Gaza’s forgotten elderly

Rahma Mourad (right) in her room at al-Wafaa Hospital Nursing Home. (Malian)

At the nursing home of al-Wafaa Hospital in the northeastern Gaza Strip, frail women lie curled in their beds, most of them bedridden. In Gaza’s close-knit society, nursing homes are not very common, as most people prefer to care for their elderly family members at home. However, the patients at al-Wafaa have nowhere else to go.

While many reports have been released on the effect of the conflict on children, other vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled are often disregarded.

Seventy-five-year-old Rahma Mourad is one of the hospital’s permanent residents. Her face lights up as she remembers her early years in Damascus, where she came from a privileged background and her first language was French. Now, with her children in Syria and no family nearby to visit her, all she has are her memories. “I used to be so beautiful,” she says. “I came from a life of culture. Now look at me, I don’t even have teeth.”

Over 4,300 people were physically injured during Israel’s 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip, many of whom sustained horrific injuries. But the wounds of psychological trauma, caused by shelling and bombardment, will also take time to heal.

In the early hours of 16 January 2009, al-Wafaa Hospital, the only rehabilitation center of its kind in Gaza, was hit several times by artillery fire, including rounds of white phosphorus. The holes in the wards of the hospital’s eastern wing attest to the damage sustained that night, estimated to cost around half a million dollars.

Damage to the new paediatric and specialist surgery building at al-Wafaa Hospital. (Malian)

Rahma and the other patients reported “a long night of terror,” trapped in the hospital, unable to leave. Even now, three weeks after Israel’s unilateral ceasefire, Rahma is in tears. “I can’t describe the noise of the shelling,” Rahma says, her eyes darting around the shrapnel holes that pepper the walls of her hospital room. “It was unbearable.” She clasps her hands together tightly, as a hospital volunteer comforts her.

Twenty-three-year-old nurse Wael Mamdouh Samara, a resident of Shijaiyah, was on duty that night. “It was just after midnight when the hospital came under fire,” he says. “A huge shell hit the hospital and dust and smoke rose around us. We couldn’t see anything because the smoke in the corridors was so dense. A state of panic broke out among the patients and staff.”

The hospital administration had emergency contingency plans in place and had already evacuated some patients from the eastern wing just hours before the shelling began. Their actions managed to avert a potential catastrophe, despite the difficulties involved in relocating paraplegic patients and those with spinal injuries.

But the elderly residents of the nursing home at al-Wafaa are mostly bedridden, and couldn’t be evacuated safely. The ferocity of the shelling also meant staff couldn’t reach their wards safely. One trained care giver, Umm Mohammed al-Wadia, sustained head injuries from shrapnel while trying to help her patients.

The Israeli military continued firing on the hospital compound for around six hours, despite requests from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The brand new specialist surgery and pediatric building that was fully equipped and about to open was also badly hit. It now stands covered in shrapnel and the blackened holes of artillery shells.

Al-Wafaa was founded in 1996 and employs around 230 staff, including specialist occupational therapists, physiotherapists and rehabilitators. It provides support to patients suffering motor or cognitive disabilities resulting from spinal injury, amputation, stroke, paralysis, muscle and nerve disorders, fractures, bladder problems, bedridden patients and those with circulatory disorders. Al-Wafaa is also funded by a number of major international and Arab donors and is currently appealing to its supporters worldwide for assistance with reconstruction and repairs.

“The attack of the 16 January was the fourth time the hospital has been hit,” explains Ali Abu Riala, head of nursing at the hospital. “We are very close to the border here, and two nurses were killed in a shelling in 2003 so we had plans in place in case of future attacks. I can guarantee our hospital buildings were free of any resistance fighters. I can’t speak for the surrounding area, but there were no fighters within the hospital compound and we saw no evidence of militants among the injured or dead around the building.”

The deliberate targeting of civilian facilities such as hospitals is in violation of the principles of international humanitarian law and may constitute a war crime. Articles 15-19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibit the targeting of health facilities during times of conflict.

The attacks on al-Wafaa Hospital would only be lawful if Israel could demonstrate it was being used for military purposes. No evidence has been produced to support such claims and even if that were the case, Israel is obligated to take all precautions possible to minimize harm to civilians and ensure it is not disproportionate to the expected military gain.

While al-Wafaa’s mint-green corridors have been cleared of debris and smoke and the spotless wards are now operating again, the scars left behind on its vulnerable elderly and disabled patients are profound. “We are frightened all the time,” says Rahma. “Is this what I should feel towards the end of my life?”

This report is part of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights’ series “Aftermath” that looks at the aftermath of Israel’s 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip, and the ongoing impact it is having on the civilian population.

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