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Meet Palestine’s first female ambulance driver

Sandra Bali, a Palestinian nurse from the West Bank, got her ambulance driver’s license this year despite the male monopoly in the field.
Palestinian ambulance driver Sandra Bali behind the wheel during her shift, Gaza Strip, August 2022.

Gaza — Sandra Bali, 24, from Halhul city in Hebron, in the southern West Bank, has had a desire to help the sick and injured as long as she can remember, which she believes is a national duty. This has prompted her to defy all odds and become the first female ambulance driver in Palestine.

Bali, who has been working as a nurse in Ahli Hospital in Hebron for two years, had been wanting to break the male monopoly of this profession for years. So she decided to get her ambulance driver's license this year.

According to statistics published in March by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, women’s participation in the Palestinian labor force reached 17% in 2021, compared to 16% in 2020; while men's participation in the labor force reached 69% in 2021, compared to 65% in 2020.

However, the unemployment rate among women in the Palestinian territories reached 43%, compared to 22% among men in 2021. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate reached 53% among the youth (ages 19-29) holding an intermediate diploma or higher for the same year, of whom 66% were females and 39% were males.

“Receiving my driver's license for an ordinary vehicle in 2018 was a great incentive to apply for an ambulance driver's license. It was a challenge as I would become the first woman [in Palestine] to take up this profession. I thought a lot about how society would perceive me,” Bali told Al-Monitor. 

She said, “Driving an ambulance is not an easy task. However, many patients, particularly women, ask that women provide first aid to them and transfer them to the vehicle. My work is not only limited to driving the ambulance. I help the paramedics in providing first aid to the patient or the injured person, before transporting them to the hospital for treatment.”

Bali noted, “Driving an ambulance requires focus, speed and good judgment in order to transport the patient as quickly as possible, save their life in a timely manner and avoid aggravating their condition, especially if they suffer from severe bleeding or a fracture of the spine. Most importantly, I need to avoid traffic accidents while trying to reach patients and the hospital.”

She pointed out, “Resorting to speed while driving an ambulance depends on several factors, namely the patient’s condition and traffic congestion. If the patient's condition is critical, I need to drive as fast as I can, sometimes reaching 140 kilometers per hour [87 mph]. Of course, we turn on the siren to alert all vehicles on the road that there is an oncoming ambulance so they can move out of the way.”

Bali added, “I have encountered some difficult situations while transporting the injured from the points of confrontation that erupt on the outskirts of Hebron governorate between Palestinian youths and the Israeli army. Some suffered critical injuries as a result of direct bullets to the head or chest, and various other injuries. Despite the horror and difficulty of the scenes, I would hold my breath and try to focus on my humanitarian duty, to get them [the injured] to the nearest hospital to save their lives as quickly as possible.”

She noted that many people have made nasty comments about her driving an ambulance. However, her family and friends have been extremely supportive, which has encouraged her to hold on to this profession and prove that women are able to work in many jobs, even those dominated by men.

She said that while on the road she can tell how shocked many drivers are when they see a woman behind the wheel of an ambulance.

Bali has inspired other Palestinian women to choose careers in fields dominated by men.

Heba Zahida, a 22-year-old post-graduate student at Hebron University, told Al-Monitor, “Bali is a role model for all girls and women. She has proved herself despite all the difficulties and challenges she faced. She insisted on moving forward with this humanitarian profession, which has long been monopolized by men.”

She added, “Palestinian women in general are no less productive and efficient than men. They have proven their worth in many jobs in which they were better and more efficient than men, and showed great willingness to participate in decision-making processes."

Nashat al-Awewi, 26, from Yatta, Hebron, told Al-Monitor, “Women are now participating alongside men in many tasks, as they seek to raise awareness about their rights and enable themselves to achieve more.”

She said, “Although many were shocked to see Bali drive an ambulance, she received wide popular respect in Hebron since she proved that nothing is impossible.”

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