Whenever they hear the sound of the IDF’s war machine approaching, the medical teams in Gaza get into their ambulances and head out into the field. On the night shift of the Palestinian police clinic in the northern Gaza Strip, a team made up of two doctors, two medics and a driver was doing just that late last Sunday night. Among them was medic Majd Majdalawi, who now lies in Sheba Medical Center, recovering from his numerous wounds.
Having spent five years on the job, Majdalawi, 30, has seen it all. “I’ve seen people wounded from bombs and gunfire, from shells and tanks, assassinations, rockets, mines, you name it. Head wounds, chest wounds, stomach wounds, and in the legs like me. A lot died and a lot survived. I’ve seen hundreds, many hundreds.” That night, the experienced medic lay bleeding on the ground for a long time before his colleagues could get to him. The bright orange vest he wore and the lights of his ambulance didn’t stop him from coming under fire. He was shot at after he and his fellow medic tried to come to the aid of a wounded man lying by the side of the road, between a house that had just been blown up and a row of nearby trees. The man may have been an armed suspect, wanted by the IDF.
A week after being wounded, Majdalawi still couldn’t get out of bed. As a child, he moved from Zarnuja (now Rehovot) to Cairo, from there to Libya and then, in 1991, to the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza. He went to nursing school in Amman and then returned to Gaza. In 1999, he married Hoda, who grew up in Rafah and whose family comes from a vanished village that once stood near Ashkelon. A year ago, they bought an apartment in a project designed for young couples in northern Gaza. They have two daughters: Nur, 2, and Nada, a year old. Majdalawi, who speaks English well, works full-time at the Palestinian Police clinic in Gaza, and does night shifts at the small Adawa private hospital to supplement his income.
When Hoda gently moves his wounded legs, he winces in pain. The doctor recently took him off the machine that was infusing him with painkillers.
Last Sunday, Majdalawi left home around 7 P.M. to work a night shift at the police clinic. “Be careful out there,” a neighbor called out to him as he stepped into a taxi. At around 11, the sound of the Israeli MRPV was first heard. “When we heard it, we knew there would be trouble,” he says. A little before midnight, Hoda called. She was worried: Helicopters filled the sky and she could hear tanks on the move. Then the second floor of the clinic, which was empty, came under fire. The orchards and the abandoned posts of the Palestinian security forces near the building are always targets.
The shooting intensified, and the team hurried out of the building: Dr. Faisal Ashkar, Dr. Ismail Najjar, medic Mohammed Abu Shanar and driver Abdullah Maqawi joined Majdalawi in the ambulance. They quickly headed toward the center of town. There, on Nasser Street, they stopped at a friend’s home.
Their director instructed the two medics to head back north with the driver, because there were wounded there. On the way, they got reports from other ambulances that had already been to the area under fire. At 2:30 in the morning, they heard a loud explosion. They were told that the house of a suspect in the Tawam neighborhood had been blown up. Majdalawi still doesn’t know who exactly they were talking about. They also heard that there were wounded people near the house, and that it would be dangerous to try to get close to them.
They took a roundabout route and arrived in Tawam, finding other ambulances and a television crew out to cover the action. They formed a little convoy and made wary, halting progress forward. Suddenly, a tank came over a nearby hill: “Then we knew that that’s where the danger was and the demolished house and the injured people.” They stopped and waited. Two people suddenly ran across the dark street and shouted to them to get away because tanks were coming. Soon after, they heard firing coming from the direction of the tank. Majdalawi told the driver to turn around quickly, but then they heard cries for help coming from inside one of the houses. They carefully moved toward the house. The two medics got out of the ambulance. In the darkness, Majdalawi saw that someone was lying by the side of the road. “At that moment, I stopped thinking. I forgot about the tank. I just wanted to evacuate the wounded person,” he says. They approached the man, saw that he was breathing and decided to try to carry him to the ambulance. Majdalawi took his hands and Abu Shanar held his legs.
