30 Palestinians Join ultra-Orthodox Rescue Service in Jerusalem

Less than five minutes after the woman from Jerusalem's Mea She'arim quarter put down the phone, a paramedic from United Hatzalah was at her door. He wore the familiar orange vest with the logo of United Hatzalah, but his Arab accent made her suspicious. She had expected him to be ultra-Orthodox.

Unfazed, the paramedic reassured her, and she let him examine her husband, who was having a heart attack, and save his life.

He told her he was one of 30 Arab volunteers who recently joined the Haredi Emergency Medical Services organization. The reason he was able to respond so quickly, he explained, is because he worked in a metalwork shop in Mea She'arim, although he lived in East Jerusalem.

The 30 Arab volunteers yesterday received their graduation certificates and new vests with the organization's logo, at a festive ceremony.

United Hatzalah responds to medical emergencies around the country. Most of the organization's 1,500 volunteers are Haredim but their ranks now also include two Arab physicians from the Old City and paramedics from the Old City, Beit Safafa, Jabal Mukkaber, Ras al-Amud, Silwan and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

All the new paramedics received EMT kits. Some also were given the motorscooters with the United Hatzalah markings that have become a Haredi status symbol and enable volunteers to quickly reach people in need.

The volunteers, who are on call around the clock, provide medical care until a Magen David Adom ambulance arrives.

"These volunteers are saints," United Hatzalah Chief Coordinator Eli Beer says about the Palestinian EMTs. "They practically risk their lives and give their all."

"United Hatzalah focuses on saving life, whether the rescuer is Arab or Jewish," the chairman of United Hatzalah, Zeev Kashash, says.

Murad Alian, a EMT from Beit Safafa, who along with Beer initiated the project to include Palestinians in the organization, says that in East Jerusalem the need for volunteers is critical. Not only are the closest Magen David Adom clinics far away, but sometimes rescue teams must wait for a Border Police escort. Then they waste more precious time searching for the address: GPS is of little use when there are no street names or house numbers.

"People ask us we're doing with the Haredi Jews and their sidelocks, but Arabs and Haredim are similar," Alian says. "We know them well and get along with them amazingly. And as far as the Arab community is concerned it's easier when an EMT is with a neutral, community-affiliated organization, dedicated to saving lives, rather than the government."

All United Hatzalah volunteers are trained and qualified by Israeli medical organizations and institutions, and most of them have been MDA volunteers for years.

Alian says that years of working at MDA in Jerusalem have made him an expert in Jewish religious law. He knows, for example, that some ultra-Orthodox are stricter than others and will not open a pill bottle on the Sabbath unless the medicine is an issue of life or death. In these cases the Arab volunteers do it for them.

Beer sees the inclusion of the Palestinian volunteers in a religious context. "I see Murad from Beit Safafa sitting with a settler volunteer from Kiryat Arba and a secular volunteer from Herzliya and say to myself that the days of the Messiah have come," he says.

Fifteen of the new recruits were put on the rota for weekend duties in Haredi communities and settlements over the weekend. Thus they find themselves sitting around the Shabbat dinner table with families, sampling Jewish cuisine and learning Jewish ways.

"Cholent and gefilte fish are okay, but no more than that," says Alian. "No need to get carried away."