Monday, August 20, 2007

Pop quiz: In what airport was a Holocaust survivor most recently subjected to a full body-cavity search?

July 5

Left: A soldier checks my passport at one of the old city's check-points.
"Welcome to Hebron", as the billboard outside the Tomb of our Patriarchs says. The billboard is signed "The Jewish Community of Hebron"

I had lunch with Katie and Ameer, and then headed to the airport. The train from Haifa goes directly to Tel Aviv airport, which was awesome. I was a bit worried, since the last I had heard of a train in Israel was when one crashed with my friend Naomi on board, but thankfully the trip was fine. Everyone in the train station fulfilled the stereotype of the rude Israeli to a T, but the station and the train themselves were really nice. The announcements on the train are in Hebrew and English.

Going through security at Ben-Gurion Airport was interesting. It was the same thing that happened last time, just in reverse: first all of my stuff was laid out, scanned, swabbed and whatever else. Then I was taken to a room where I had to take my pants off (apparently linen is hard to feel things through) so they could wave a metal detector in front of my crotch. Then I went back out to where my stuff had been thrown all over the place and watched three attractive young women examine my underwear and ophthalmoscope. My favorite part was when one of them said, “I’m very sorry sir, but we accidentally turned your computer on.” Then I looked at it and it was off. “Oh, I think maybe we must have turned it off, too.” You'd think a country so well known for having die-hard spies who infiltrate foreign governments and assassinate political opponents would employ people with a brain to guard the airport.

I can understand how a normal person, especially a Palestinian (or, say, an eighty-year-old German-born Jewish woman who came to Palestine to help the Palestinians), would find this humiliating in the extreme. I suspect that's the purpose of the whole venture to begin with. But for me, I found the idea of three hot Israeli women telling me what to do quite amusing. An old lady brought her bag over to the counter and one of the bag checkers asked me to put it up on the table; after I did that they were more relaxed for some reason, maybe because the woman said “thank you” in Hebrew and I responded appropriately. I spent the next twenty minutes talking to one of the bag checkers about why I have a blood pressure cuff; not interrogation-style, she was just curious if I was a doctor. Then that same woman walked me to the gate where my plane was going to take off. Total time going through security: three hours.

When I got on the plane there was a large Orthodox Jewish woman sitting across the aisle from me with a baby. She asked me something in Hebrew, and I gave my standard “anni lo yodea ivrit” (a pathetic attempt at “I don’t speak Hebrew”).

Then she said in American English, “my husband and I were separated, can he have your seat?” I said of course, but he just kept staring at the floor until I said "yala" and pointed him towards my seat. He was awkward the way Orthodox Jewish men always are; why, I still don't understand.

When the captain gave the “please be seated” announcement a flight attendant came over to the man who’d taken my seat and asked him in English (it was a British Airways flight) “What is your name, sir?” He looked up at her blankly; I’m sure he understood, but that awkward thing came out again. She became very aggressive and practically screamed at him, “Sir, I need to know your name immediately!”

His wife leaned in and said “he doesn’t speak English” then told her husband, in Hebrew, to tell the lady his name. He did so, but the lady didn’t understand and just got more annoyed.

“Where is the person who is supposed to sit in this seat?” she asked. I’d been watching this with amusement; Jews obviously never get this treatment at Ben-Gurion Airport (unless they're helping Palestinians...). Eventually I stood up and said “I’m right here, ma’am.”

“Ah, okay.” And she walked away. Needless to say, she didn’t look for any other specific passengers, and I don't recall seeing that flight attendant again.

And that concluded my summer in Palestine. Someone stole my camera in Heathrow Airport while I was napping on a chair, so I lost my pictures from my last few days, including my only picture with Dr. Nisreen. You spend six weeks in a third world country under brutal military occupation, subject to international economic sanctions and the whims of two separate groups of religious fanatics, but nobody steals so much as a penny from you. Then you fly to the wealthiest city in the world and some intercontinental traveler steals your camera. Unbelievable.

"It was nothing like Lebanon, I'm sure. But it was the scariest thing in the world."

July 4

Left: Katie (left; picture taken last time I was in Israel)

The IDF killed a 15-year-old boy last night in Hawooze, a village that may as well be part of Hebron. He apparently had a plastic toy gun the soldiers thought was a real gun, so they killed him for the crime of being armed. Note that this boy didn’t attack anybody or even point his toy gun at anybody; he just had it with him. B’tselem wrote a detailed and disturbing report specifically about Israeli use of firearms called “Trigger Happy”, it’s available at:

[Update from August 19: Compare how the only democracy in the Middle East disarms a 15-year-old boy armed with a toy pistol to how the Satanic-death-loving-cult-of-suicide-bombing-promoting terrorist organization Hamas disarms an adult with an assault rifle:,9171,1649291,00.html]

The power was out this morning at Musa’s house and at the PMRS office; the electricity seemed to be out in all of Hebron when I got into the city. It was back on by the time we came back to the PMRS office.

