Ghassan Abu Sitta on why Israel attacks Gaza hospitals

Soon after Dr. Ghassan Abu Sitta arrived at the al-Awda hospital in the northern Gaza Strip in October, an Israeli officer contacted the director and threatened to target the facility if it wasn’t evacuated within two hours.

This was “the first message from the Israelis that the primary target of this war would be the health sector.”

Ghassan Abu Sitta, a British-Palestinian surgeon, arrived in Gaza on 9 October and volunteered there for more than a month.

During a speech delivered in Arabic in Beirut in December, Abu Sitta analyzed how Israel’s attacks on the medical sector were a critical strategy of its campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.

Gaza health administrators recognized Israel’s systemic campaign against medical facilities and workers as soon as it began.

“There were phone calls not just with the health ministry, but also between hospitals and hospital managers,” Abu Sitta told the Beirut audience.

“A decision was made that the purpose of evacuating hospitals was to facilitate the process of ethnic cleansing that the enemy aimed for.”

Test balloon

Abu Sitta, who was at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City when it was bombed on 17 October, says that the shocking incident set a precedent of international complacency that allowed Israel to systematically attack health facilities throughout Gaza.

Independent analyses conducted remotely haven’t conclusively determined who was responsible for the explosion at the hospital. But Abu Sitta contends that it was a trial run by Israel, which received the signal from the West to carry on with this plan after the bombing at the Christian hospital with strong international ties.

Several pediatric hospitals and specialized treatment centers were targeted.

In one particularly harrowing case, the Israeli military left several Palestinian babies to die in their small beds at al-Nasr Pediatric Hospital in the northern Gaza Strip after it was raided by troops.

Four tiny infants died starving, cold and alone, their decomposed bodies found weeks later.

Israel’s attacks on Gaza’s medical facilities reached its apex with the raid on al-Shifa – the largest and most advanced hospital in the territory – after laying siege to it for days.

Ahead of its assault on al-Shifa, Israel spread propaganda amplified by US officials purporting that Hamas was using the facility as a command and control center.

As Israel’s lies about Gaza’s health sector crumbled one after another, so too did any pretense that the systematic destruction of Gaza’s health sector would generate international condemnation or intervention.

Israel now hardly bothers to justify its ongoing attacks on health facilities. More than half of Gaza’s 36 hospitals have completely shut down and none remain fully operational.

Abu Sitta said that Israel has systematically attacked medical professionals “with the aim of eliminating an entire generation of doctors.”

The Israeli objective, according to Abu Sitta, is that “even if you rebuilt hospitals, you wouldn’t be able to build the health sector.”

He said that the Israeli army even destroyed solar panels placed on hospitals so they wouldn’t have to rely entirely on fuel, the supply of which is controlled by Israel.

Israel’s ultimate aim is to make Gaza unlivable to force the expulsion of its population, Abu Sitta said.

Collective solidarity

Palestinians met Israel’s attacks with community and solidarity, Abu Sitta said.

In the face of Israel’s crimes abetted by the international community, Abu Sitta said, “there were and still are acts of amazing heroism.”

Individuality dissolved and there was an emergence of collectivity that Abu Sitta said “defends its humanity and civilization in the face of criminal barbarism.”

He added that “Palestinian society decided to elevate its humanity,” by “defending the weakest” among them.

People shared their resources and others stepped in and volunteered to keep a sense of community and dignity.

At al-Ahli hospital, Abu Sitta recalled, “there was a barber nearby. When we were cut off from the rest of the outside world, the barber volunteered to come and cut the hair of the doctors and nurses.”

The next day, he volunteered to feed patients and cut their hair.”

Abu Sitta said that a pharmacist came to the hospital after his business was destroyed to help with managing medications in the operating room.

Abu Sitta described these acts of solidarity as “community resistance.”

Calculated and systematic

After 43 days in Gaza, Abu Sitta left after the hospital he was working at ran out of anesthesia.

Years before the current crisis, Gaza’s health system teetered on the brink of collapse during 16 years of siege, repeated Israeli military offensives and the maiming of thousands of Great March of Return protesters.

As the genocide drags on, four percent Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has been killed, injured or is missing.

Three hospitals in central and southern Gaza – Al-Aqsa, Nasser Medical Complex and Gaza European – “are at risk of closure due to the issuance of evacuation orders in adjacent areas and the ongoing conduct of hostilities nearby,” according to the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Some hospitals in Gaza City and the north that were forced to shut down after Israeli attacks have “resumed functioning to some degree,” OCHA said on Friday.

But those hospitals have a “shortage of medical staff, including specialized surgeons, neurosurgeons and intensive care staff, as well as a lack of medical supplies,” OCHA added. With Israel preventing supplies from reaching the north, there is “an urgent need for fuel, food, and drinking water.”

The hospitals partially functioning in the south “are operating at three times their capacity, while facing critical shortages of basic supplies and fuel,” according to OCHA.

Israeli forces hit Khan Younis, the largest city in the south of Gaza, on Thursday, “pounding areas near the enclave’s biggest functioning hospital,” Reuters reported.

It is feared that it will be the next medical facility forced to evacuate by Israel as part of its systematic strategy to destroy and depopulate Gaza.




Israel’s ultimate aim is to make Gaza unlivable to force the expulsion of its population, Abu Sitta said.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.