RAMALLAH – The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and the Palestinian Ministry of Health launched a campaign on 17-18 March to help protect medical staff and institutions in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT).
The three bodies said they were concerned about the "increasing lack of respect for medical services" in the OPT.
During the years of the Intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israel), which began in September 2000, Palestinian, Israeli and international rights groups documented cases in which the Israeli military blocked access for patients, destroyed ambulances, entered hospitals, arrested patients and caused harm to medical personnel.
They also observed cases in which Palestinian militants used ambulances and hospitals, violating their impartiality and putting staff and patients at risk.
Rizeq Shuqair from the PRCS said during the Intifada 65 women had given birth at Israeli military checkpoints and four had died; 16 medics had been killed in the line of duty and 31 ambulances destroyed, while 166 were damaged.
The Israeli Defence Force has told IRIN it cannot comment on non-specific past incidents.
During the recent Israeli operation in the Jabalya refugee camp, several medics were injured and one was killed, according to Palestinian medical groups in the Gaza Strip.
What prompted the new campaign, ICRC officials said, was the internecine violence in the enclave last year, during which hospitals were overrun by militants, patients were shot and medical staff had trouble evacuating the wounded.
"Respect. Weapons are dangerous in medical vehicles and facilities. Leave them outside." One of four ICRC, PRCS and MoH posters that are part of a campaign promoting core values
"We want to make sure everyone understands that everyone has a responsibility in protecting medical personnel," said Katharina Ritz, the ICRC’s head of mission in the OPT.
"Everyone can be part of this campaign. The general public must also respect the medical staff, let them do their work and not pressure them," she told IRIN, saying the objective was not only to end violations of medical neutrality by militants, but to promote active respect for the staff and institutions.
Recently, doctors in Gaza told IRIN about the problems they faced when armed militants were inside hospitals and family members put pressure on them as they worked.
Launched in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the campaign uses posters as well as a short-story writing contest to raise awareness of what the ICRC says are the four core issues: respect for institutions and medical staff by keeping weapons out; care for all wounded and not targeting patients; impartiality in delivering medical treatment; and protection of medical staff at all times.
Winners of the writing contest will receive up to US$500 from the ICRC and be published in local Palestinian newspapers.
The ICRC said the campaign complemented the quiet dialogue – including discussions with the Israeli military and authorities, the Palestinian Authority and the various militant groups – for which the group is known.
Officials involved in the campaign said they had noticed a change in Palestinian society: People realised respecting medical neutrality would help keep them from being put at risk.