The shooting started right away. They had just begun to move the wounded man when the first bullet struck Majdalawi’s left leg and he fell to the ground. Then Abu Shanar was wounded, also in the left leg. Abu Shanar began to crawl as fast as he could toward the ambulance; he was not as seriously injured as Majdalawi. He thinks he hadn’t managed to crawl more than a meter before he was struck a second time, this time in the arm.
He began shouting for help to the other ambulance crews, which weren’t very far away, but they shouted back that they couldn’t get to him because of the gunfire. He lay wounded on the ground, futilely calling for help. Meanwhile, his friend Abu Shanar took shelter behind a wall of a nearby house.
“I was covered with blood. I tried to crawl a little further. I’d just started moving when another bullet hit me in the left leg. At this point, I’d almost lost consciousness. Everything was hazy. Every two minutes, I yelled to the other guys. I was lying between the wounded guy behind me and the other ambulance teams, who’d taken cover behind the house. All I could think about was how I was going to get out of this.”
The minutes passed, seeming like hours. Finally, one of the ambulance drivers parked his vehicle so it could act as a buffer between the tank and Majdalawi, and he was taken into this ambulance along with the other injured man, who appeared to have died in the meantime.
The tank opened fire again and a bullet struck one of the ambulance’s tires. Another ambulance was placed as a buffer, and he was transferred there on a stretcher. Toward daybreak, they reached Shifa hospital and that evening he was rushed to Sheba, where he was in surgery for 18 hours. He was shot five times in all – in the right leg, the left leg, the arm, the abdomen and the back. The worst injury was to his right leg, where the bone was shattered and the nerves damaged. His doctors hope that he’ll be back on his feet eventually, though he has a long way to go. This week, he was transferred back to Gaza, much to his dismay. He had hoped to remain here for his future operations and rehabilitation.
Hoda slept on a fold-out couch in her husband’s hospital room at Sheba all week. An Arab janitor lent them his cellular phone so they could stay in touch with their little girls in Gaza. His mother is staying with them. Majdalawi says he has no doubts that he and his colleagues were fired upon to prevent them from evacuating the wounded man.
After all of that, how does it feel to be lying in an Israeli hospital? “It’s a weird feeling,” he says. “I’m a person who never hated Jews and never thought about hating Jews. I was always sure of what I was doing and I always thought that if an Israeli soldier got wounded near me, I would take care of him like I would anyone else. That’s why I expected to be treated well here, because we’re all involved in saving lives. And I have been treated well.
“We know that we can also become targets – a friend of mine who’s a medic lost his leg a few months ago – but we’re determined to do our job, to save lives. God willing, when I recover, I’ll go back to the same place, to the same job.”
The IDF spokesperson’s response: “On the night of February 16-17, IDF forces destroyed the house of Ahmed Randur, a Hamas commander in the northern sector, west of Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip. Randur is responsible for the bomb that was activated by a tank near the settlement of Dugit on Saturday, February 15, 2003, which killed four IDF soldiers. Randur is also responsible for other terror attacks, including the clash of a terrorist cell with IDF soldiers in June 2002 by Dugit in which three IDF soldiers were killed.
“During the action, the forces came under fire. IDF soldiers returned fire toward the sources of the gunfire. In checking with sources in the field, there was no claim of someone from a medical team being injured. It should be noted that no complaint about such a matter was received by the coordination and liaison offices.”
According to the Red Crescent, since the start of the intifada, there have been 231 incidents of Palestinian ambulances coming under fire: 109 ambulances were hit and 27 were totally destroyed; 187 Red Crescent staff – doctors, medics and drivers – were injured in these incidents and three were killed by IDF fire. Physicians for Human Rights researcher Ibrahim Habib sent a letter this week to the military advocate general in which he called for an investigation into the shooting of Majdalawi and asked that those responsible be brought to justice.