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Egypt Sends Ambulances into Gaza

PUBLISHED: January 13, 2009

RAFAH, EGYPT—On Monday evening, Egypt sent twenty-five ambulances from the Ministry of Health and Population, each staffed by a medic and driver, to hospitals in the town of Khan Yunis, some twenty kilometers from the border crossing at Rafah. I spoke with the ambulance crews before their journey.

Egyptian ambulances prepare to cross the border at Egypt’s Rafah terminal to retrieve patients from Gaza.

Ahmed Hamza, 25, from Suez, denied any concern for his safety, claiming that he was “very angry, very sad,” and “happy to be able to help my Muslim brothers.” I have come to expect such statements of stoicism from volunteers entering Gaza, especially Muslim Arabs, who began entering in increasing numbers over the weekend.

On Saturday, I asked a group of Arab doctors—who were waiting on a Gaza Bus Company bus to cross the border—whether they had fears about Israeli air strikes or getting caught in the crossfire between Hamas and the IDF. Safety “is not a question for Muslims,” said Dr. Mohammad Al-Khalef, a neurosurgeon from Amman, Jordan. “If we come back, good. If we die, then we go to paradise.”

Dr. Ahmed Abd El-Aziz also denied fear. But Abd El-Aziz preferred tongue-in-cheek irreverence. “I believe in destiny,” he said, straight-faced. “If I am in Cairo, I may get hit by a car.” Abd El-Aziz’s joke brought a smile to my face—I myself have seen my life flashing in the busted-out headlights of more than a few Cairo cabs.

Still, I couldn’t help suspecting that the ambulance drivers and doctors with whom I was speaking were more afraid—and less sure of their “call to duty”—than any of them was willing to let on. I’ve been in that driver’s seat before—I know how the stomach excels at tying itself into knots, how adrenaline surges just before a rush into the unknown. Nausea is the closest companion to that brand of excitement, as even the most ideologically sure-footed soldiers and medics will tell you.

I’ve come to count on Dr. Ahmed Al-Wahab, one of Al-Arish Hospital’s chain-smoking directors, for honest statements about Egypt’s role in the Gaza conflict and about the morale of his staff. When others equivocate, he cuts through the bull. I asked Al-Wahab to tell me why the drivers wouldn’t come clean about their fears, preoccupations, doubts.

Sixteen-year-old Mohammad Ahmed arrives at the Rafah border terminal with head-to-toe burns yesterday.

“If you want to know how they really feel,” he said, gazing over my shoulder, “look at that driver behind you.” The driver—seated in the cab of his ambulance, awaiting the order to roll through the gate—was poring over his Qu’ran, a miniature version, encased in a zipper-pouch. EMTs around him joked and passed out cigarettes, but this driver was getting his head in the game. “He believes in his work,” said Al-Wahab, “but he also believes he needs to prepare to meet Allah.”

The Egyptian ambulance crews who entered Gaza on Monday evening were not volunteers. They came to Rafah from all over Egypt under orders from the Ministry of Health and Population. I asked them if they had any training about what to do if their convoy was hit by Israeli ordinance. Did they know how to react? Whether they should advance out of the kill zone, retreat, or stay in place? Had they received the training necessary to deal with combat trauma?

“As of today, we haven’t received any training like that,” admitted Ahmed Abu Sid, 30, an EMT from Alexandria.

Thankfully, all of the ambulances returned safely to Egyptian territory late Monday evening. The convoy successfully retrieved some forty-two patients from Gazan hospitals.

Mohammad Arafat, a representative of the Palestinian Authority in Egypt who helped coordinate Monday’s ambulance convoy, said he expects more ambulances will deploy to Gaza in the coming days.

Their safety is in no way guaranteed.

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