Israelis and Palestinians put humanity above politics to save lives

Few people in the world live along sharper political and religious fault lines than Israelis and Palestinians. Given their bitter history, it’s a wonder that there are people on both sides of the conflict who work together on a daily basis.

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Noam Yifrach (left) and Younis Al-Khatib discuss their historic collaboration to provide humanitarian aid to both Israelis and Palestinians.
An Israeli and a Palestinian were on campus Nov. 18 to showcase how they and their teams put humanity above politics and religion to discharge an almost sacred duty: Saving lives amid the region’s frequently erupting carnage.

The duo, Noam Yifrach and Younis Al-Khatib, are the heads, respectively, of the Maghen David Adom (MDA) and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), the Israeli and Palestinian equivalents of the Red Cross. Presiding over a conference at Rolfe Hall, hosted by the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles International Services and the Center for Near Eastern Studies, they discussed their historic collaboration to launch an integrated response to their peoples’ humanitarian emergencies. For that achievement, their organizations were awarded the American Red Cross Humanitarian Prize in Washington D.C. on Nov. 18.

American Red Cross logo“Let there be peace on earth,” said Al-Khatib, echoing words that a choir sang at the Red Cross award ceremony in the nation’s capital. “That inspired me, after getting the prize, to think, ‘Where else on earth is peace more deserved than the Holy Land?’”

The Israeli-Palestinian relief partnership began in 2006, when the MDA and the PRCS signed a Swiss-brokered memorandum of understanding, explained David Meltzer, senior vice president of international services at the American Red Cross. The agreement, he said, specified the geographical areas where the two organizations could operate through improved communication; joint training; and cooperation across military checkpoints, including the “back-to-back” transfer of patients from PRCS to MDA ambulances for treatment in Israel. Further, for the first time, the PCRS was allowed to run ambulances in Jerusalem.

With some 1,500 employees, 1,000 volunteers and 1,000 ambulances, the MDA is “committed to being anywhere within Israel within seven minutes,” said Yifrach. Teams of his staff and volunteers, who can reached through beepers, camp at checkpoints round the clock. “Sometimes we have to fight with our soldiers to let pregnant women travel from the [Palestinian] territories to Jerusalem,” he added.

The PRCS employs about 4,000 people who, because of the “expanding needs of Palestinians,” work with refugees across the region, including in Syria and Iraq, explained Al-Khatib, adding that the organization “also saves Israeli lives, even Israeli soldiers.” PRCS medics respond to an average of about 110,000 calls every year, about 50 percent of which are directly related to the conflict, he said.

The Palestinian group also runs a range of national and local programs, including psychosocial programs in schools and with parents to “ease the impact of the conflict in Gaza,” whose siege by Israeli forces “creates lots of difficulties channeling relief and medical equipment,” said Al-Khatib, adding that the PRCS’s largest program is a rehabilitation effort for disabled people.

The deal between the two emergency organizations capped an uphill battle during which the MDA and the PRCS fought nearly 60 years of ostracism from the Red Cross. The MDA’s access to the Red Cross was ostensibly blocked because the Geneva conventions permit the use of only the red cross or the crescent as symbols of international emergency organizations – and the MDA’s Star of David emblem did not qualify. The PCRS had been denied entry because it was not linked to a sovereign state. The deal paved the way for the MDA to use a red crystal as its new emblem in international rescue operations (while continuing to use its Star of David logo inside Israel).

Al-Khatib and Yifrach first met in Jordan in 2005 on what Yifrach jokingly described as a “blind date” arranged by the Jordanian Red Cross Society and representatives of other Red Cross societies, including the Japanese. The two have been meeting monthly in Jerusalem ever since. “Noam is a brave man,” said Al-Khatib. “I worked with two previous chairmen of the MDA and signed agreements with them, but none were able to take steps toward a breakthrough.”

In response to a question from a member of the audience, Yifrach and Al-Khatib refuted allegations that ambulances of their respective organizations were being used to transport fighters and weapons. “It’s one of the legends” for which there has been “no proof,” said Yifrach. Al-Khatib elaborated that “this legend was highlighted in 2002 in the media” and that the PCRS is “against any abuse of our ambulances.” He added: “If anyone gives us evidence we will stop it – it is against our principles.”

Asked what they saw as their greatest challenges, Yifrach said that the MDA confronts issues quite different from the ones facing its Palestinian counterpart. “We want to be open to the world – to show our capabilities and build on our international relationships,” he explained.

For its part, the PRCS suffers from “limited resources, repercussions of the occupation and working in difficult humanitarian conditions,” said Al-Khatib. “Soldiers at checkpoints decide what’s an emergency and what’s not – even the Israeli ministry of health and its foreign office agree that this is not correct,” he explained, adding that “people expect more from you in a politically difficult environment – as if humanitarian aid alone will resolve the situation and that we will do the work of the politicians.”

Yet for all his organization’s troubles, “there is no magical solution [and] we have to push politicians to do what is best for us,” said Al-Khatib, adding: “The only way out is peace. The only way out is freedom from fear.”