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Israel and the occupied/autonomous territories: Palestine Red Crescent strives to meet increased needs of the population

09-08-2002 News Release 02/32

The telephone keeps ringing. "It's hardly surprising", says Dr Abdel Rahim Abu Saleh, head of the primary health-care unit of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in Ramallah. "The city is under curfew again and everyone, including doctors, must remain at home. This telephone line is the only access people have to medical care." A month ago the PRCS set up a hot line with the help of the French Red Cross so that sick people could call in, especially those suffering from chronic illnesses."

The activity at the PRCS headquarters is in marked contrast with the paralysis that has stricken the city, which now resembles a ghost town. From mid-June to mid-July, Ramallah's 60,000 inhabitants spent 75 per cent of their time under curfew. Dr Thabet, who answers most of the calls, stays up all night at the office giving advice to often very anxious sick people.

So as to better meet the increased needs of a population that has suffered the effects of military operations for many months, an emergency medical service has been set up to ensure the rapid transfer of patients to hospitals – often with the help of the ICRC, which facilitates the safe passage of ambulances – and the delivery of medicines directly to people's homes free of charge.

The ICRC provides support for the PRCS within the framework of various cooperation programmes.* In early July the ICRC sounded the alarm, considering that action had to be taken rapidly in several villages isolated by closures, military roadblocks and curfews. In Ras Karkar (1,350 inhabitants) and Al Janieh (830 inhabitants), the villagers had practically no direct access to medical care and the sick had to walk for five hours to reach Ramallah, barely seven kilometres away, making long detours along sandy tracks. On 8 and 9 July, two PRCS doctors travelling in ICRC vehicles examined 500 patients who welcomed them as saviours. The experience was repeated elsewhere and in the future such consultations will be given in a more systematic way.

To this end, the PRCS has begun to survey the state of health services in the 610 villages of the West Bank. The survey, which is based on precise indicators, will give a compreh ensive view of the situation and identify the places where action must be rapidly taken in the event of an epidemic or high mortality rates. The PRCS is currently conducting its survey in 134 villages and the ICRC will facilitate its access to the remaining ones, which it would otherwise have difficulty reaching.

A network of travelling doctors consisting mainly of general practitioners and obstetricians is being set up as well. The PRCS hopes to rapidly recruit around 300 additional volunteers to strengthen its existing team of health professionals. The doctors will travel throughout the West Bank, if need be on foot, with backpacks and medical kits.

Isn't such a programme somewhat ambitious for a National Society subject to the vagaries of a volatile situation and restricted in its movements by security considerations? " Indeed it is " , says PRCS President Dr Younis al-Khatib, " but we must adopt daring strategies to meet the increased needs of the population. Our staff are showing exemplary courage and devotion to duty and some have even laid down their lives to carry out their humanitarian work and bring help to the wounded.** The situation goes beyond the capacities of any one National Society, and even of the Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement as a whole, to cope with. More extensive action will be needed if a humanitarian disaster is to be avoided. "

*The 2002 budget for these programmes amounts to nearly 6 million Swiss francs. Most of these funds are for emergency medical care and disaster response.

**Since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, three PRCS health professionals have been killed in the line of duty.