As snow began falling on Jerusalem three weeks ago, the Shuafat Refugee Camp’s new emergency hotline received a call notifying it of a fire at the home of the Matour family. Bahaa Nababteh, who heads the small team, immediately left for the site with two local volunteers.
“We arrived at an eight-story building engulfed in flames six minutes later,” Nababteh told The Times of Israel. “The first thing we did was vacate the area, and check whether anyone was inside. We were told that a young woman was trapped; she tried to scream but no one heard her voice. All we had with us was a sledgehammer, so I told the guys to bring more sledgehammers from home and destroy the wall. We opened a large hole in the building and saved her life. She was entirely black from the smoke when we rescued her, and in a state of shock.”
“Later, a fire truck arrived from [the nearby neighborhood of] Wadi Joz and also reinforcements from Ramallah, but our job was already done.”
As winter wears on, disasters like this have become an almost weekly occurrence in the Shuafat Refugee Camp, technically part of Jerusalem, and the surrounding neighborhoods of Ras Khamis, Ras Shehadeh and Dhaiyat As-Salam, all situated behind a high concrete barrier and encompassing an estimated 80,000 residents.
With the neighborhoods’ illegally-constructed high-rises equipped with makeshift electric infrastructures, accidents and fires are commonplace in Israel’s only Palestinian refugee camp, set up in the mid-1960s to accommodate a population boom in the Old City.
Israeli Magen David Adom ambulances used to enter the camp in emergencies accompanied by border police for protection, but stopped a few years ago after local residents would repeatedly pelt the rescue vehicles with stones.
Since 2006, Magen David Adom refers emergency calls from beyond the barrier to the Palestinian Red Crescent, which serves Shuafat Refugee Camp and its environs with nine ambulances stationed at Al-Quds Hospital in A-Tur, beneath the Mount of Olives.
But camp residents say the Palestinian ambulances are overworked and unfamiliar with their neighborhood — which has no street names or numbers — making response time dangerously long.
In Shuafat Refugee Camp — distinct from the more middle-class Shuafat neighborhood in the capital — people have begun putting up street signs and house numbers to allow medical teams faster access in case of emergency.
Nababteh, 28, had worked with Palestinian teenagers as a community organizer through the Israeli youth movement Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed. He joined with local leaders to form the Peace Emergency Team in late 2013, as a large snowstorm bore down on Jerusalem and the rest of the Middle East.
The first training he organized was in crisis management, provioing skills that have been proven useful in numerous crises since. Today, the team numbers 52 administrators and volunteers, including three women.
Starting out, volunteers used to be notified of emergencies in their neighborhood through word of mouth or personal acquaintance. But two month ago, Peace Emergency Team launched a call center which informs the volunteers of emergencies using group text messages. Nababteh said he fixed up a shop he owns to accommodate the emergency dispatcher.
But despite the spirit of volunteerism sweeping Shuafat Refugee Camp, Peace Emergency Team lacks the most basic medical and rescue equipment needed to address the community’s needs. Nababteh is currently working with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) to secure headquarters for the team near the Israeli roadblock at the entrance to the camp; where motorcycle-riding volunteers arrive to accompany fire trucks and Red Crescent ambulances and locate the injured.
“The most important thing for us right now is emergency equipment,” Nababteh said. “We need ropes, chains, sledgehammers, a generator, emergency kits with oxygen balloons and fire fighting foam. These are simple things, but they can help us in the future.”
Ahmad Shehadeh, 24, the team’s chief medic, said he received his emergency training from the Jewish first responder group United Hatzalah, which he joined in 2006. His motivation to set up a volunteer body in his own neighborhood began when the father of a close friend died after an ambulance sent to treat him was held up at an Israeli checkpoint for 40 minutes as it awaited military accompaniment.
“If it were not for the medical equipment I was given as a volunteer with Hatzalah, we would have nothing,” Shehadeh told The Times of Israel. Requests from city hall for donations of winter gear have not been answered, he added, with the exception of a small tractor sent to clear the road of snow. The Jerusalem Municipality declined a Times of Israel request to respond to these claims.
Liaising with the community is an integral part of Peace Emergency Team, said Nababteh. Since Israeli police do not normally enter the camp during the day, he has recruited the local Scouts troop to clear the road of curious bystanders in the case of an emergency. The group’s Facebook page features instructions in Arabic on dealing with a gas leak, and it has issued an obituary for two youths killed this week in motorcycle crash on the road leading down to the Dead Sea.
“We enter schools and kindergartens, educating students about home safety,” said Shehadeh, who works as a cleaner at Shaare Zedek Hospital when he is not administering first aid in the refugee camp. “Usually parents just scoop up their injured children and head for the checkpoint, but we want that to change.”
Community leader Ismail Khatib could not praise the efforts of Nababteh and his team enough.
“Peace Emergency Team are among the most active people in the refugee camp,” Khatib told The Times of Israel. “They have really turned things around here over the past two years. Residents now feel that people stand by them and will be there to assist them within two minutes. As they say, ‘necessity is the mother of invention.'”