I entered an online competition. I didn't win - I never do - but I learned a lot. I'm not going to link to the competition here for reasons of privacy (my own), but this is the background.
It arose out an incident in which a Palestinian ambulance was delayed at an Israeli checkpoint for 90 minutes, despite the obvious ill-health of the patient inside. Normally, such a story would pass unnoticed, but in this case the victim was not some anonymous Palestinian whose life was unbearably cheap, it was Ian Gibson, a British Member of Parliament from Tony Blair’s ruling Labour Party, who was on an official visit to the Occupied Territories when he suffered a stroke. The Foreign Office was not very impressed when they heard from Mr Gibson: "I was being quite violently sick at the time. I was pretty ill and I think they knew I was pretty ill. They could see I was vomiting and yet they insisted on this kind of treatment... "We had to keep waiting for a more senior officer to appear and so on. The feeling was that humanitarian care of the patient was way down the list and that they were making a point."
Israel’s Ambassador to the UK explained the delay on the grounds that: in the past, there have been numerous examples of Palestinian terror organisations abusing ambulances by using them to smuggle weapons and suicide bombers into Israel. And that was the start of the contest: you had to find two proven cases of ambulances being used "to smuggle weapons and suicide bombers into Israel". The catch was that you couldn’t just offer alleged cases, or unsupported claims by Israeli spokespeople that were simply reproduced as fact by a sympathetic newspaper. They had to be real cases. Documented, with real evidence.
You'd think the search would be easy, seeing as there are supposedly "numerous examples", but that demand that they be proven cases made it much more challenging. It turns out that there is a welter of allegations but, as with so many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they quickly seem to be reduced to a yes-you-did-no-we-didn't exchange in which the original allegation soon gets subsumed in the wider argument.
During my search, I did inadvertantly come across a few ambulance stories that did not fall into the "he-said-she-said" trap, but which fell foul of the competition rules on other grounds. For example, Amira Hass’ What would Israel do without UNRWA?, which appeared in Ha’aretz on 6 October 2004. It deals with Israel’s allegation (later recanted- kind of) that the UN had "collaborated with terrorists" by allowing one of its ambulances to be used to transport a long thin item which can only have been a Qassem rocket….
Black and white video footage from an Israeli military drone over northern Gaza shows what the army says is a Palestinian loading a Qassam rocket into a United Nations ambulance on September 2, 2004. Israel demanded on Sunday the United Nations investigate whether Palestinians filmed in the Gaza Strip were militants using a U.N. van to transport rockets for use against Israel. (REUTERS / Israeli Defense Forces-Handout)
A Palestinian medic from the United Nations Wael Ghabaen carries a stretcher at the United Nations headquarters in Gaza City, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004 demonstrating the action for reporters in the wake of Israeli accusations that Gaza militants used a U.N. vehicle to transport a homemade rocket. The Israeli army released video they say was taken by an unmanned aircraft flying over Jebaliya that they allege show militants loading a rocket into a vehicle with UN markings. The United Nations denied the accusation Sunday, saying the footage showed a worker loading a stretcher into an ambulance. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)Hass expresses the hope that the UN will fully investigate this IDF claim that Palestinians are misusing ambulances for military purposes, and suggests it could perhaps broaden its inquiry beyond this single allegation:
Perhaps it also ought to have a talk with Zohar Shapira, a sergeant major in the reserves who is in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit. He participated in Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002 and was astounded to discover that the IDF was using military ambulances to surreptitiously transport troops on their way to apprehend suspects in Yazid, north of Nablus. His commanders told him that this was a war and that ambulances were the most protected vehicles at their disposal. The UN committee would hear Shapira complain about the misuse of ambulances - by both sides, but as an Israeli he is also upset about the hypocrisy of the IDF and government spokespeople. An IDF spokesman promised the Maariv reporter who published Shapira's testimony in June that, in the wake of a few complaints, "procedures have been sharpened."
"His commanders told him that this was a war and that ambulances were the most protected vehicles at their disposal"! Well, isn't that the whole point? It is precisely because ambulances in a war zone are allowed special protection and freedom of movement that everybody has to respect their neutrality. Isn't the sacrosanct status of ambulances the whole basis for Israel's horrified outrage every time it suggests the Palestinians are cheating? There is a strong whiff of projection here from an Israeli Army that treats Palestinian ambulances as military vehicles precisely because it knows that is how they have been used by the Israelis themselves.
I came across two more articles of interest, on Ha'aretz's Hebrew-language web site. Both of them report the arrest of West Bank Fatah chief and PLC member, Marwan Barghouti. Unfortunately, I can't find these articles on the English language site, but allow me to gist them, with full translation of the most relevant paragraphs. (Warning, Typepad messes up the formatting of the Hebrew text).
Article 1 - Security Sources : Barghouti Displays Arrogance In Interrogation, by Amos Harel; 18 Apr 2002.
Major General Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, head of Military Intelligence, said that Marwan Barghouti was in close contact with Yasir Arafat and coordinated terror activities with him, including suicide bombings. He claimed that evidence uncovered during the arrest showed Arafat was involved in terror, and that Barghouti's arrest would have a psychological effect on Palestinian violence because Barghouti encouraged suicide attacks in his speeches.
The Shabak is continuing Barghouti's interrogation, which began right after his arrest. Security sources said Barghouti is displaying "conceit and arrogance" and is not cooperating. He is angry about his arrest because he sees himself as a political leader who is therefore entitled to immunity from Israeli arrest. The GSS hopes that Barghouti "will be broken" as interrogation proceeds, and will begin to deliver details on his involvement in Tanzim attacks.
