Israeli Defense Force members carry a wounded Palestinian gunman from the Church of the Nativity standoff to an ambulance to be taken to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.Throughout the incursion into the West Bank by the Israel Defense Force known as Operation Defensive Shield, Israeli hospitals continued to treat sick and wounded Israelis and Palestinians, civilians, soldiers and fighters alike regardless of the level of military activity in the area.

Ha’emek Hospital in Afula, Israel, a mere 10 miles from the battle in the West Bank town of Jenin where 23 IDF soldiers were killed, was in the eye of the storm throughout the entire Jenin operation, according to Dr. Eran Halperin, the hospital’s director.

Ha’emek received many of the wounded, most of them flown in by helicopter from Jenin, as the battle within the camp raged. Palestinians, including injured security prisoners under heavy guard, were tended to, side-by-side with Israelis and with no discrimination, by the hospital’s staff.

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that Ha’emek and other Israeli hospitals stepped up in the midst of the crisis. They have been doing the same thing in peace and in war since the founding of Israel 54 years ago.

Some of the injured fighters who were brought into the Ha’emek emergency room had been involved in perpetrating terror attacks in Israel. On a professional
level, no one doubts the commitment by all doctors and nurses to save lives. But on a personal level, after almost 20 months of violence and terror
attacks within Israel, it isn’t that easy, said Halperin, who was prohibited from giving details about exact numbers of patients in each category who were treated.

“I can’t say we (the hospital staff) are a different species,” Halperin said. “During the Jenin operation we were all under enormous tension and strain, and yes, the mood was very aggravated. In the month prior to the Jenin operation we had a shocking time. We treated victims of terror attacks that took place in Wadi Ara, Ummel-Fahum and Afula.

“I’m extremely proud to say there was not a single violent incident, or even an altercation… as the wounded were brought in from Jenin. All patients, including terror suspects, receive the same treatment…” he said. “We know we have to put aside our opinions and everyday feelings and treat all sick people in front of us.”

The story of Ha’emek was mirrored in a CNN account that aired May 6 showing Palestinian prisoners from the Church of the Nativity standoff in Bethlehem being treated at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem alongside a man who had been shot in a terrorist attack on an Israeli settlement in the West Bank and a girl who had been wounded in a Jerusalem suicide bombing. The same clip showed young Palestinian and Israeli patients partying together in Hadassah’s juvenile cancer ward as the Church of the Nativity crisis continued a few miles away.

Later, on May 8, Ha’emek received another patient from Jenin when a would-be suicide bomber accidentally blew himself up with an explosive device strapped to his body not far from Afula.

He was taken to the hospital and underwent abdominal surgery, having suffered injuries to his stomach, lung contusions, burns and respiratory problems. He was in serious, but stable, condition the next day with Israeli security guards posted in the corridor.

“The irony of it all is that he was on his way to Afula to kill citizens in the same town in which we are now trying to save his life,” Halperin said.

What makes Ha’emek Hospital different from other Israeli hospitals is that it has a fairly even mix of Arab and Jewish doctors and nurses. Many on the staff have families in nearby Arab villages.

“It’s a very peculiar situation,” Halperin said. “During the Jenin battles we saw Arab doctors and nurses treating Israeli soldiers, and Jewish doctors and nurses treating Palestinians.”

For years, Ha’emek has been the destination hospital for Palestinian patients with complicated cases, especially for those who cannot be treated properly at the hospital in Jenin. Everything ranging from women in complicated labor, those needing attention from multidisciplinary teams, and life-threatening cases have been brought to Ha’emek.

“We treat anyone who comes through our emergency room doors, no matter where they come from,” Halperin said.

Prior to the outbreak of the current conflict in Sept. 2000, Ha’emek began building relations with the staff at Jenin. Plans were in the works for exchange visits where workers at the two hospitals would cooperate in staff development. The Ha’emek staff was planning to give consultations, but the plans were cancelled after the conflict began. Halperin said he and his staff hope to eventually pick up on this bonding where they left off.

As the conflict enters its 20th month and the headlines from Jenin begin to subside, Ha’emek is continuing its work, largely without recognition outside Afula.

“I don’t think the larger world has any idea of the work we’re doing,” Halperin said. “There seems to be this idea in Europe and America that all (Israelis and Palestinians) hate each other.”

Outsiders don’t realize that normal life and everyday activities are going on respectfully and cordially, especially in the Israeli health care system, he said.

“I’m proud of my staff and I’m proud to personally be part of the system, because it’s a system that has absolute equity and fairness when it comes to the treatment of all people.”