International activists have returned to maintain a presence at al-Wafa hospital in eastern Gaza City after the Israeli military threatened to strike the hospital again, ordering its evacuation by tomorrow morning local time.On Friday, as The Electronic Intifada reported, the Israeli military dropped five “warning rockets” on the building, sending vulnerable patients, nurses and hospital staff into a panic.
Al-Wafa staff say that the hospital received several calls again from the Israeli military on Tuesday, warning the hospital staff to evacuate the building and that residents from the densely-populated Shujaiya neighborhood, where al-Wafa is located, should evacuate as well.
In the last two days, the Gaza ministry of health declared a state of emergency as Israel pounds hundreds of targets while hospitals face severe shortages of medical supplies and basic medications. In an interview on Saturday, Basman Alashi, al-Wafa hospital’s executive director, said that there is nowhere to evacuate his patients to, as many of the patients are in need of constant care and the hospitals across Gaza are already full.
Today, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that since Israel’s assault began last week, “79 schools and 23 health facilities in Gaza have sustained damage.” As of today, nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed and approximately 1,200 wounded since last Monday.
Joe Catron, activist and contributor to The Electronic Intifada, has been live-tweeting from al-Wafa and published an on-the-ground report earlier today on Middle East Eye. He spoke to us at 3am local Palestine time Wednesday morning.
Joe Catron: My name is Joe Catron, I’m a solidarity activist and sometimes Electronic Intifada contributor, from the United States, currently in the Gaza Strip. It’s 2:57am local time, and I’m currently at al-Wafa medical rehabilitation hospital, which is in the Shujaiya neighborhood on the eastern edge of Gaza City, by the separation barrier with Israel.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Joe, can you tell us what you’ve been hearing the last few hours as you’ve been at al-Wafa?
JC: Certainly. It was quiet for some time after we arrived, then we began hearing what sounded like artillery, I think, in the area of the separation barrier. It’s hard to say — we don’t have direct line of sight with it except at a very distant approach. When it gets close to us, it’s blocked by a row of warehouses so we can’t see it directly.
Recently, this has been growing much louder. We’ve heard some explosions in the last few minutes, it sounded like tank shells being fired directly outside our window. I’m sure they weren’t actually that close, but whatever it is, it’s not very far away. There’s also been sporadic gunfire coming from the direction of the barrier, and various noises that are hard to place. I’ve been here a while, but I don’t recognize all the Israeli military machinery by sound yet.
NBF: Joe, reports say that the staff at al-Wafa have been called by spokespersons for the Israeli military, saying that they need to evacuate the patients because of a possible missile strike, can you talk more about that?
JC: Yes. Yesterday they received, I believe, a total of three calls from the Israeli military, warning them to evacuate the hospital, and also saying that residents from the Shujaiya neighborhood, where it’s located, should evacuate their homes. We’ve heard recently that the Israeli military has said — through the World Health Organization — that because it’s a hospital and a civilian institution, that it does not need to evacuate, but the original word that came through the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] earlier, and also directly from the Israeli military, was that there was going to be heavy shelling in this area beginning tomorrow morning, and that anyone remaining here would be in danger.
When they say one thing directly, and another thing through the World Health Organization, of course no one is sure exactly what to expect.
NBF: Joe, when we spoke with Basman Alashi, the executive director of al-Wafa hospital, over the weekend, he described the level of trauma and terror and panic inflicted not just on the patients who are very vulnerable, but the staff and caregivers as well. Can you talk about the kinds of patients that al-Wafa houses and takes care of, and whether it is even possible to evacuate these patients?
JC: Al-Wafa is the only hospital in the Gaza Strip specializing in occupational and physical therapy. The patients here have survived various kinds of accidents and traumas, automobile and industrial accidents, near-drownings, et cetera, and many of the cases remaining here are quite critical. Those who were capable of being sent to stay temporarily with their families were evacuated something like ten days ago, now. And the cases remaining are those needing the most constant attention and care.
Additionally, new patients are now coming in from the outside; I believe two were transferred in yesterday from Shifa, the main hospital in Gaza which Rana Baker just interviewed her father about for EI, and another one was supposed to come in today. I haven’t actually heard whether he arrived or not. But Shifa, like most other hospitals dealing with emergency care in the Gaza Strip, is simply full. They cannot possibly accept an influx of patients from existing institutions. They’re beyond capacity with new casualties from Israeli attacks coming in all the time.
So there’s very little that they’re capable of doing, or can be expected to do, in terms of relieving an institution like this one, unfortunately.
NBF: Finally, Joe, can you talk about the reason why you and the other international activists have come to al-Wafa hospital and locked yourselves down as the Israeli military threatens to strike the hospital again?
JC: After the hospital was struck early Friday morning with four of what the Israelis call “warning rockets” — small, non-explosive missiles that are often fired at targets by the Israeli military before a larger airstrike — the hospital’s administration called together a number of the international activists and foreign supporters of Palestine here in Gaza. Shortly after that, the hospital was struck yet again, this time with a much larger missile which slammed into its fourth floor. And unlike the warning rockets which had broken some windows and dislodged a few doors, I believe, the rocket in the afternoon did a great deal of damage, creating a gaping hole in a wall, and really reducing a large portion of the fourth floor, which it struck, to rubble.
A little while later, the hospital received its first call, most of us assume, from the Israeli military — it was someone speaking Arabic, who did not identify themselves, who had a distinctive Israeli accent — and that person asked a number of questions about whether anyone had been injured in the strike, and whether the hospital planned to evacuate. I believe they also asked whether the fourth floor, where the missile had struck, had been empty at the time.
So a number of the foreign activists here were asked by the administration to come and maintain a presence in the hopes of deterring further Israeli attacks, which seems to have worked up until now. We’re hopeful that it will continue to do so, moving forward. Of course, the next 24 hours in this area will be interesting, since a mass evacuation has been ordered, and large amounts of shelling have been promised.
Of course, when the Israeli military says they’re going to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen, we’re all just waiting to see.