In November 2005, a historic event was held in Geneva in the presence of the head of Israel’s Magen David Adom (MDA) rescue service, his Palestinian counterpart, the Swiss foreign minister and the illusionist Uri Geller. In a short but emotionally charged ceremony, the representatives of the Israeli organization and its counterpart the Palestinian Red Crescent signed a memorandum of understanding that earned them both official recognition by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – a status the MDA had been seeking since its foundation 58 years earlier. The agreement formalized the cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian organizations, and it called for closer ties between them, while ensuring the creation of joint projects.
In her moving comments, the Swiss minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, who later served as her country’s president, thanked the representatives of the organizations, the mediators and also Geller. She noted that Geller did more than “just help break the ice with the skills that have made him famous – a considerable number of bent spoons line the road that led to this agreement.”
But before joint projects could get underway, it turned out that the memorandum of understanding included clauses in which MDA recognized the fact that the areas conquered by Israel in 1967’s Six-Day War are Palestinian territory, and that the Red Crescent possessed national authority over them. By signing the memorandum, MDA also agreed that as a member of the federation of the International Red Cross, it had no authority outside Israel’s borders as they are recognized by the international community, and that every operation it conducted in the occupied territories had to be coordinated with Red Crescent.
Both the Red Cross in Israel and MDA have kept the details of their contacts secret. Nor are they willing to provide information about the implementation and enforcement of the memorandum’s clauses. However, a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the negotiating process was provided by Geller in an interview he gave Jonathan Margolis, the author of the most recent biography of the magician, “The Secret Life of Uri Geller: CIA Masterspy?” According to Geller, who was president of the International Friends of MDA, on the eve of the signing ceremony, the Israeli Foreign Ministry almost stopped the process when it discovered that MDA would not even be able to operate in East Jerusalem. Geller revealed that an urgent late-night phone call to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon solved the problem.
After signing the memorandum, MDA formally stopped operating in the West Bank. It did so secretly and in stages, and today its presence there and in East Jerusalem is mostly covert. Whereas MDA stations within the 1967 borders are financed directly by the organization, which is responsible for its own budget, its units in the settlements get half their budget directly from the Health Ministry, with the rest coming from donations and the settlements themselves.
The ambulances that operate in the territories no longer belong to MDA, even though most of them bear the organization’s logo and sometimes also its name. The same goes for field volunteers in the territories, who get their training from MDA, but do not formally belong to it. They operate within the framework of Hatzalah Yehuda & Shomron (literally, Judea and Samaria Rescue) – an independent organization founded by the settlements’ security officers during the second intifada. Its president is Rabbi Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, who gave his imprimatur to a book about the religious precepts for killing gentiles (“The King’s Torah”), and who ruled, during the current wave of terror attacks, that “it is permitted to strike a terrorist even if he has already been subdued.”
Every stage in MDA’s disengagement from the West Bank drew furious protests from the settlers and the Israeli right. In August 2011, for example, MDA set about removing the red Stars of David from the ambulances in the settlements, in accordance with their commitment. The Yesha Council of settlements demanded a stop to this. Then-MK Arieh Eldad (National Union) termed the action “a disgraceful surrender to the dictates of the Arabs and assent to the notion that the areas of Judea and Samaria are occupied territories.” He added that the MDA’s move conflicted with the position of the Israeli government, “which views them as territories in dispute.”
For a few days in June 2013, MDA volunteers in the West Bank were required to wear medical vests that didn’t carry the organization’s logo. According to media reports, the directive was issued ahead of a visit by ICRC representatives to check the implementation of the understandings. Yesha Council chairman Avi Roeh termed this “an attempt to create separation between populations in the State of Israel.” He called on the MDA “not to surrender to anti-Israeli elements and not differentiate blood from blood.”
The truth cannot be bent like a spoon, and the state’s attempt to simultaneously admit and deny that an occupation exists has created an impossible situation for the MDA during the present wave of violence. Video footage showing wounded Palestinian terrorists not receiving potentially lifesaving aid from medical teams present at the scene – like the shooting of a wounded terrorist in Hebron last month – are liable to place the MDA in an embarrassing situation with the international institutions. Such behavior conflicts with the international conventions to which the MDA is committed, as are the medical teams that bear the organization’s symbols – even if there is no formal connection between it and Hatzalah Yehuda & Shomron.
