The Israeli government last week rejected the conclusions of a report from the international charity Médecins du Monde that claims that the government has unjustifiably hampered the free movement of ambulances in the occupied territories and deliberately targeted their crews. Israel accuses the Palestinian Red Crescent and local hospitals of allowing themselves to be used as couriers and safe houses for weapons.
Shuli Davidovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said: "The terrorists know that we cannot attack ambulances or hospitals because they are protected by international law. They use that immunity to conceal and smuggle weapons in them.
"Nobody wants to hinder ambulances, but on several occasions in the past they have been used to carry weapons and even bombers. In January 2002, a Palestinian Red Crescent paramedic, Wafa Idris, blew herself up in Jaffa Road, Jerusalem, killing one old man and injuring nearly 150.
"She was transported that day by a Red Crescent ambulance whose driver, Mohammed Hababa, was also part of the plot. On another occasion, in May 2002 in Ramallah, a bomb belt was discovered hidden under a 6 year old boy, who knew nothing about it. It was safely detonated in the presence of a Red Cross observer and the boy was brought to an ambulance on the other side of the checkpoint."
"This is a war," she said, "and you can't take the chance. The coalition is doing the same thing with ambulances in Baghdad."
Dr Shabtai Gold of Physicians for Human Rights, Israel, said: "The army has made these accusations many times and has usually ended up retracting them later. I only know of one verified incident of weapons being found in a PRCS [Palestinian Red Crescent Society] ambulance. The PRCS immediately fired the person responsible.
"Last year, when they [the army] killed the head of the PRCS emergency service in Jenin, Dr Khalil Sulieman, the army said the ambulance he was in was carrying a bomb which killed him when it blew up. Later, they quietly admitted that the explosion was caused by their own bullets hitting the oxygen tank, which exploded, burning him to death."
Dr Gold added: "Whether or not there have been violations by PRCS staff, we feel that the military response to this alleged threat is completely disproportionate. In any case, ambulances are frequently held up for hours, and only a few minutes of that time are actually spent searching for weapons. Our view is that the complete negation of freedom of movement for ordinary people as well as ambulances is excessive and harmful."
When Wafa Idris became the first female suicide bomber of the Intifada, her brother said she had been driven to it by her experiences as an ambulance worker, particularly the sight of pregnant women losing their babies at checkpoints.
But the PRCS rejected this, fearing that any suggestion that first aid workers might be driven to attack Israelis would endanger their staff. "It is ridiculous, ridiculous that it has come to this," says Hossam Sharkawi, the PRCS coordinator of Emergency Response Services, of the bombing. "It is appalling; it goes against all our principles. We oppose all killings of civilians. We are here to save lives&8212;Palestinians and Israelis equally."