Israeli security forces have started to interrogate seriously ill Palestinians while they are in ambulances en route to Israeli hospitals from the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip, de facto delaying their arrival by several hours. The most recent incident that Haaretz is aware of happened last week.
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A 48-year-old man suffering from myocardial dysfunction was questioned in the ambulance for nearly an hour in the beginning of May. According to the information that reached Physicians for Human Rights, the investigator asked the patient’s wife if the couple or their sons belonged to any terror organization; he took the sons’ phone numbers and questioned the patient as well. The ambulance team was permitted to remain in the vehicle during the questioning.
In mid-May, a 38-year-old man suffering from an intestinal tumor underwent two hours of questioning before the ambulance was allowed to proceed. In early April, a 32-year-old man with a cancerous growth in his knee who also suffers from incontinence was questioned for five hours. In this case, the patient’s chaperone and the ambulance team were told to leave the ambulance while the investigator was inside. When the questioning ended, the officer said the patient was a member of the Islamic Jihad and refused him entry into Israel.
The investigators do not identify themselves and do not tell the patients or the ambulance teams whether they are from the Shin Bet security service or the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF spokesperson told Haaretz that the army is not involved in the procedure.
The most seriously ill patients are brought in Palestinian ambulances to the Erez crossing, where they are transferred to Red Crescent ambulances with Israeli license plates. More than one patient cannot cross through the checkpoint at the same time, so while each is questioned in the ambulance, any other patients brought to the crossing must wait on the Palestinian side. The delays also reduce the number of ambulances and paramedics available to the Red Crescent to answer other calls.
Physicians for Human Rights is aware of five such cases to date, but the group says this constitutes a worsening of conditions.
Ten years ago, the Shin Bet or other intelligence agents started questioning Gaza residents crossing into Israel or East Jerusalem for medical treatment. The patients usually go through a security screening upon asking for permission to cross; some are summoned for interrogation as part of the screening, while others get a permit relatively quickly but are surprised by an interrogation at the crossing.
The most urgent cases undergo an expedited screening and security coordination procedure that until now did not include any type of questioning. PHR has been told that over the past two months, the number of seriously ill patients leaving Gaza by ambulance has dropped from around 15 a month to only two to three a month (although four urgent cases were transported by ambulance to Israel on Monday).
In recent years, some 200 non-urgent patients were questioned annually. This year, however, the number has risen. According to data from the World Health Association, 114 patients were questioned in January, 71 in February, 82 in March, 106 in April and 86 in May.
PHR has found that in many cases, the questioning is conducted to obtain information about Gaza and what’s going on there, and not to make a security assessment about the patient himself. Indirect confirmation of this came last year, when Channel 10 reported that Col. Lior Lotan, the prime minister’s envoy for prisoner affairs, told the family of Abera Mengistu in July 2015 that Hamas denied it was holding their son hostage. According to the report, Lotan told the family, “We contacted [Hamas] in many ways and used incentives. When relatives of senior Hamas people wanted to enter Israel for medical treatment we told them, ‘No, bring us information about Abera,’ and it didn’t work.’”
On July 5, PHR contact Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, and complained about the ambulance-questioning procedure. Mor Efrat of organization's occupied territories department wrote, “Aside from the basic ethical problem which we have warned about several times [regarding the interrogation of patients], which exploits the weakness of patients seeking medical treatment and conditions it on a Shin Bet interrogation, and at times on providing details about their families and/or cooperating with Israel, the questioning of patients in ambulances is unacceptable primarily because the medical condition of patients brought by ambulance requires urgent treatment, otherwise they wouldn’t be transported by ambulance. Any delay of an ambulance, including by a Shin Bet interrogation, undermines the medical treatment.”
The Shin Bet responded that Hamas "time after time attempts to pass funds and/or instructions to terrorist elements in the West Bank via Gaza residents entering Israel and even seriously ill patients."
According to the Shin Bet, senior medical officials in Gaza were involved in issuing falsified medical certifications for money and other motives. "In some cases, the passage of imposters to Israel was done in an ambulance and therefore the Israeli defense establishment needs to be suspicious," it said.
PHR responded to the Shin Bet by saying that "our experience shows that in over half of the cases, patients who in the past had been denied exit for security reasons received permission following our intervention. This pattern suggests that Israel makes completely arbitrary use of these claims."