For example, last October, Saad Muhammad Youssef al-Atrash, 19, was shot and seriously wounded in the wake of a stabbing attempt by him adjacent to the Jewish Avraham Avinu neighborhood in Hebron. He was filmed lying on the ground, as he bled to death over the course of some minutes, while the civilian and military medical teams at the site did nothing. A month later, at the Al-Fawwar junction near Hebron, a soldier was wounded in a stabbing attack and was treated by several medical teams that arrived on the scene, before being taken to hospital. Video footage uploaded to the Internet show the assailant, Mohammed al-Shubaki, lying on the ground for some time, dying of his gunshot wounds. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
In February, Yasmin a-Tamimi, a 14-year-old girl, was shot after trying to stab a Border Policeman near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. She, too, was filmed lying on the road for minutes, bleeding and receiving no medical aid. She died of her wounds after being taken to Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem. The event was widely publicized because of another video clip filmed at the site, which showed a Border Policeman kicking an elderly man and knocking him out of his wheelchair. The invalid, together with other Palestinians seen in the video, had tried to get to the girl either to help her or to demand that she be given medical aid.
That incident was also documented from another angle – via the telephone of an ambulance driver named Ofer Ohana, from the Jewish settlement in Hebron. In the video, which was posted on social media sites by an organization called Friends in Need, Ohana’s voice is heard describing the scene as he films the wounded girl, who is bleeding profusely. Next to Ohana is a paramedic wearing blue gloves, who stands around doing nothing.
Besides being an ambulance driver, amateur photographer who reports from the field and the founder of Friends in Need, Ohana is also the director of the Gutnick Center for tourists in Hebron and of a local clubhouse for soldiers there. Ohana made the news in 2009, when he played Hasidic music at a high volume, in an effort to drown out the local muezzins’ calls to prayer. He is now one of the Hebron Jewish community’s most prominent figures. Almost every soldier who does a stint in Hebron encounters him – either in the rest station or when they’re on guard duty at night, when he brings them snacks and hot drinks. According to his Facebook page, Ohana maintains warm relations with soldiers and senior officers, including former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.
By the same token, Ohana is also a familiar figure to left-wing activists who visit Hebron. He’s been documented several times attacking activists from human rights organization B’Tselem and the Breaking the Silence organization verbally, sometimes even physically. A friend of Ohana’s relates that he knows of at least one instance in which soldiers at a checkpoint text-messaged Ohana to inform him that a tour group of one of the organizations was on its way to Hebron.
In the videos he posts online depicting the terror attacks, Ohana always sounds like the dominant voice. He’s often seen giving instructions to soldiers or police, warning them about threats, managing the rescue teams and interrogating Palestinians. In some cases, he seems to be taking charge of events and telling the security forces what to do. In most of the videos, he can also be heard cursing wounded and subdued assailants. He is not seen giving them medical aid in any of the footage.
Ohana declined to comment or be interviewed for this article, but the video footage indicates that his behavior is systematic. Some of his colleagues on Hebron-based rescue teams have declared that they will not treat Palestinian terrorists. According to a Hebron resident who wished to remain anonymous, this approach “is the heritage of Dr. Baruch Goldstein.” Goldstein was a physician from the settlement of Kiryat Arba adjacent to Hebron, who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in a mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. He “was known for not being willing to treat terrorists,” this source says, adding that, like Goldstein, “Hebron ambulance crews assist and evacuate [Palestinian] people injured in road accidents, women about to give birth – Arabs who didn’t do anything. But in no case will they agree to treat terrorists.”
Inflaming the situation
Ohana also arrived at the scene of the headline-making incident in Hebron on March 24. An edited version of the various clips of the event, edited by Haaretz, allows one to view, in chronological order, segments filmed from different angles, showing the actions of the Israeli soldier, Elor Azaria, and hear the voices around him just before he fired his fatal shot into the head of the wounded Palestinian, Abdel-Fattah al-Sharif. This version also makes clear the significant part played by Ohana as events unfolded.
