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Saving Lives Regardless: The Diverse Volunteers of Israel’s United Hatzalah

Arab orthodox woman secular United Hatzalah responders
United Hatzalah Kabha Siman-Tov eulogy
United Hatzalah Bedouin responders learn CPR
United Hatzalah IDF response
United Hatzalah Kafr Qara responders

With continuous conflicts revolving around politics, religion, territory, and even its capital cities, Israel may be the hardest country in the world in which to remain apolitical. This difficulty is felt even in the realms of EMS, where our goal is to simply save lives. The pressure can be intense, and while the sides in any conflict have reasons behind their actions, the life of an EMS responder in Israel—and more specifically in the disputed territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights—can be trying. However, first responders from all lifesaving organizations, day in and day out, successfully shut out the politics, religion, and nationalism and focus on doing their jobs, regardless of whom or where their patient is.

Remembering Shiloh

Muawia Kabha, a Palestinian Israeli paramedic who has worked with Magen David Adom and now volunteers with United Hatzalah, was one of the first responders at the Passover massacre at Netanya’s Park Hotel in 2002. A terrorist walked into a crowded hotel dining room and blew himself up. Kabha, a Muslim Arab now married to a Russian immigrant, rushed to the scene and raced into the burning building to start treating the injured, most of whom were Jewish Israelis.

“Whenever I close my eyes, I can still smell the odors and see the sights of what happened that night,” Kabha says now, 16 years later. “No matter whatever else happens in my life I will always carry that scene with me. While I was treating the injured, people started gathering around and shouting “Death to all Arabs!” I kept my head down and focused on what I needed to do. I thought to myself, What if they find out the the paramedic treating the injured here is also an Arab—what would happen?

Kabha is one of the most active volunteers in Nazareth, where he and his family live, and often responds to car accidents as he drives back and forth to Jerusalem, where he works in Israel’s Ministry of Health. On one such drive in February, Kabha received an emergency alert from United Hatzalah’s dispatch and command center notifying him about a serious motor vehicle accident on Highway 6 near his location. Kabha raced to the scene and began treating IDF soldiers whose vehicle was hit by a passing truck. Two soldiers died following the accident, but Kabha succeeded in stabilizing a third, Staff Sgt. Shiloh Siman-Tov.

Kabha provided emergency first aid treatment to Siman-Tov and had a short conversation with him prior to his helicopter transport to the hospital. Six days later Siman-Tov succumbed to his injuries.

Kabha wrote a letter about his thoughts after the incident. In the letter he wrote:

"My heart weeps. It is hard to believe we only met once, and it was only for a few minutes while you were lying on Highway 6 a few days ago between broken pieces of a Hummer and unable to help yourself… It is hard to believe that one moment of carelessness brought down a hero such as yourself.

"My dear brother, from the first moment we began working to save you, my wife and I together, we already understood that not just a hero lay before us, but a superhero. Your helplessness caused us all to be helpless. We tried to treat you, we tried to make sure you stayed conscious. You mumbled a little, you spoke to us, and you created a relaxed atmosphere that strengthened us. We tried to give you strength, and you turned it around and caused us to be strengthened.

"How can one even begin to explain it? How can it be a that a true hero like yourself can die? In the few moments we spent together, you exuded strength to those around you. You exuded hope. There were times you tried to calm us down and raise our spirits. So how can a hero such as yourself die?

"Even when the helicopter landed to transport you to the hospital, what mattered most to you was your friends who were also injured in the accident. Even as the metal rods had entrapped you, your spirit spread around the entire crash site and encouraged us to help. You gave strength to the rescuers and EMS teams, and even more you gave strength to the injured, your fellow soldiers.

"As I lay my head down on my pillow before I went to sleep that night, I was reminded of your serenity, your heroism, and your fighting spirit. After all the feelings of loss with the death of two of your friends, your heroism left me with a sense of hope and pride. A small smile crossed my face with the knowledge that there are still heroes like you around.

"My dearest brother, the injuries subdued your body, the injuries stopped your heart, but your heroism still beats in my heart. It beats in the hearts of all the people who were around you during those difficult moments. You were a true hero, and you will remain a true hero in our hearts forever."

Kabha asked to eulogize Siman-Tov at his funeral and shared most of these thoughts with the gathered crowd.

‘Any Mother Would Have Done So’

Kabha is a unique and special individual, but his morals and ideals of helping others are something he shares with many other first responders. Danny Gur, a volunteer EMT who works with both United Hatzalah and Magen David Adom, lives in the town of Alon Shvut, located in the Gush Etzion region—a region many consider to be part of Judea, or the West Bank. Gur responds to emergencies all over the area, including accidents that take place on Highway 60, the main traffic artery for the region. The road is used by Israelis and Palestinians alike, and often there are accidents involving vehicles from both segments of the population. In situations such as these, there are six organizations that usually send out responders, including Magen David Adom, United Hatzalah, the Red Crescent, the Israeli police, the Israel Defense Forces (which almost always sends a medical crew to any major accident in Judea or Samaria), and the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.

Last summer Gur responded to an accident that involved a Palestinian taxi van and an Israeli bus that collided head-on. The bus passengers sustained mostly light injuries, while the passengers on the van fared worse. The driver was killed instantly, while two women in the back suffered serious and moderate injuries. After treating one of the women, Gur noticed that a baby belonging to one of the Palestinian women had been placed on a bed in one of the ambulances and was crying uncontrollably. Gur saw the other injured woman was being attended to and went to pick up and console the baby. He checked the infant for injuries and, finding none, held the child to his chest and rocked him gently.