There is disagreement in the security system about what to do with Barghouti when his interrogation is complete. Prime Minister Sharon has already announced his intention to have Barghouti put on trial. But senior military and Shabak officials argue that this is a mistake, because Barghouti would use a trial to present himself as the leader of a national liberation struggle, facing a political trial at the hands of Israel. They want Barghouti to be expelled to a neighboring Arab country instead.
In the meantime, an argument is developing about who should get the credit for capturing Barghouti. Some commanders in the territories are angry about news reports that credit the arrest of Barghouti and his nephew Ahmed (a Tanzim member) to the Sayeret Duvdevan. They say the Special Forces only arrived a short time before Marwan Barghouti gave himself up, after soldiers on the ground had already captured Ahmed and were surrounding the house….
[Gist ends, translation begins]
במצור הראשוני על הבית השתתפו חיילי גדוד מחטיבת שריון ומחלקת חיילים מגדוד החי"ר דוכיפת
חיילי דוכיפת נדחסו לאמבולנס ממוגן כדי להגיע במהירות האפשרית לבית שבו הסתתר ברגותי ולסגור אותו מכל עבריו
על המבצע פיקד מג"ד השריון
The initial siege of the house involved soldiers from a battalion of an armored brigade, and soldiers from the Dukhifat infantry battalion. The Dukhifat soldiers were squeezed into a protected ambulance in order to arrive as quickly as possible at the house where Barghouti was hiding, and to seal it off. The head of the armoured battalion commanded the operation.
[End of translation]
The second article (a short follow up published six days after the first), made it clear that - when given a chance to explain away its use of an ambulance in combat - the IDF had no innocent explanation to account for why it was doing exactly what its own propaganda regularly accused the Palestinians of doing.
Article 2 - Allowable For Us, by Aviv Lavie; 24 Apr 2002.
ביום חמישי שעבר תיאר הכתב הצבאי של "הארץ", עמוס הראל, את מהלך תפיסתו של מרוואן ברגותי מעל דפי העיתון: "במצור הראשוני על הבית השתתפו חיילי גדוד מחטיבת שריון ומחלקת חיילים מגדוד החי"ר דוכיפת. חיילי דוכיפת נדחסו לאמבולנס ממוגן כדי להגיע במהירות האפשרית לבית שבו הסתתר ברגותי ולסגור אותו מכל עבריו".
האפשרות שלפיה חיילי צה"ל השתמשו באמבולנס כדי לשפר עמדות במהלך מבצע צבאי, מעמידה באור מביך את ההאשמות הקשות שישראל מטיחה בפלשתינאים בחודשים האחרונים, ולפיהן חמושים ומחבלים מנצלים בציניות את חסינותם של כלי רכב רפואיים למטרות לחימה. הפניתי לדובר צה"ל שאלה בעניין. ביום שני בערב הגיעה תשובה חלקית: הרכב שבו מדובר, כך נמסר בעל פה על ידי נציגת דובר צה"ל, משמש גם לצרכים רפואיים וגם "לעוד כמה מטרות". ביקשתי לחדד את השאלה: האם על הרכב מופיע מגן דוד - עדות לכך שמדובר ברכב למטרות רפואיות בלבד? ואם לא, באיזה סוג רכב מדובר ואיך הוא נראה?
הובטח שהתשובה תינתן "תוך דקות ספורות". עד לשעת סגירת הגיליון, למרות הפצרות חוזרות ונשנות, דובר צה"ל לא השיב על שאלה פשוטה זו.
Last Thursday Ha'aretz military correspondent, Amos Harel, described the capture of Marwan Bargouthi: "The initial siege of the house involved soldiers from a battalion of an armored brigade, and soldiers from the Dukhifat infantry battalion. The Dukhifat soldiers were squeezed into a protected ambulance in order to arrive as quickly as possible at the house where Barghouti was hiding, and to seal it off. "
The possibility that soldiers took advantage of an ambulance to advance a military operation casts an embarrassing light on the serious accusations that Israel has levelled against the Palestinians in the past few months, i.e. that armed men and terrorists cynically abuse the immunity of ambulances for combat purposes. I sent an inquiry to the IDF spokespersons' office, and received a partial answer on Monday evening: "The vehicle in question is for medical purposes and also 'other uses' ". I asked for clarification: Does the vehicle display the Shield of David, that would indicate it is strictly for medical purposes? And if not, what kind of vehicle are we talking about, and what does it look like?
I was promised that an answer would would be given "within a few minutes". But despite my repeated and continuous requests, the army spokesman did not answer this simple question by the time the paper went to the presses.
So, between the Marwan Barghouti and Zohar Shapira stories, I felt I had two pretty good examples of the misuse of ambulances for military purposes, and I made them my entry to the contest. Of course, they weren’t really in keeping with the rules, which specified only Palestinian transgressions, and I suspect that this might be why I didn’t win. Still, I take some consolation from the fact that no-one else was able to produce the two confirmed cases required to win either; and I am sure that had there only been a category for "Honorable Mentions", I would have walked away with one.
Update, 5 Nov 2004: Thanks to reader Colin A., who drew my attention to this account from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society of the IDF commandeering an ambulance for military operations: Israeli army in Hebron uses PRCS ambulance as shield.