'The people who attack us today could be our patients tomorrow'

West Bank military medics respond to all distress calls.

medics 248 88 (photo credit: Abe Selig)
medics 248 88
(photo credit: Abe Selig)
"We've been shot at, hit with Molotov cocktails - one time someone even threw a wheelbarrow onto our roof," said Lt.-Col. A., as he sat at a picnic table with his soldiers on their base near the Hawara Checkpoint outside Nablus on Thursday. "Lots of rocks, too," he continued. "The kids throw a lot of rocks. But the same people who throw rocks and shoot at us could very well end up being our patients tomorrow. You never know." This is the nature of the work facing the IDF's Military Emergency Response Team, a group of conscripts and officers, men and women alike, whose military service is a hybrid of sorts - part combat soldier and part first responder for the wide variety of residents and military personnel in and around their operating base in the northern Shomron. In its current position, the team divides its time between helping out soldiers on the base, treating emergency cases that show up at the front door from all around the area, and remaining on call, day in and day out, to provide a mix of Magen David Adom-style response with combat support, if the need so arises. "Only the best come here," Lt.-Col. A said. "I look at them like they're kids, but they far surpass a lot of the doctors I know." Although the commander admitted he was biased, the senior paramedics and trainees - none of whom has passed their 22nd birthday - are a highly driven bunch, and the demanding conditions and circumstances they find themselves in on a daily basis have lent them a modest professionalism that's constantly put to the test. "There are a lot of difficult decisions involved," explained Or, one of the paramedics commanders. "But at a certain point it just becomes a part of you." "We encounter a lot of dilemmas," said Itamar, another paramedic in the group, whose previous training with the Golani infantry brigade saw him called back to enter the Gaza Strip as a combat medic in January, during the IDF's Operation Cast Lead. "There are more than 400,000 Palestinians in our area," he said. "And we respond to every incident that gets called in, no matter who's involved." What that means, as Itamar and his counterparts explained, is that in addition to their other tasks, the team enters the area's Palestinian villages as well to treat people who have been injured in car accidents or even those wounded from physical violence that erupts between feuding families. Sometimes they even treat terrorists. "It's more important to keep them alive," said Ina, another of the paramedics. "We treat them, they go to the hospital, and then they're arrested." "And our ambulance isn't armored," Itamar stressed. "Our job is to respond rapidly, and the armor significantly slows the ambulance down. So, we call in for back-up, and then we go in." But when the MERT goes in to an Arab village, it's just three paramedics and their driver. Infantry backup, if needed, arrives on its own. Although the paramedics travel armed, they said it can be unnerving when an entire village has turned out to watch them perform their task. "It can be a dangerous and confusing situation," Lt.-Col. A explained. "There was an incident once, when a team responded to a call where someone had been wounded in a family feud. When they arrived on the scene, the Red Crescent responders were already there, but they were standing on the side, and tons of the villagers had come out to watch. Our team went in, did what they could to help out, and evacuated the wounded," he continued. "When the dust settled, we found out that the Red Crescent personnel were somehow connected to one of the feuding families, and the crowd wouldn't let them approach the wounded, nor did they want to." "Another time we treated a wanted guy, from one of the [terrorist] organizations," he continued. "We didn't know he was wanted at first, and when we took his stats, his heartbeat was racing. We brought him into the ambulance and, once he saw that we were just helping him, his heart rate went down. Only later did we find out who he was." But the story, Lt.-Col. A. explained, can go the other way as well. "There was a case where one of the Jewish residents in the area was involved in a car accident," he said. "And the Red Crescent were, again, the first to arrive on the scene. When we got there, they had already begun treating him. We're not robots, we obviously all have our political leanings, but we do our utmost to leave them aside when its time to act." The officer also explained that while many people - fellow soldiers included - often ask them how they could treat the same people who the next day might shoot at them, it was simply a matter of professionalism. "We're humans first," he said. "And I know that if I tell someone to treat a soldier better than they treat a Palestinian, sooner or later, they'll slip up with the soldier too. There are no politics here, just professionalism."