The child’s mother had been pulled from the wreckage by a passerby before EMS teams arrived and thus suffered a severe spinal injury that left her paralyzed. She could not move to comfort or nurse her child. Gur rode with the woman in the ambulance, holding and calming both the baby and the mother the entire way to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem. When the hospital staff learned what had happened and that the Palestinian woman could not nurse her own child, a Jewish nurse, who also had a young infant at home, offered to nurse the baby until the family could be reached and make arrangements for a nursemaid.

The nurse, Ula Ostrowski-Zak, nursed the baby five times throughout her shift and then posted a request for further nursing help on an Israeli Facebook page for nursing mothers. She instantly received dozens of responses from nursing mothers who were willing to come to the hospital, some from as far away as Haifa, to help feed the baby until he and his mother could be discharged.

Ostrowski-Zak said the baby’s aunts later thanked her and told her how surprised they were by what she had done. They said they didn’t know any other Jewish mothers who would have breastfed a Palestinian child. “I told them any breastfeeding mother would have done so,” Ostrowski-Zak told reporters.

‘All We Could Do Was Hope’

The stories of EMS personnel in Israel rescuing others, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, even transcend borders. Whether it is the participation of organizations such as United Hatzalah and the Israel Rescue Coalition after natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Matthew or Magen David Adom, United Hatzalah, and the IDF setting up field hospitals and sending search and rescue teams to the devastated regions of Nepal following the 2015 earthquake that killed almost 9,000, Israel’s first-response teams have gone on missions across the globe to save others, and they are often the first international volunteer responders to arrive.

That international aspect applies in the Middle East as well. Maayan Yogev, a medical student at Hadassah Academic College and a United Hatzalah volunteer paramedic, served as a paramedic in the IDF in 2013. During her service she was stationed in the Golan Heights, along the Syrian border, and as a paramedic was the busiest person in her unit. What occupied most of her time was rescuing and treating Syrian refugees who had come to the border seeking refuge and medical attention.

During a few months’ time, Yogev treated hundreds of Syrian refugees, who, after receiving treatment and being stabilized by her and her fellow IDF medical staff, were transported to the Rambam medical center in Haifa for further care. One of Yogev’s commanders told Ynet news at the time, “During the last months she has seen things your average paramedic sees in a decade. There were dire situations in which she had to give field care to a victim with a gunshot wound to the head or perform a tracheotomy on 12-year-old girl in critical condition. She never hesitates joining forces traveling to the most sensitive areas of the border, giving medical attention to every Syrian who reaches the border without thinking twice—as if they were an IDF soldier. Her goal is saving lives regardless.”

In an interview conducted by United Hatzalah media department in 2018, Yogev reflected on her time as a soldier and one particular story that stuck out in her mind.

“I recall a time when we treated a young Syrian boy who came to the border unconscious with a head injury,” she says. “He was about 8 or 9 years old. There were no parents or siblings with him, just him on gurney. I had to intubate and treat him, which was difficult because I was not used to treating children at that time. I was used to treating soldiers or adults who had come to the border. We didn’t know what would happen to him later as we treated him, stabilized him, and then sent him to the hospital. All we could do was hope what we had done was enough to help save him.

“A week later we received a call from the hospital that we had to take a patient back to the border. We were ecstatic to see it was the same little boy who opened the door to the ambulance and walked out, happy and smiling with his mother. The boy’s mother had crossed the border in need of medical help a few days after he did. Both were medical refugees from the civil war in Syria. We were so happy to see we were able to help him.”

The Ethos of Helping

The spirit of first responders in Israel and the West Bank is embodied by everyone who wears their identifying vests or stripes. This spirit was exemplified by Gva’ot security coordinator and United Hatzalah volunteer EMT Yitzchak Shock, who treated a Palestinian man whose arm was cut off in a construction accident near the Gush Etzion town of Efrat. It was exemplified by Nadel Sadir, Palestinian resident of the Old City of Jerusalem who also volunteers as an EMT and was the first responder to treat Israeli police officers after the terror attack at the Temple Mount last summer. There are countless others. Helping people, no matter their race, religion, nationality, or gender, is the ethos that defines all the thousands of EMS first responders across Israel and the West Bank.

According to Erab Fuqaha, spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent, that same spirit guides the work of the volunteers from their organization as well. “The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) is a member in the international movement of the RCRC (Red Cross and Red Crescent), and it abides by its seven principles, mainly humanity, neutrality, and impartiality,” Fuqaha says. “PRCS teams abide by not only these principles but also a medical staff code of ethics that requires them to provide their medical assistance to anyone who needs it, regardless of their nationality, religion, or ethnicity. Our teams have saved the lives of hundreds of Israeli settlers and soldiers they come across in many incidents in the West Bank, including Jerusalem. However, sometimes some Israelis refuse to be treated by PRCS teams.”

Fuqaha notes the teams from the various organizations work together when needed: “There is a coordination and collaboration between the teams in the field to save the lives of people regardless of their nationality. Humanity is the core of the work of the medical teams in any place.”

Eli Beer, president of United Hatzalah, says, “Our belief as first responders in Israel is to treat the patient, regardless of who they are and where they are from, as if they were our own mother, father, brother, sister, son, or daughter. We do everything for the patient as we would for our closest relatives. That is the reason we, as a society and brotherhood of EMS first responders, work so hard to continually innovate new technologies to help patients and new methods of transportation to reach patients faster. That is exactly what I would want someone else to do for my family if they needed help; therefore, it is what I will do as the head of an EMS organization in order to help others.

“We don’t care about politics—we care about rescuing people.”

Raphael Poch, EMT-B, is the international media spokesperson for United Hatzalah, Israel’s national volunteer EMS organization. He is a Canadian-Israeli playwright, producer, director, actor, and journalist. 

 

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