Attacks on hospitals expose Israel’s "self-defense" claims as lies

28 July 2014

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Displaced Palestinians seek refuge at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on 27 July.

(Ezz Zanoun / APA images)

A baby was delivered at al-Aqsa hospital in Gaza last Thursday. That should not be news; babies are born all the time. What was remarkable about this birth is that the child’s mother had been killed by the Israeli military.

The delivery of this child is a testament to the professionalism and dedication of the hospital’s staff. Three days earlier, Israel attacked the hospital with tank shells. At least five Palestinians were reported dead.

Last Wednesday, Israel completely leveled al-Wafa rehabilitation and geriatric hospital to the ground, after two weeks of missile strikes and threats of heavier attacks.

On Friday afternoon, Israel began shelling the Beit Hanoun hospital and continued shelling into Saturday morning, trapping dozens of patients and medical workers and several international solidarity activists inside. Three medical workers were reportedly injured, and the building sustained heavy damage.

Israel claims that its latest offensive against Gaza is an act of “self-defense.” Mark Regev, spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister’s office, has tried to “justify” the attacks on al-Aqsa hospital by alleging — without producing a shred of credible evidence — that Hamas uses hospitals to hide rockets.

The eyewitness accounts from doctors here in the town of Deir al-Balah, where al-Aqsa hospital is located, expose such claims as blatant lies.

“Are children terrorists?”

When I spoke to staff in the hospital on Friday, they said that all of the eight dead bodies received so far that day were of women and children.

“What kind of war against terror has Israel launched?” Muhammad Duaidar, a doctor in the intensive care unit, asked. “Are these women and children terrorists?”

Israel may be using weapons such as white phosphorous, flechettes and Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME) in this attack, judging by what doctors in this and other hospitals in Gaza have observed. This suggests that Israel is deliberately testing new or relatively new weapons on civilians.

Although these weapons are not banned, it is illegal under international law to fire them at non-combatants.

“The injuries we receive are unfamiliar to us,” said Duaidar. “We have noticed bodies that look melted. We are calling for investigations into such injuries, which we have not [seen] in previous Israeli attacks.”

“Severe shortages”

Last Monday’s attack on the hospital caused serious damage to its oxygen production unit, which is essential for the performance of critical operations. Three ambulance crew members were injured. The building struck in the attack was close to the hospital’s ambulance station.

The attack has worsened the already dire situation at the hospital. Electricity sometimes cuts out while vital operations are underway. There are “severe shortages” of medicines, according to Duaidar.

Heba Zaqout, a woman from the Nuseirat refugee camp, was in the intensive care unit at al-Aqsa on Friday. She had shrapnel in her left foot, her lower back and other parts of her body.

Um al-Abed al-Rouqy — the woman’s mother — said that Heba called her just before shells landed on her house. “She told me, ‘I am so scared, Mom, there is a fire around my house.’ I tried to calm her down. I called her back after ten minutes but she did not answer.”

On Sunday, Gaza’s health ministry reported a new crisis affecting the Strip’s hospitals. Scores of patients in al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City are ready for discharge — but are unable to leave their beds because they have no homes to which they can return, or because they live in areas where Israel has ordered all civilians to evacuate.

Trauma

Similar problems have been founded in other hospitals.

Dr. Sobhi Skaik, chief surgeon at al-Shifa, said that while such patients are taking up beds required for the incoming wounded, “we can’t force them out.”

He added that the situation has been complicated by the fact that several members from the same family can often be found in different units of the hospital, while other relatives have camped near the hospital after their homes have been destroyed.

“The hospital grounds have become like a refugee camp,” he said, in the health ministry’s statement. “The conditions are deteriorating, with rubbish piling up — it is quite dirty and unsanitary, and we cannot discharge our patients into those conditions.”

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported a sharp increase in trauma cases in Gaza, noting that hospitals lack the resources to cope. Last week, it cited estimates that 125,000 children required direct and specialized psychological help as a result of losing parents or their home.

No doubt, these estimates are conservative and the true figure is considerably higher.

Israel’s latest offensive against Gaza is hitting the most vulnerable hardest. How can attacks on hospitals be considered as acts of “self-defense?”

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.