Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Fighting Israeli Bureaucracy to Help Its Victims

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Fighting Israeli Bureaucracy to Help Its Victims

Article excerpt

In May, 1988, two US-based relief organizations, Mercy Corps International and Roots Relief Fund, began a joint effort to raise $58,000 to buy a fully equipped US ambulance to help overcome the shortage of such vehicles in the occupied territories.

A 21-Month Journey

Its 21-month journey to Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza is just one of many stories of Israeli bureaucratic obstacles raised against attempts by Palestinians and their supporters to build an effective ambulance service in the occupied territories. For example:

In the early 1980s, Israel would not allow Makassad Islamic Charitable Hospital in East Jerusalem to import a donated ambulance because it did not conform precisely to Israeli technical standards, despite the fact that it would have been acceptable anywhere else in the world. After standing idle for four years in an Israeli port, it was sold to a garage which broke it up and sold it off part by part.

In 1983, the Anglican church in East Jerusalem tried to import an ambulance given by the West German government. A Jerusalem Diocesan aide complained that, "we could never get it out of the Port of Ashdod. With the Israeli government you will never be able to satisfy all the regulations."

Those failed attempts indicated clearly to Mercy Corps and Roots the necessity of having an experienced on-the-scene expediter, and the need to ferret out and compile all regulations and technical specifications concerning the importation of ambulances before it was even purchased, and then to make sure that they were complied with as meticulously as possible.

Constantine Dabbagh, Executive Director of The Medical Services Program of the Near East Council of Churches Committee For Refugee Work, Gaza (NECCCRW), became local point man for the project. Although he started with the expectation that the job would be accomplished early in the spring of 1989, it took him until early 1990 to cut through the red tape.

After the first three months of countless phone calls and meetings with occupation officials in Gaza trying to arrange a duty-free charitable exemption, Dabbagh could report no progress, despite the fact that local authorities said -- but never in writing -- that they did not oppose the idea.

So Ellsworth Culver, Mercy Corps' president, and friends of the project, began briefing key US legislators on Capitol Hill. With congressional help, attempts were made to arrange a meeting at the Israeli Embassy, but the Israelis were not hospitable to the idea,

Culver decided to complain publicly. He bought a quarter-page ad in The Washington Post to appear on April 7th, 1989, the day of Prime Minister Shamir's White House meeting with George Bush. Written as an "Open Letter to the President," it said in part: Even though we have consulted with all the necessary United States and Israeli authorities, and waited several months for processing, we have yet to receive approval from the Israeli authorities to ship the ambulance to Gaza...Mr. President, we respectfully appeal to you to intervene on our behalf with Prime Minister Shamir of Israel to facilitate the delivery and service of this ambulance."

There was no response from the White House and no progress in Gaza. On May 15th, an Israeli Transport Department functionary told Dabbagh that the kind of ambulance he was trying to bring in -- a Ford -- could not be imported by anyone in Israel. …

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