An unusual hug caused thunderous applause at a recent Knesset ceremony saluting Israel’s emergency medical first-responders and search-and-rescue personnel.

Parliamentarian Yehudah Glick, who survived an Arab shooting attack two years ago, spontaneously climbed onto the podium to embrace Kabahah Muawhiya, an Arab-Israeli volunteer EMT with national volunteer emergency medical services organization United Hatzalah of Israel.

“United Hatzalah is not just about emergency first response and medical rescuing, but it is literally uniting people from different walks of life and different religions,” Muawhiya told Israeli lawmakers. “It is a uniting of peoples and a unity of hearts.”

Member of Knesset Yehudah Glick hugging Kabahah Muawhiya, an Arab-Israeli first-responder. Photo by Aharon Crown/United Hatzalah
Member of Knesset Yehudah Glick hugging Kabahah Muawhiya, an Arab-Israeli first-responder. Photo by Aharon Crown/United Hatzalah

Many people are surprised to learn that Arab citizens volunteer and work for the Israeli emergency response organizations Magen David Adom (MDA); ZAKA and United Hatzalah.

For the first-responders, it’s only natural that representatives of all Israel’s population groups would cooperate to save lives.

“I am there to treat people who are hurt, and it doesn’t matter if they are Jewish or Arab,” United Hatzalah volunteer medic Khaled Rishek tells ISRAEL21c. “It gives me a feeling of satisfaction.”

Rishek and Muawhiya are among about 300 Muslim, Druze and Christian United Hatzalah volunteer EMTs, paramedics and doctors out of a total of some 3,000 who race to calls in their own neighborhoods.

From left, ultra-Orthodox, secular Jewish and Arab volunteers from United Hatzalah working together. Photo: courtesy
From left, ultra-Orthodox, secular Jewish and Arab volunteers from United Hatzalah working together. Photo: courtesy

After 10 years in United Hatzalah, Rishek is friends with many of the Jewish volunteers in Jerusalem. He lives on a street with Arabs on one side and Jews on the other, along the former border between Jordan and Israel. He’s a longtime employee of the Jerusalem International YMCA, “a place that is also one of coexistence.”

“Khaled is one of our most active volunteers,” says United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer, who shared a $10,000 peace prize with his Arab coordinator, Murad Alyan, in 2013.

“Our [Arab] volunteers are dealing with saving lives of their neighbors who have heart attacks and car accidents,” Beer tells ISRAEL21c. “They feel comfortable with what they’re doing and they feel privileged to do it. When you’re wearing our jacket, you’re a hero and people look to you for help.”

Like brothers

During a spate of terror attacks last fall, an MDA crew consisting of the ultra-Orthodox men Yisrael Arbus and Haggai Bar-Tov and Fadi Dikdik from Shuafat, an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, told a Yedioth Ahronoth reporter, “We are like brothers.”

Dikdik is responsible for the whole East Jerusalem area for MDA and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, English, Yiddish and Russian. He has worked with MDA for 12 years and recruits teens from Shuafat to take MDA’s first-aid course.

In August 2015, MDA senior paramedic Ziad Dawiyat, an Arab-Israeli, went to assist a laboring mother in Jerusalem – the same woman whose fatally injured infant he had transported to the hospital the previous October following a terror attack.

Magen David Adom senior paramedic Ziad Dawiyat. Photo courtesy of MDA
Magen David Adom senior paramedic Ziad Dawiyat. Photo courtesy of MDA

ZAKA, which retrieves bodily remains following accidents and violent crimes, and mounts search-and-rescue missions in Israel and worldwide, trains Bedouin, Muslim and Druze volunteers to serve their own communities.

“It gives me faith and pride that they depend on me,” Sheikh Jaffal Abu Sabet, leader of ZAKA’s Muslim unit in the Negev, told a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter. “In the end we are all people — Jews, Muslims, Christians — and we all must be taken care of the same way.”

Yossi Fraenkel, ZAKA’s deputy commander for greater Jerusalem and operations officer for the ZAKA International Rescue Unit – as well as a volunteer MDA paramedic, volunteer Israel Police officer and former New York City Police chaplain – says it is “an amazing honor to be part of an organization that’s so diverse. We don’t see color or race; we see human beings. We are there for everyone, no matter who and no matter where.”

ZAKA’s joint disaster preparedness training with the GLSHD. Photo by Joel Balinko
ZAKA’s joint disaster preparedness training with the GLSHD. Photo by Joel Balinko

Last April, ZAKA held a three-day disaster preparedness training course in the Dead Sea region for Israeli and Palestinian volunteers under the auspices of the Ministry for Regional Cooperation, in partnership with the Palestinian volunteer organization Green Land Society for Health Development (GLSHD).

“Natural disasters do not differentiate between peoples; they affect everyone,” said GLSHD Director Dr. Akram Amro. “Therefore, we too, as residents in this region, must unite in order to be able to help each other, regardless of religion or nationality.”