BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK — Four years into the Israeli-Palestinian fighting, it's not only the sick that are using Bethlehem's hospitals. Armed fugitives from militant groups also seek shelter there from the long arm of the Israeli army, drawing even medicine into the circle of conflict.
Last month, the Holy Family Hospital became the third Bethlehem-area health institution in the past six months to find itself on the receiving end of Israeli army action after army intelligence determined that fugitives were on hospital grounds. "The hospital was besieged for three hours" says a hospital staffer, who asked for anonymity.
The ability of these self-invited guests to ensconce themselves in hospitals is a symptom of a larger phenomenon of West Bank lawlessness and a sign of the breakdown of Palestinian governance, both the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority agree. But they differ sharply over who is to blame. The PA says its security force has been crippled by Israel, making it impossible to restore order. The army, for its part, says the PA lacks the will to crack down on those it views as terrorists.
At the Holy Family Hospital, "[Israeli] soldiers brought a picture taken by a drone and pointed on it to the laundry room in a remote area," the staffer recalls. "The soldiers started shooting for a long time, though no one was hurt. They brought in a bulldozer and said they would demolish the laundry room. But then the fugitives called the receptionist and said they would turn themselves in. Everyone was shocked that they were hiding on the hospital grounds."
The fugitives, Ratib and Adnan Abayat of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia that Wednesday claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem and is affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, were living in their hideout for a year, according to Israeli army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal. "They set up shop there full time," he says. A statement by the president of the hospital's board of trustees, Jacques de Dumast, said the presence of the fugitives was "without our knowledge" and was "inadmissible as it violates our essential neutrality."
But at the Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital, where the presence of five fugitives from the brigades ensconced in the administration building ended with an army raid in May, director Issam Banura says he did not investigate afterward to discern if his staffers were helping the fugitives.
"If I knew they were there I would not accept a foreign body coming into the hospital," he says. "It is dangerous for the patients and the hospital." But, he adds, "I am not in a position to interrogate the staff. As Palestinian people, we feel we have the right to protect them. Some employee might have thought he has to protect them." The hospital has 160 patients and is the only psychiatric hospital in the West Bank.
"I can advise these people to leave but I cannot order them. It is not my house, it is a public place for all Palestinians, not just for me," Dr. Banura says. "If they insist, I cannot force them and I cannot call the police since we have no functioning security services."
Banura was taken from his house at 4 a.m. on May 1 by soldiers who ordered him to open the hospital, he says. "There was two hours of shooting, and helicopters fired missiles. They arrested 12 persons, seven were employees who they later released. The patients were astonished and traumatized, they became more tense. We spent two weeks supporting the patients to lessen their trauma. Most were frightened and wanted to run away. They said it is dangerous in the hospital."
The raid on the psychiatric hospital was on the mind of Dr. Peter Qumri, director of King Hussein Hospital in the neighboring city of Beit Jala, when he discovered there were fugitives on the grounds in May. A hospital staffer says that, with Israeli troops surrounding the hospital, Dr. Qumri searched the premises and discovered three armed fugitives from the Aqsa brigades hiding in one of the buildings. He ordered them to leave immediately, which they did, the staffer said. Four days later, Dr. Qumri's car was torched.
"This is a hospital, not a place where these people should hide," Qumri says. "If something happens, the patients will pay for the exchanges of fire. As director of the hospital and as a human being, I have to stop this illogical action. If [the fugitives] belong to a faction, the faction leader should find them a place to hide. This is the only general hospital in the district and it serves 150,000 inhabitants. If we lose it, we cannot cover the health needs of the population. I'm not against their aims, but to expose the hospital to Israeli fire is unacceptable."
A spokesman for the al-Aqsa brigades, who identifies himself as Abu Mujahid, says: "It is not a policy to use public institutions to hide. It is a last resort for a person on the run.
"We are part of the people, and it is normal that people give us all kinds of protection. However, it is much recommended that we avoid exposing children and patients to any Israeli retaliation," he says.
Bethlehem's Governor, General Zuheir Manasra, says: "I am sorry that they don't respect the special character of institutions like hospitals, schools, and churches. It cannot be accepted. We try all the time to stop it, but Israel is controlling everything here. Israel has destroyed the capacity of the Palestinian security services and the political process, and it is occupying Bethlehem. It forbids our security forces from carrying weapons. The PA is concerned with facing violence and in many cases succeeds, but the capability of the PA to enlarge this activity is limited because of daily Israeli interventions and incursions. The Israelis deliberately try to create chaos and disorder."
General Manasra says that the most the PA can do to fugitives is send them away from an institution, not arrest them.
"They are breaking the law, but I cannot arrest them because I have no guarantee the Israelis won't come and take them from the prison," he says. "There is also a moral side. People will ask, 'How can you tolerate the Israeli soldiers carrying weapons and driving tanks in the streets of Bethlehem and then chase after Palestinians when they are trying to defend themselves?' "
Captain Dallal says the problem is not the army, but rather that the PA "has no will to act against terrorists. If weapons were used against terrorists and to establish law and order, we wouldn't stop it, but [instead] they are used against us."