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Ramallah's ambulance crews pay a deadly price for saving lives Emergency official from St. Albert says blood of his doctors shed in guerrilla war

                    Paula Simons

                   Edmonton Journal

 Thursday, March 21, 2002

 Hossam Sharkawi has one hellish commute.

 Sharkawi lives in St. Albert.  It's been home since his family moved to Canada from Kuwait when he was eight. He's a graduate of Paul Kane high school and the University of Alberta.

 He's also taken graduate degrees in health management at Harvard University and City University in London. But he and his wife returned to St. Albert to raise their own family.

 Sharkawi's office, though, is in Ramallah, in the Palestinian Territories. He works for Red Crescent International, a sister agency of the International Red Cross. Sharkawi is the co-ordinator of ambulance and emergency medical services in Gaza and the West Bank.

 Things have been extremely difficult here, the last two weeks," he told me, on the phone from Ramallah last week.

 "Running an ambulance service, at the best of times, is a difficult, stressful job. The current war and violence make it much more complex."

 That's putting it mildly. Sharkawi and his crews are caught up, not just in a war, but in a guerrilla war.

 In most conventional wars, it is understood that ambulances are sacrosanct, neutral. The red cross, or crescent or star of David on any vehicle means it is not to be targeted, under any circumstances. But the Israeli army hasn't been playing by those rules. It's been blocking ambulances. Worse, it's been shooting at them. In the last three weeks, three of Sharkawi's doctors and medics have been killed and dozens injured, he says.

 "We've said to them, 'Please, do not shoot at ambulances. Search them if you must, in a timely fashion,' " he says. "But to shoot a doctor and a medic? These are clearly, clearly war crimes."

 Things got so dangerous, Sharkawi had to shut down all ambulance service for half a day. Service has resumed now. But Sharkawi says he's still worried about the safety of his crews.

 The International Red Cross has called on Israel to stop attacking ambulances. So has United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, who was reported to be especially upset by the death of a UN relief worker aboard one of the ambulances.

 An Israeli human rights group, Physicians for Human Rights, has gone to court in Israel to try to force the army to leave the ambulances alone. Last week, the Israeli defence minister ordered the army to let the ambulances pass unmolested.

 But like everything else in the Middle East, this isn't a black-and-white question. The Israeli army insists Palestinian extremists have used ambulances to smuggle terrorists and weapons. And though it refuses to make its evidence public, the claim isn't altogether far-fetched. Can you think of a better "disguise" for a suicide bomber than an ambulance? It's easy to imagine a scenario where terrorists could steal or hijack an ambulance and use it to evade military checkpoints.

 Sharkawi is a realist. He knows it's not impossible that terrorists could use his ambulances as a front. And he knows such a tactic would be deadly for his workers, not to mention his patients and passengers.

 That's why he wants the army to show him the evidence.

 "We've said to them, the Red Crescent is more interested in stopping abuses than you are, believe me. Tell us, so we can prosecute these people. If somebody's abusing ambulances, then from our point of view, they're idiots. All you need is one incident to basically taint the entire system."

 In the meantime, Sharkawi is working hard to keep crews safe and ambulances running. He's in constant contact with the Israeli army; his office notifies the military every time an ambulance is dispatched, and no crew is sent out without advance Israeli clearance. Ninety per cent of calls, he says, involve "routine" medical emergencies that have nothing to do with the fighting.

 Hossam Sharkawi says it's hard for him to be away from his wife and kids in St. Albert -- and hard for them to have him so far away, in such a dangerous place. But as an aid worker, and a Palestinian-Canadian, he says, Ramallah is where he has to be.

 This is really about saving lives, he says. I have many, many, Israeli friends. None of us ever expected a return to this level of violence.