GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip - Outside the battered Civil Defense station in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya region, Mohammed Zidan, a seven-year veteran of fire-fighting and rescue services, stands on crutches in front of battered Civil Defense vehicles.
Zidan, 31, lost his right leg during the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza. He is one of more than 30 Civil Defense workers who were injured during the Israeli attacks. Another 13 were killed, eight of them in the first series of F-16 bombings on 27 December 2008.
Mohammed al-Khooli and Baha Litlooli were with Zidan on 15 January when Israeli soldiers shelled the building they were in. “We were on the 11th floor of the Magoosi building when the Israelis attacked us,” says Zidan.
Khooli lost one leg and Litlooli both to the Israeli shelling.
Ahmed Abu Foul, 27, has worked for ten years as a medic both with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and with the Civil Defense. He has been injured on multiple occasions by Israeli soldiers while performing rescue and medic tasks sanctioned under international law.
“I was injured twice during the last Israeli war on Gaza,” Abu Foul says. On 12 January, Abu Foul went as a medic with the Civil Defense to Hamouda tower, a building in Jabaliya hit by Israeli shelling.
“There had been four tank shell strikes on the building. We went up to the fifth floor to look for victims. I went up first, alone. Everyone else was afraid,” says Abu Foul, noting that two ambulances with lights flashing and sirens wailing were stationed outside the building.
“When I had found the martyr, Dr. Issa Salah came up to help. We began carrying the corpse down the stairs on a stretcher when an Apache helicopter fired a rocket at us. I was hit in the head by something which I at first thought was bomb shrapnel, but soon after realized was the decapitated head of Dr. Salah.”
Having grown accustomed to being attacked by Israeli soldiers, Abu Foul is more concerned about the state of the Civil Defense vehicles and equipment.
“Most of our vehicles are from around 1988,” he explains. “Many are out of service, and those running constantly need repairs.”
The vehicles, Abu Foul says, age quickly, from continual exposure to fire and chemicals, and from Israeli attacks.
“The combination of the Israeli attacks and the siege means that we don’t have spare parts and aren’t able to fix or improve our vehicles. And we can’t get any new ones,” Abu Foul says, referring to the Israeli-imposed siege on Gaza which was imposed shortly after Hamas’s election in 2006.
Under the siege, building materials, medicines, and fire fighting equipment needed by the Civil Defense are among the vast list of items forbidden by Israeli authorities into the Strip.
In the Jabaliya station, Mohammed Zidan points out the problems of the fire trucks and service vehicles.
“The clutch doesn’t work on this one,” he says of the water tank truck. The pump on the same truck is long broken, meaning a portable pump has to be towed with the tanker in order to pump water through the fire hose.
“Aside from the Israeli bombings, it was difficult during the war because the trucks were old and kept breaking down. We had to repair them on the streets, often under fire,” says Samir. Working with the Civil Defense for two years, Samir also came under fire during the Israeli attacks on Gaza.
Civil Defense workers, like medics, are protected under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention states not only that emergency workers must be respected and allowed to do their work, but that their buildings, equipment and vehicles must not be targeted.
Yousef al-Zahar, director-general of Civil Defense in Gaza, sees the Israeli attacks as intentional. “Targeting the Civil Defense centers and teams is an obvious indicator that the Israeli forces intended to paralyze Civil Defense activities in the Gaza Strip to raise civilian victims’ numbers in the casualties.”
Six Civil Defense stations across the Strip were completely destroyed, and another four damaged, with an estimated cost of reconstruction and rehabilitation at nearly two million dollars, according to the engineering unit of the Civil Defense.
Over a year after the last Israeli war on Gaza, the Civil Defense still lacks not only the stations, trucks and spare parts, but also protective clothing, fire-fighting equipment, and basic tools vital to rescue work.
“Outside of Gaza, firefighters have relatively modern, safety-approved vehicles, equipment and clothing, but here we are working with torn hoses, scratched protective glasses, and oxygen tanks from 1994,” says Abu Foul.
The list of needed items includes fireproof boots and uniforms, chemical spray, foam and powder for quashing different types of fires, fire helmets and masks, screwdrivers, wrenches, and other small tools, vehicle clutches, tires, windshields, hydraulic jacks, nylon rope, cable cutters, electric saws, and searchlights.
“The foam shortage is serious,” says Abu Foul. “Because of the siege, power cuts, and fuel shortage, increasingly more people are storing gas canisters, and there are more gas fires erupting. You can’t put out a gas fire with water, you need chemical foam.”
While the main duties of Civil Defense are fire and rescue services, they also engage in search and rescue at sea, and provide training to the industrial, service, and home sectors.
“We’ve just finished another training session with women on safety at home and how to extinguish house fires,” says Abu Foul. “We’re also working with gas station owners and university students.”
At the Civil Defense headquarters in Gaza City, Zahar shows some 30-second television clips aimed at informing the public on beach and home safety. “It’s humanitarian work,” says Abu Foul. “We are not working for political ideologies, we’re working for humanity.”
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