I talked to Dr. Nisreen again this morning, before we went on the clinic. Somehow we started talking about how beautiful the old city is and how much more beautiful it used to be. She told me she has never once been to pray at the Ibrihim Mosque (recall that she’s also never been to the al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem; this is a deeply religious woman). Imagine living and working a twenty minute walk from the burial site of Abraham, Sara and the other Abrahamic patriarchs and matriarchs – some of the most famous people in all of human history – and not being allowed to simply go pray in the mosque built over their tombs.

We took the mobile clinic to two villages today, first to al-Bira, and then to Beit Mersem. It was the same deal as before: malnourished children, malnourished adults, preventable disease, chronic diseases, ob/gyn issues, etc.

We stayed in al-Bira for about two hours, saw quite a few people, and then went on to Beit Mersem, about a ten minute drive. We set up in a building that looks like it was built to be a small clinic; they had a scale, so I weighed myself and realized I’ve lost almost ten pounds in the past six weeks. The building and village are on top of a hill, and are very near the wall Israel is building in the West Bank. We heard constant gunfire from the moment we arrived until we left.

On the way back I talked to Dr. Nisreen a little more. We drove past a sunflower field/farm and I asked her what the sunflowers are grown for; she said the seeds are harvested and sold locally. From talking to her before I knew she had worked in al-Alia hospital as the head of the pediatrics ward (no small feat for a woman with a child anywhere, let alone here), so I asked her if she prefers working in pediatrics or in ob/gyn. She said she loves both, but she prefers ob/gyn, and that since there’s a shortage of female ob/gyns in Palestine she is in high demand. She plans on taking a job at al-Mukassed hospital in Jerusalem when an opening becomes available; how she’ll be able to work in Jerusalem I have no idea, but she said there are ways. Hopefully she’ll have her Italian passport by then (she’s married to a Palestinian with Italian citizenship).

I had mentioned that morning that my mom would love to see Jerusalem, but that she didn’t get to the last time she came here, so Dr. Nisreen asked me what my parents do. When I told her my dad is a retired ob/gyn and she became excited, and asked if I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Dilemma: the answer is no, and I don’t mind telling her that at all. But, I thought to myself, when I say “no” she’ll ask why, and the real reason is because I don’t want my appreciation for women destroyed. I wouldn’t mind telling most people that, but when you have a deeply religious woman whose demeanor is that of a princess, you wonder whether or not that’s appropriate.

“Umm, not really, to be honest,” I said. “I don’t think I would like gynecology very much.”

“Because you think it’s disgusting?” she asked, that being the response I’m sure she most often gets from people.

“Oh no, not at all. I almost passed out in Africa the first time I saw a blood draw” – a brief look of shock passed over her face; growing up with blood and death, I guess she never had that problem – but after that it was fine. I think everything in medicine is a little bit disgusting, but when you get used to it, then you’re okay.”

She laughed a little and nodded in agreement. “Why then?”

“Well, I think…it’s…I’m afraid it would…maybe…ruin my…uh…appreciation…for…uh…for women.”

“Ah ha!” she said, with a big smile. “Yes, I can understand that. I would not want to be a urologist!” I was relieved, and once again reassured that, despite what we’re raised to believe, these people are just like everyone else.

When we got back to the office I took my stuff and headed to the Jerusalem service, about a ten minute walk. We had the same hassle at the tunnel checkpoint as before. When we got to Jerusalem I went to the central bus station and took the bus to Haifa. The last person to get on was an Orthodox Jewish man. There were no seats left that weren’t next to women, so he sat in the middle of the isle for the entire ride to Haifa.

I got to Haifa and found Katie’s apartment, it’s only a few blocks from where I used to stay when I lived in Haifa. I got to use a real shower again, which was absolutely wonderful. She and her live-in boyfriend, Ameer (a Palestinian living in Israel), and I stayed up talking.

Katie told me she was watching the news closely to figure out when Israel was going to attack Lebanon again; that way she could make sure she wasn’t in Haifa that month. She planned to go back to Britain and to take Ameer with her until the war was over. She told me about how during the 2006 war, when Hezbollah rockets were hitting Haifa, she and Ameer were near some of the areas hit; she said she’s never heard or felt anything so loud and frightening in her life as one of the rockets that hit the corner store a block or two down from their apartment. She said she thought the explosion must have been in the apartment next door. “It was nothing like Lebanon, I’m sure” she said, “but it was the scariest thing in the world.” (Read in a pleasant British accent.)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"He yelled at me in Hebrew to go back to where I came from..."