The specially edited video shows Ohana arriving at the scene in the first ambulance. He then quickly removes a number of white cartons from it, although MDA procedure strictly prohibits the use of emergency vehicles for private deliveries. However, this is not the main problem with Ohana’s behavior at the site.
The impression created by the first two minutes of the edited video, prior to Ohana’s arrival, is of a relatively calm atmosphere. Even though the army forces did not cordon off the site, as required, the situation appears to be under the control of the two squad commanders and, afterward, the company commander at the scene. At this stage, some of the soldiers are seen milling about in civilian attire, or in uniform, without bulletproof vests, helmets or other forms of protection. Settlers, too, are walking about freely, some taking pictures while cursing the wounded Palestinian.
Viewing the footage from the scene intercut chronologically shows clearly how the atmosphere changes when Ohana arrives. With panicky shouts, the ambulance driver takes command of the evacuation of the wounded soldier, while simultaneously filming the event with his mobile phone and commenting on the unfolding developments for his social media followers. At every available opportunity, he is seen inflaming the atmosphere. Ohana is the one who shouts, “That terrorist is still alive, that dog.” But instead of giving him medical assistance, he adds, “He’s alive, c’mere, someone should do something.” In the last video he uploaded from the scene, he is heard mocking a volunteer from the Zaka rescue unit who, together with soldiers, is carrying a stretcher with the body of one of the Palestinians. “My dream is to be a municipal worker, to collect garbage,” Ohana says. “Whoever comes to kill Jews, let them burn him in the fire of hell today. What are you evacuating him for? There are full garbage bins here. Let the dogs eat him. [He’s] a dog and the son of a dog.”
The debriefing carried out by Central Command states that there were two soldiers at the scene who were trained as paramedics. One of them was Azaria, who shot the wounded Palestinian. In addition, two ambulances arrived quickly from the Jewish settlement in Hebron, along with at least three volunteer civilians from Hatzalah Yehuda & Shomron. In the edited video, they are seen treating the wounded soldier until he is taken away in an ambulance. He receives devoted care: All the medical teams present came to the aid of one lightly wounded soldier. Accordingly, the medical section of the Central Command report stated (this was before the B’Tselem video went viral), “The incident was handled successfully.”
But it was, of course, a very limited success. The debriefing did not take into account the fact that for 11 minutes – from the moment he was shot the first time, until he was shot to death – Sharif lay on the ground, seriously wounded, without any of the paramedics checking his condition or treating him. It is clear from the edited video that this was also the situation even before anyone raised the suspicion that there might be an explosive device or called for a bomb disposal expert to be summoned.
MDA director-general Eli Bin responded scathingly to what he saw in the videos documenting Ohana’s actions and the footage of the Hebron event. “It is completely unacceptable,” he told Haaretz mid-month, adding, “The procedures will be improved in the wake of what happened. This week, I plan to make the rounds of all the medical teams operating in the sector and personally make things clear. Anyone who dares to violate these procedures and refrains from giving appropriate medical assistance to every person, irrespective of his identity or deeds, will find himself outside the organization.
“My first responsibility is, above all, for human life. Accordingly, the instructions to all the medical teams are not to approach terrorists at the site before the security forces confirm that this can be done,” continued Bin, adding, “Henceforth, the medical teams will be instructed to be active in this regard. They need to strive to treat the wounded and to demand that the security forces carry out an orderly clearance process [of suspects].”
The IDF, however, is far less willing to consider any criticism of its medical teams’ performance during terror attacks. According to a senior source in Central Command, “In the current wave of attacks, Central Command medical teams have treated about 400 casualties, of whom some 200 were Palestinians.” He added that the message that Palestinian casualties must be treated without reservation is conveyed to the field units, and some scenarios in exercises carried out by the medical teams include the simulation of wounded Palestinians. In light of the legal proceedings underway against Azaria, who has been charged with manslaughter, the source and others in the IDF were unwilling to comment on that specific event, including the performance of the paramedics at the scene.
In the wake of Ohana’s behavior in the Hebron incident, the IDF spokesperson lodged an unofficial complaint with the MDA. The MDA is not saying what action will be taken against Ohana, but people in the latter’s circle say he has already been forced to resign his position as an ambulance driver. He can still visit sites of terror attacks and inflame the situation in one of his other official capacities, however.
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