injured person together.”
Muhammad says that his uncle fell ill like his father but was taken care of by another medic, who was a “Jewish settler,” he states proudly. “He was a settler with a kippa.”
Among the volunteers there are “gatherings,” and “we care of each other, seeing what people are missing and what they need,” he continues, explaining the sense of social solidarity.
As Beck puts it, the volunteers of Hatzalah are “like one nation and one heart.”
HOWEVER, THIS cooperation has obviously not settled any tensions among the various ethnicities in the capital in any significant way outside of the realm of emergency services. There are still tensions between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem. As Beck and Muhammad stand together outside Damascus Gate after their Friday morning patrol, they receive some strange looks from worshipers coming home from the Old City after prayers at Al-Aksa Mosque.
However, in terms of bringing the city together for the purposes of saving lives, Beer believes that volunteers like Muhammad have been invaluable.
“We connected Jerusalem together. It used to be divided. The Arabs had the Red Crescent in east Jerusalem, and we had our system in west Jerusalem. And now, by having all these Arabs volunteer with us, we connected and united the city into one and gave people help faster. We aren’t political, but we connected the city in terms of medical response time. It is a two-minute response time in the city, which is the fastest in the world,” says Beer.
He says there are more Arab volunteers lining up to serve than can be accommodated at present and that Hatzalah will soon be offering a new medics course, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of New York.
“They asked us what kind of course we wanted to do,” Beer recounts, “so I purposely said I wanted a course that has haredi volunteers, secular volunteers and Arab volunteers in the same course. So it will be interesting training them from the beginning to the end and then starting to volunteer together and actually learning from the beginning together to save lives.”
Rather than considering itself a Jewish organization, Beer says Hatzalah refers to both rabbis and imams for guidance on how to treat its volunteers from different walks of life.
“When we created this organization, we wanted to save lives. That was our main goal. But automatically when we called it United Hatzalah, I said that we had to unite everyone who lives in Israel. It doesn’t matter if he is Jewish or non-Jewish; It doesn’t matter if he is religious or non-religious. A lot of people thought I was crazy.
They asked, ‘What, are you going to put them all together in one organization?’ I said. ‘Yes, because we are not a religious organization, we are a lifesaving organization. That’s our religion,’” he says.
“We keep halachic guidance, and we have rabbis so that everyone is comfortable volunteering here. We also met with imams several times,” he adds. Keeping the volunteers happy is a priority, he says.
“On Ramadan, we are more considerate towards our Arab volunteers.
We help them out if they need help for the holidays.”
Asked about recruitment mechanisms among Israel’s Arab population, Beer says, “Right now, we have a long waiting list of Arabs who want to join us. Our recruitment is by word of mouth, but it also requires a lot of research,” he clarifies. “Our coordinators in east Jerusalem research those who want to join because they want to make sure the right people join us. We don’t just take anyone who wants to join.”
One advantage of the Hatzalah method, Beck says, is that even in areas that become hotspots and are deemed too dangerous for an Orthodox Jew to enter, the local Arab medics can help unimpeded.
Although, he says, he normally doesn’t think twice before going into any area.
“It is permitted for us to enter where we want. Obviously, if it is a neighborhood that is very dangerous for Jews to enter, we have our Arab konanim who can go in immediately unimpeded,” he says.
If he went in just do do his shopping, maybe he wouldn’t be as welcome, he says, but he is there to help, and people recognize that.
The difference between Hatzalah and MDA, he reiterates, is that “MDA has these volunteers; but according to MDA’s rules, they aren’t allowed to enter the neighborhoods, even if they live there.”
Ramzi recounts, “There was an incident in Umm Tuba where a car flipped over and caught fire. Our medics were in the nearby Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa, and they went to take care of the victims, and the fire truck and the ambulance waited above in Har Homa and didn’t go in. They were waiting for a security escort. Our ready team went in, started to put out the fire until the fire department decided to join us.”
MDA spokesman Heler says, “We need an escort in the Shuafat refugee camp and Isawiya and Silwan, and local Arabs chase after the ambulances.”
KIFAH ABD El Halim of Physicians for Human Rights says that the degree of danger has been exaggerated. She does not believe there is a legitimate security concern.
“Of course, we also want to ensure the safety and security of medical teams,” she says, “but we say that there haven’t been any serious incidents where teams of MDA were injured or anything.
They claim that it’s for the security of their teams because they are afraid to enter east Jerusalem,” she says. “Every year there are two or three incidents with some people throwing stones at the ambulance, but it’s nothing serious, and I tell you it’s not directed especially against ambulances. No one wants to hurt medical teams.”
MDA does not believe that statement to be true, however.
These incidents don’t “just happen a little bit,” says Heler, “but we don’t let this harm the residents of east Jerusalem, and we continue to go to every place.”
The medics of Hatzalah don’t believe El Halim’s claims either, confirming that there are dangerous neighborhoods. But they do believe that their approach is paying dividends and minimizing confrontations.
Several say they have never experienced violence or fear in Arab neighborhoods as their MDA counterparts have, but they do say that they are aware that such conditions exist. However, medics like Beck and Muhammad say they have a very different experience from those who work for MDA.
Asked if he feels the need to carry a handgun like some medics from MDA, Muhammad smiles and says, “I never look around when I am treating someone. If somebody wants to come up behind me and smash me on the head, they will do it, and no weapons will help.”
In the meantime, he says he will continue to work to save lives – of Arabs and Jews – all over the city.
This minimization of friction, Beer says, can be seen when you consider that Hatzalah “is the only organization where you can have a settler and a Muslim volunteer working together. They are not getting any money for this. It’s not like hospitals or many companies in Israel in which Arabs and Jews work together. Here, you have Arabs and Jews working together as volunteers, and they fight together to save lives.”