July 3

Left: Red Crescent ambulances at the PRC office in Hebron.

Today I went to al-Ahli to say goodbye to the doctors and nurses in the ER, and to Abd al-Salam, the hospital administrator I’d spoken to when I was in San Antonio. Musa was in Abd al-Salam’s office when I showed up; he was getting a report about a young man named YousefAshur (20 years old) who was being transferred from al-Ahli in Hebron to al-Mukassed Hospital in Jerusalem last night (a distance of about 20 miles). The ambulance was stopped at the tunnel checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem; the tunnel connects the two cities so Jews can travel between them without having to see the Palestinian town of Beit Jala.

Al-Mukassed is a tertiary care facility with about 300 beds (I think) in East Jerusalem. It’s by far the most advanced hospital in the West Bank, mostly owing to its location. ‘Ashur had some kind of severe pulmonary edema or hemothorax (or maybe both) requiring treatment he couldn’t get at al-Ahli, so they decided to take him to al-Mukassed.

The soldiers at the tunnel checkpoint stopped the ambulance and told the driver they couldn’t go through (it’s called “general closure”: the West Bank becomes a prison until the IDF says otherwise). In such circumstances the Palestinian health care system has worked out a way around the closure: two ambulances approach the checkpoint from the two different sides, the patient is taken out of the first ambulance and carried over to the second, and then put into the second ambulance to be taken wherever he/she needs to go. At the tunnel checkpoint this isn’t a big deal (aside from the miserable humiliation), but when there are huge ditches, mounds of earth or concrete blocks between the two sides of the checkpoint (as is quite common) it can be dangerous to carry terminally ill people over the roadblocks.

The ambulance driver told Musa what happened when they got to the checkpoint:

We arrived at the checkpoint after coordination between the Red Crescent [in Hebron] and the Red Cross [in Jerusalem]. The Red Cross was supposed to arrange the crossing of the ambulance to the Israeli side [meaning through the checkpoint]. When we arrived at the tunnels checkpoint, a border policeman with dark skin stopped us. He yelled at me in Hebrew to go back to where I came from. I told him in Hebrew that I was driving a patient in critical condition and that in a humanitarian condition such as this he had to let me pass. The policeman told me that I was not allowed to go through the checkpoint to Jerusalem . I told him that only a few days earlier, after coordination with the Red Cross, I had passed through this checkpoint to Jerusalem . The policeman wasn't convinced and insisted that I leave the place.

I didn't leave. I parked the ambulance on the right side of the road, about seventy meters from the checkpoint. Taher [the other ambulance driver] and I called the Red Crescent in Hebron and Bethlehem and asked them to coordinate between the Red Cross and the Israeli side so we could pass. The Red Crescent official in Bethlehem promised to take care of it and told us to wait next to the checkpoint.

About three quarters of an hour later, around 3:00 P.M., a border policeman, who appeared to be Druze [a religious minority in Israel that serves in the army and has a reputation for particularly sadistic cruelty], approached us and asked about the patient's condition. He opened the ambulance door and looked at the patient lying inside with a tube for draining fluids attached to his chest. It was obvious from the appearance of the patient that he was in a very critical condition. The policeman was not convinced and said that a Palestinian ambulance was allowed to cross an Israeli checkpoint only if the patient was in a life-threatening condition. I emphasized to him that the patient was in a life-threatening condition, but he said “No, he can wait.” I asked him if he was a doctor. He didn't reply and went back to the checkpoint.

Around 3:45 P.M., while we were waiting for an answer from the Red Crescent in Bethlehem, a third policeman came and asked us to move away from the checkpoint. The policeman was nervous. We moved back about 200 meters and stopped next to the entrance of the road that led to Beit Jala. We continued to wait for the Red Crescent's reply. Around 4:00 P.M., the Red Crescent notified us that there was no point in continuing to wait, and that we should return the patient to al-Ahli hospital in Hebron. They promised they would continue to try to coordinate the transport of the patient for tomorrow. We returned the patient to al-Ahli hospital. He was exhausted from the long wait at the checkpoint.

The next morning, a Red Crescent ambulance took the patient to the tunnels checkpoint where a Jerusalem Red Crescent ambulance was waiting and took the patient to al-Makassed Hospital.

Musa took this statement from the ambulance driver, it’s online at: