In helping Palestinians, IDF paramedics defy sterotypes

Helping Palestinians deal with medical emergencies is a significant part of the job of IDF paramedics in the West Bank. (Linda Gradstein)

CARMEI TZUR, West Bank (JTA) — Yana Kisluk tosses her long ponytail over one shoulder and adjusts her M-16 over the other.

The pretty 21-year-old, who wears diamond stud earrings and perfect eye makeup, looks like any other young Israeli doing her compulsory military service.

As a paramedic in the Israel Defense Forces, however, Kisluk belongs to a small group of Israeli soldiers whose job is to provide care for Palestinians rather than simply defend against them.

On a recent morning, Kisluk’s team of two paramedics and a driver get a call about a newly arrested Palestinian prisoner who says he is diabetic and needs a check of his glucose level.

Kisluk and her colleague, Hagai Hayat, climb into the ambulance and set off to the nearby military jail.

The prisoner, Adnan Abu Tabeineh, a lecturer in history at the Open University in Hebron, is brought in, his legs shackled.

“I feel very dizzy,” he tells the paramedics in broken Hebrew.

“Did you take your medicine today?” Kisluk asks.

“No,” Tabeineh answers. “I have one medicine with me that the soldiers took away and another that I left at home.”

Kisluk pricks his finger and measures his sugar level. It is 310, well above normal.

“He needs to take his medicine now,” she tells the Israeli soldiers at the jail. “You need to make sure he gets his other medicine from home.”

“Just take your pill and you’ll be fine,” she reassures Tabeineh.

There is no talk about why he has been detained; the soldiers decline to answer a reporter’s questions.

Twenty minutes later, Kisluk and Hagai are back on the ambulance, heading for their base and lunch. Kisluk, who immigrated with her family to Israel as an infant, says she keeps her political opinions and her army service separate.

“Sometimes we don’t even know if someone is Arab or Jewish,” she says. “We just treat whoever needs it the most.”

Hagai, a gentle soldier with dark hair and dark eyes, remembers a recent drive-by shooting attack in the West Bank that left four Israelis dead.

“As soon as we got the call, we started speeding there, putting on flak jackets and helmets,” he says. “We were the second team to arrive and the casualties were lying on the ground. I went over to each of them but they had no pulse. I did an EKG and saw that it was impossible to revive them. It was so difficult. I have all of this training and I couldn’t do anything.”

The paramedics spend 14 months in an intensive course and then must agree to serve for at least two more years in the army. For Kisluk, that means serving one year longer than most women.

But she sees it as good preparation for a future career in medicine.

“Sometimes I laugh when I think that people my age in the U.S. are almost done with college and I haven’t even started,” she says. “But that’s just the way it is in Israel. I do feel that I’m doing something meaningful here.”

The paramedics, whose primary purpose is to care for Israeli soldiers, cooperate with local Israeli and Palestinian rescue services. For security reasons they are not allowed to enter Arab towns or villages. Medical services are provided there by the Red Crescent, which is affiliated with the Red Cross.

In the parts of the West Bank that are either under sole Israeli control or joint Israeli-Palestinian control, the paramedics will not enter Arab villages but often treat victims of car accidents on the main roads. Palestinians will even bring family members who need immediate medical attention to the gates of army bases, and the paramedics will come out to treat them.

Betty Ben Zaken, 21, who is responsible for the 11 paramedics in the West Bank, says they treated 115 Palestinians in 2010.

She says the Israeli soldiers take precautions to ensure that potential patients are not terrorists.

“We wear helmets and flak jackets to protect ourselves,” Ben Zaken says. “But we also took an oath to treat anyone who needs it, and that comes first.”

A few months ago, an Israeli paramedic helped a Palestinian woman give birth at an Israeli checkpoint.

Human rights groups have charged that Palestinian women often are delayed at checkpoints and forced to give birth there. Israeli officials say they do everything possible to speed their passage through, but ambulances, which in the past have been used to smuggle weapons, must be checked.

Ben Zaken says they help with at least one Palestinian birth per month. In early May, she says, family members brought an elderly man having a heart attack to the army base and the paramedics were able to save his life.

“I think it helps to show Palestinians that some Israeli soldiers just want to help,” she says. “I hope that it influences how they think of us.”