Uniting amid the terror

Israel’s unrecognized Arab volunteer medics

Khaled Rishek (left) with modern Orthodox, secular and haredi volunteers (photo credit: UNITED HATZALAH‏ MEDIA DEPARTMENT)
Khaled Rishek (left) with modern Orthodox, secular and haredi volunteers
There are many intriguing stories that occur in Israel every day. Unfortunately, not all of them are shared as widely as they should be. One such story that is rarely heard is that of Arab volunteer medics who save the lives of Arabs and Jews alike, often within earshot of a hostile crowd.
During the wave of terrorism that has gripped Israel for the past seven months, many Arab emergency medical services (EMS) per - sonnel have voluntarily put their lives on hold and headed to the scene of a terrorist attack to save the lives of the wounded, regardless of whom they are treating.
Ramsey Batesh, Khaled Rishek, Marwan Masarwa and Morad Alyan are just a few of the more than 300 Israeli-Arab EMS personnel who volunteer with United Hatzalah and leave everything at the drop of a hat to help those in distress.
Batesh has answered countless calls and saved numerous lives. He has brought Jewish children into the world by helping deliver them. Batesh works very closely with his Jewish counterparts in the orga- nization, many of whom are ultra-Orthodox, and says that he feels a part of the family and that his religion is irrelevant.
“It is why I switched to become a medic with United Hatzalah; the feeling of togetherness that prevails here is not present elsewhere. That, and the response time is much faster due to the use of ambu- cycles, so we often arrive at the scene of an emergency first and we can make a bigger difference in saving someone’s life.”
Batesh began his life as a medic when he was present some years ago during a life-threatening incident that took place near his home.
“I didn’t know what to do to help the person,” Batesh explained. “I felt I needed to learn what to do, so I found a medic course and I joined. Saving people is in my blood, it is what I feel I should be doing with my life.”
After five years of being a volunteer in the organization, Batesh received one of the organization’s ambucycles, a sign from the organization’s directorship that his services were valued. In the Arab communities of east Jerusalem, an ambucycle is crucially important in saving lives and diminishing response time. “In the Arab sector it takes a long time for an ambulance to arrive,” said Batesh.
“The ambulance is required to wait for a security escort, and that often takes many precious minutes to organize. As a local and resident of the community, I go without an escort, and I arrive in under three minutes thanks to the ambucycle from United Hatzalah. People see me coming and they let me pass as quickly as they can. There is a growing respect for EMS services, thanks to the help that we provide as United Hatzalah volunteers.”
Over the past five years, Batesh has been a first responder at emergencies all over the city. One incident in December 2015 saw him providing first-aid treatment to a police officer who was involved in a car accident on the Begin Highway. He was on his way to secure the site of a terrorist attack.
“For me, there is no difference whether the person I am treating is a police officer, a soldier, a Jew, or an Arab citizen. I feel that I am there to help and, if necessary, save their lives. It is the greatest gift to help people and save lives. It is the greatest thing that I can do, and I am happy that I have been given the opportunity to do it.”
Rishek had a very similar experience when he was starting out as an medic.
“I joined United Hatzalah a few years back and it became a sec- ond family for me. I get invited to family celebrations and wed- dings. To be included really warms the heart, it adds an extra ele- ment when you can turn volunteering to save lives into a group of friends.”
Rishek has responded over the past few months to calls involving heart attacks, choking incidents and traumatic bleeding as well as terrorist attacks. He remains calm and professional throughout and works tirelessly to save lives.
Both Batesh and Rishek noted a void when it came to the lack of properly trained EMS personnel within the Arab population of Jerusalem. They sought to remedy this situation by partnering in order to help their communities and their city. During an inter - view they both expressed the hope that by joining an EMS provid- er such as United Hatzalah, they will be setting a good example for those around them.
Masarwa saw a similar void in his hometown of Taiba. He became a paramedic and for a very long time was the only volunteer paramedic in the city. He was introduced to United Hatzalah a few years ago and he immediately began working on opening a chapter of the organization in Taiba to be able to provide the city with quality EMS services. On April 12, the town inaugurated the newest chapter of United Hatzalah, which will eventually boast 18 trained emergency medical technicians who will provide volunteer EMS services to the Arab towns of Taiba, Tira and Kalan- suwa, as well as to Jewish towns nearby. The target area has a combined population of almost 100,000.
“We are always trying to help the people around us in our homes and our communities. That is why I turned to the com- munity volunteer-based organization to help train more medics. We want people in the community to help each other while sav - ing lives.”
For these men, saving lives is the highest value. “To save a life is worth so much,” said Masarwa. “We don’t differentiate between people based on their religion. We do our best to help everyone. The important thing is to help. It doesn’t make any difference to us whether the person we are treating is Muslim, Jewish, Chris- tian, secular or religious. We help, no matter what. We save lives. That is what we do here,” said Masarwa.
None of the three volunteer EMS personnel can recall an instance in which they were looked down upon or treated differ - ently in the organization due to their ethnicity. Batesh added that he is respected at home and among his Arab peers for being a part of United Hatzalah and for working to save lives. “People here respect us just like everyone else. I’ve been here for five years and I have not once been ill-treated or even looked at differently for who I am. I enjoy my job and I enjoy being a part of this family. My own family is proud that I work here and that I am able to save lives in my own community. The entire community in Taiba is very much in favor of the work that United Hatzalah does in providing help for the city.”
Rishek, who hails from Abu Tor, said: “It is something really special to be an Arab and accepted among a group of Jews. This organization is very special in how it portrays unity and the term ‘united.’” Rishek works at the YMCA and guides youth tours that come to visit. Due to the proximity of his home and his work to the Old City, he has been among the first responders at many of the ter - rorist attacks that have taken place there. “The terrorist attacks are very hard to deal with emotionally. While I have not had to deal with any racism personally, and cer - tainly not in the organization itself, I often hear the calls of peo- ple at the scene of a terrorist attack chanting ‘Death to all Arabs.’ When I am confronted with this, I simply ignore them and I get to work, the work of saving lives. When I arrive at the scene, everyone accepts me; I am treated like an equal and someone who is there to help others.”
Alyan, who works at Hadassah-University Medical Center, is the head of United Hatzalah’s eastern chapter in Jerusalem, a chapter that is staffed by Muslim Arabs. According to Alyan, the organiza- tion has a total of roughly 300 Arab volunteers across the country, making up close to 10 percent of the total number of volunteers in the organization. The main concentrations of Arab volunteers are in Jerusalem, Kafr Kasim, Acre and Taiba as well as in the Galilee.
In 2013, Alyan won the Victor J. Goldberg Institute of Interna- tional Education Prize for Peace in the Middle East together with United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer, for the organization’s efforts to integrate Arabs and Jews.
According to Beer, “The ‘united’ in United Hatzalah is about uniting to save lives. Anyone who wants to save a life, no matter who they are, can be a volunteer and save lives with us.” •