Hatred sown in a carer’s heart

Palestinian ambulance crews have been constantly targeted by the Israeli army. It turned one young woman volunteer into a suicide bomber. Peter Beaumont reports from Ramallah

Ahlam Nasser was sitting in her ambulance in the
West Bank city of Ramallah when the first shots were fired, a mixture of tear gas and rubber bullets. Hunched behind the windscreen, she stared ahead as the first of the ambulances sped off to pick up the first casualty of the day.

She had good reason to feel apprehensive and depressed. A week ago today, Ahlam’s best friend in the Palestine Red Crescent Society, the woman with whom she had shared her ambulance, blew herself up in Jaffa Street in West Jerusalem, killing an 81-year-old bystander and injuring more than 100.

Wafa Idrees, 28, Palestine’s first woman suicide bomber, had told her friends and family she had been haunted by what she had seen working as a Red Crescent volunteer in Ramallah – the deaths and injuries to which she had attended. Now Wafa is gone, her friends are left to carry on.

Nasser waited to be summoned, the first ambulance sped down to the ‘clash point’ outside Yasser Arafat’s headquarters – a place where stone-throwing boys line up 50 metres away from tanks and snipers.

A teenage boy has been hit in the leg by a plastic-coated steel pellet. We follow the ambulance at a run. Observer photographer Bryan McBurney is hit in the scalp by one of the pellets as he stands among the stretcher-bearers.

The Israeli army says it does not deliberately target the ambulance crews of the Palestinian Red Crescent. The drivers, paramedics and volunteers who go out each day, have every reason to think otherwise. In 16 months of the intifada , 122 of them have been injured by Israeli fire across
Gaza and the West Bank. One has been killed. Among the injured is Firaz Samara from the same Ramallah ambulance station as Idrees. Ten days ago he was hit in the leg by a machine gun bullet at the clash-point where he left his vehicle to assist a casualty.

A few hours before the clash we are sitting in the office of Mohamed Awad, the director of emergency services for the Red Crescent in Ramallah. ‘After what has happened with Wafa,’ he tells us, ‘I expect more trouble. To be honest, I am expecting them to target our ambulances even more.’

He tells us again the story of Firaz Samara: how he has sustained severe injuries to arteries and nerves and tissue.

‘The propaganda they are putting out is that Wafa went to
Jerusalem in one of our ambulances. It is not true. She only worked on Fridays, but it gives them the excuse to come after us.’

We have been asked not to question the staff about Wafa, but Awad volunteers the information. ‘I knew she was stressed. She was upset and angry by what she had seen. She talked about suicide to me and about suicide bombings. Because of the way she was talking, I thought she was joking.

‘I would joke back that we would save her or we would have to write her mortuary card. I never believed she would do it. But then last Sunday when I saw the body of the bomber on the television I saw it was wearing a green shirt like one she wore. But I still could not believe it was her.’

The managers of the Red Crescent are only too aware of the stress their staff and volunteers suffer. Since July, a clinical psychologist, Munir Musa, has been working at the centre to counsel the staff. But in a society that does not feel comfortable talking openly about such feelings it is, as Musa admits, an uphill task.

‘The volunteers and staff here have seen terrible things,’ he says. ‘The psychological effect on these very young people who are evacuating the dead and injured can be profound. In the worst cases they are taking bodies away that are quite literally in pieces.

‘One of our women volunteers was giving first aid recently to a boy who had been shot in the head and found herself holding his brain in her hands. It affected her profoundly. She was disturbed that she could do nothing to help. The image kept returning to her.

‘Typically, the symptoms we are seeing come from feelings of frustration and hopelessness bred from having to work when you are not sure whether the soldiers opposite are going to open fire. Our staff report feeling constantly afraid and apprehensive even when they are safe at home. They complain of sleeplessness and irritability and not being able to eat. If it were not for the fact the crisis is continuing they would be the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.’

It is only one part of the explanation for the horror Idrees unleashed. But you feel, instinctively, it is an important part. That the plan was already in her mind is suggested by two French photographers who met her at the ambulance station separately over the past months. Both described her as silent and withdrawn, refusing to be photographed.

We are warned that
Nasser is still in shock over her friend’s death. We ask her if her friend spoke of what she was going to do. Her eyes flick from side to side as if she is avoiding tears. Finally, she answers: ‘No.’

We ask if she has been approached and offered counselling by Musa. She answers yes, but that she has refused it. ‘She was my best friend,’ she says, but then refuses to say any more about Idrees.

But does she feel the same anger that Idrees felt?

‘It has affected my daily life,’ she says. ‘Since the beginning of the intifada I have seen blood and death and injuries almost daily. And yes, it does make me feel angry about those who are doing this to us. I feel every second that we are under threat and could be punished by the Israelis just for working in an ambulance crew.

‘Last week our vehicles were hit five times.’

The previous day had found us at the same ambulance station sitting in the office of Dr Hossam Sharkawi. It was the day of Idrees’s symbolic funeral.The Israelis have yet to return the body. As we spoke, some of the young Palestinian men from the funeral had crept up the hill towards the Jewish settlement at Psagot, overlooking the Red Crescent offices, and opened fire on the Israelis.

A tank came down and hosed the neighbourhood with machine gun fire, forcing us to crawl out of Sharkawi’s office on our hands and knees and continue our questioning elsewhere.

‘Wafa’s death is causing great pain to our organisation,’ Sharkawi explained when we were settled in a safer office. ‘We are not a political organisation. Our aim, as we keep trying to tell the Israelis, is a humanitarian one.

‘But we are faced with constant accusations from the Israelis. They say we carry gunmen in our ambulances or transport ammunition. It is simply not true and we have gone to the International Committee for the Red Cross to ask them to provide evidence or specifics. They can’t.’

It is a problem for the
Palestinian Red Crescent, for the accusations of carrying gunmen have been used to justify bringing their ambulances under fire.

‘In a recent case,’ says Sharkawi, ‘the Israeli Defence Forces accused one of our ambulances of carrying a gunman, and the same statement was put out by the Prime Minister’s office. When we proved it wasn’t true the IDF retracted but not
Sharon‘s office. So the media assume it must be true.

Sharkawi’s own situation is an illustration of the attitude towards the Red Crescent. A Palestinian born abroad, brought up in
Canada and educated at London‘s City University, he came to live in Palestine with his family, sending them back to Canada when it became too dangerous.

‘Because of my background I have more in common with the Israelis than anyone else. Some of my best friends here are Israelis. You would guess they would want someone like me as a neighbour.’

He cannot get a work permit. And so he comes on a tourist visa from Canada to work, returning home every two months.

When we leave on Friday I recall what Ahlam Nasser said. ‘When I hear there has been any trouble – shooting or shelling – I can’t stay away. I have to come. I was born to help.’




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