‘I fear being shot’: A Palestinian paramedic’s account

Yehya Mubarak speaks to Al Jazeera about his daily struggles working as a paramedic in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian paramedic Yehya Mubarak
Yehya Mubarak speaks of the frustrations and hard work that come with navigating checkpoints [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Silwad, occupied West Bank – Working as a paramedic, Yehya Mubarak has only one thing on his mind.

“My goal is to take the patient to the hospital,” the 47-year-old, who has been working with the ambulance service for 12 years, says without hesitation.

However, that’s far from an easy task in the occupied West Bank.

First, there are the long delays at Israeli checkpoints. These not only put a patient’s life in danger, but also provoke anger and insults directed towards him by Palestinian relatives due to not delivering their loved ones to the hospital on time.

Then, there are the attacks and threats by the Israeli army on ambulance crews during protests. In one instance, Mubarak lost control of his nerves and speech for nearly 12 hours after Israeli forces fired tear gas towards him.

Other times, his vehicle, the sole ambulance serving Silwad and several neighbouring villages, had its windows broken after being attacked by Israeli soldiers.

But despite the danger and frustration, Mubarak is committed to his life-saving work.

Here, he relays to Al Jazeera his daily experience that comes with navigating checkpoints and rushing to get critically wounded patients to hospital, as well as the fear of being attacked and anguish of losing patients.

‘The Israelis want to undermine my work’

“As an ambulance driver and paramedic, you know that the first 10 minutes of when you receive a patient are the golden minutes.

“So, when 30 minutes of my time at a checkpoint is wasted for no good reason, I can inherently tell that it is intentional. The Israelis want to undermine my work.

“I always try to find alternative, faster routes – but the problem is that Silwad is surrounded with checkpoints, leaving only two checkpoint-free ways to Ramallah. Still, sometimes even these routes have what we call ‘flying checkpoints’. It does not matter if we have the siren on, they will still stop us.

“But when I am honking because I have an urgent medical case in my ambulance, it’s not your right to stop me and waste our time, which may result in the death of the patient.

“In other developed countries, when only the light of the ambulance turns on, all the cars in the road rush aside to make way.

‘I am responsible for any delay’

“The ambulance serves almost 9,000 people in Silwad, as well as the neighbouring villages. Therefore, the entire area relies on one ambulance car only.

“One example of the obstacles we face with the occupation as ambulance drivers are the checkpoints. We are sometimes stopped for an average of 20 minutes, and we are rarely allowed to drive on without being stopped by them.

“The Israelis stop our ambulances at the checkpoints just as they would do to civilian cars, and pretend to inspect the vehicle. But in reality, they just mess up everything in there and start throwing out our equipment and medicines. I have to spend time returning everything to its original place, so nothing falls on the patient on board. This takes a while and ultimately, I am responsible for any delay.

“These types of delays, in turn, result in problems with the patient’s family and even with the medical centres, who tend to blame us.

“We always call the International Committee for the Red Cross and complain about this issue. Every time they promise us they will negotiate with the Israelis and respond to us, yet we don’t hear back from them.

‘Staying neutral’

“There are ongoing problems every day. We are already stressed out from the patients, and that stress is sometimes compounded by the Israeli soldiers, the Red Cross or some Palestinian organisations that don’t appreciate our work.

“During the protests, we definitely stay neutral. Working as a paramedic, you should always be neutral despite the religions, traditions and cultures.

“Unfortunately, the Israeli army always fires tear gas and rubber bullets on us. They once fired tear gas on me in a neighbourhood in Silwad. I lost total control over my body for almost 12 hours. I couldn’t control my nerves or my speech.

“They opened fire many times on us and on our colleagues from the Red Crescent, only because we are helping people.

“I am not delivering an aggressive message. I am delivering a humanitarian message. The soldiers see and know everything about us because they film us with their cameras. I don’t care about this, but what I am concerned about is the lack of safe space for my colleagues and I to work in.

Yehya Mubarak has been working with the ambulance service for 12 years [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
Yehya Mubarak has been working with the ambulance service for 12 years [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

“In general, if I run into a checkpoint while I am transporting a wounded protester, the soldiers will always try to take him or her. They have the weapons, and I don’t. My goal is to take the patient to the hospital.

“The soldiers don’t differentiate between the ambulance crew and the protesters who throw rocks.

“One time we were called to a site where a Palestinian had been shot by Israeli soldiers. As we arrived on the scene, the soldiers opened fire on our ambulance, damaging the front part of it.

“One of the soldiers pulled his gun to my face and hit me. He told me, ‘We didn’t ask you to be here’.

“I responded that the Palestinian coordination office called and requested me to go there and help the injured man. And as any ambulance driver, I wanted to go and help, isn’t that my work? At that time I didn’t know that he was dead.

“We were ordered to go back 200 metres behind the site where the dead Palestinian was lying in the ground. Because of this, the young man’s family blamed us because we couldn’t go to the front and help.

“They insulted us badly. They yelled, ‘You are an ambulance crew! How come you aren’t in the front? Why didn’t you take the person who was shot?’

‘I fear the bullets’

“Yes, I am a paramedic but no one respects the protocols of ambulance work, and no one respects us as an ambulance crew. How can I go to the front and take the injured? The Israelis put us in embarrassing situations with our fellow Palestinians.

“It usually takes 8-10 minutes to get to Ramallah hospital from Silwad, depending on the circumstances.

“I worked as a volunteer in New Orleans, Louisiana, for almost a month and never faced any of these obstacles. In 2014, the police cars were protecting us and always stayed with us until they ensured that we arrived to the hospital safely. We were never in a rush or had to use the siren because the police cars would be leading us. 

“I am not asking the Israeli soldiers to surround me and open the way or to escort me to ensure my safe arrival – I just want them to make my journey easier.

“Most of the time, patients die in my ambulance only because I couldn’t treat them on the spot before rushing them to the hospital. There would be tear gas and rubber bullets, and I would be lying if I said that these circumstances don’t scare me – I’m only human, just like everyone else. 

“I fear the bullets, and I fear being shot. I also worry about people attacking my ambulance crew and often think about if the patients are going to die from inhaling too much tear gas.

“We’ve endured many losses as a result of attacks by Israeli soldiers who broke the vehicle’s glass and exterior time and time again. 

“We lost medicine and other supplies that were stocked in the ambulance worth 80,000 shekels ($22,995) … the vehicle itself has damages that would cost about 27,000 shekels ($7,765) to fix.”

Source: Al Jazeera