Medical aid deferred

April 14, 2002

THE PHOTOGRAPHS and reports convey a grim reality of Israel's campaign against terrorism in the West Bank: Bodies of the dead are piling up. In hospitals. In morgues. In family homes.

Some may have died instantly in the calamitous fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. But others died, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross and Israel's premier human rights organization, because medics and ambulances were delayed -- or worse, prevented from reaching the wounded.

The Geneva Convention requires combatants to allow passage of emergency medical staff and access to treatment for the wounded. And while the vagaries of war can complicate that dangerous task, they don't relieve a nation of its humanitarian duties.

The most recent examples originate in Jenin, the scene of the bloodiest fighting in Israel's two-week-old occupation of major West Bank cities. A spokesman for the United Nations relief agency that oversees the camp, Rene Aquarone, said it had been impossible "to evacuate either the dead or the wounded for the past week."

Israeli army officials say they have no interest in blocking humanitarian aid. Often, they say, their soldiers can't guarantee the safe passage of medic crews. And the Israelis cite many examples of their efforts to get ambulances, medical supplies, food and water to closed areas despite the danger. They say Palestinians have been transported to hospitals locally and in Israel. A recent newspaper photograph showed Israeli and Palestinian medics, side by side, helping a French cameraman who was shot in Nablus.

In the current conflict, Palestinian militias and extremists, the perpetrators of terrorist attacks, are partially to blame for the situation. When Israeli soldiers found an explosives belt hidden in an ambulance carrying a sick, 3-year-old girl March 27, the discovery gave proof to Israeli claims that terrorists were using emergency vehicles to smuggle weapons and worse. It made every ambulance a target, and their Palestinian crews suspects, subject to search.

Whoever planted the explosives belt has compromised the safety of every Palestinian who needs prompt, professional care. People like pregnant women, kidney dialysis patients, heart attack victims and wounded comrades.

But the concerns voiced by humanitarian groups go beyond the medical emergencies and incidents of Israeli soldiers shooting ambulances and humiliating medical staffs. They point to demolished houses, torn-up streets, ransacked offices that now litter the Palestinian cityscapes. Collective punishment or collateral damage? There is a distinction here, and Israel has a history of carrying out the former in dealing with the Palestinians.

Throughout history, combatants have performed less than honorably: Medics have been shot, survivors strafed, prisoners of war killed.

Israeli rescue crews are renown for their work in far-flung places. Remember them at the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, their crews noticeable by their Star of David vests, searching tirelessly for survivors?

That's why these recent allegations against the Israelis are so troublesome. Theirs is a tradition that holds this to be true: "He who saves a single life gains merit for having saved the whole world."

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