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'Most of them died whilst they were sleeping', Gaza doctor recalls the destruction

Dr Khamis Elessi
Dr Khamis Elessi

For the 11 days Israeli air strikes pummelled Gaza, Dr Khamis would try to take a two-hour nap around 8am, the only time he could catch some much needed rest. Israel would carpet bomb different areas of the Strip at roughly 11pm every night when there was no electricity in most parts of Gaza city.

"The kids would cry and scream. The huge, supersonic explosions spread a lot of fear among the children," he recalls. The darkness increased their terror – major infrastructure, including electricity and also roads and water supplies were damaged by strikes.

"At night there is nowhere to escape to. During the daytime at least they can seek refuge in another room or on the staircase."

Dr Khamis Elessi is a Palestinian neuro-rehabilitation and pain medicine consultant who has lived in different parts of the world before returning home to Gaza. He studied and worked in the Philippines, Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv, Southampton, and Oxford in the UK. He says that of all the five previous military confrontations he has lived through this was undoubtedly the worst.

Roughly 260 people lost their lives including 68 children. "Many of them died whilst they were sleeping," he says. "They were just crushed under the ceiling of their building."

Dr Khamis spent his days following-up with his medical students online, that is if they had the electricity to be able to log in and listen, sometimes helping patients over the phone or tending to the wounded at Shifa Hospital. "Most of the time I tried to psychologically and spiritually support my nuclear and extended family members which totalled more than 70 individuals in one night," he says.

On the seventh day of the escalation, the situation took a turn for the worse. The Israeli army spokesman announced that in less than one hour 160 military aeroplanes dropped 450 missiles onto the eastern and northern side of the Gaza Strip.

"Everyone inside our building was screaming and frozen inside his or her body, but there was no time for me to cry or feel scared," he recounts. While his family were listening to these gigantic explosions, his daughter, a final year physiotherapist, fainted and collapsed with clenched mouth and cyanosed lips. Because of the fear, she hadn't eaten for five days.

With very limited light, Dr. Khamis spent more than 30 minutes helping her regain full consciousness and tried to put two tablespoons of honey into her mouth. All the kids and his mother were crying.

"Before she fully regained consciousness one of my nieces fainted because of the commotion," he recalls. "Fifteen minutes after I revived her a second niece fainted, then a third. I asked my wife and stepsister to do to them like what I did to the others. The time by then was 5am so I was completely exhausted and went to take a nap for 10-20 minutes."

Dr Khamis never had the opportunity to take his nap because as he collapsed into a chair, he heard screaming from his brother's house next door. His niece had given birth to her first baby just a few hours ago and when she heard the fresh round of bombing, she also collapsed and was convulsing.

"At that moment, I had the feeling of being completely helpless because you can't do anything to protect your kids or family," he says. "During wars, this is a typical day for us here in Gaza."

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For some respite, Palestinians living in Gaza would often head to the long stretch of coast on the Mediterranean to relax. However, because Israel bombed the sewage system and there is no electricity, local municipalities have been forced to push sewage into the sea. "So now the only refuge for the people to seek leisure time has been banned because the sea is now highly polluted with sewage water," says Dr. Khamis.

There are two main parks on the Strip, but they are barely big enough for 1,000 of the 2.2 million people who live in Gaza, he added.

During the offensive, more than 2,000 residential units were totally destroyed including seven towers. Five hospitals were also hit. "Unfortunately, our healthcare system has been on the verge of collapse for the last 15 years because of the ongoing siege on Gaza from air, land and sea. But still, we have the right to live like any other citizen worldwide with free access to healthcare."

A grainy surveillance video released last week captured the targeting of Al-Remal Clinic, Gaza's main COVID-19 laboratory. It shows patients and staff running as smoke fills the corridors until eventually you can see nothing but a grey cloud.

Just before the war Gaza had managed to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections, which were down from 1,000-1,500 a day to 200 a day. Several medics feared cases would rise again as thousands of Palestinians sought refuge in UNRWA schools and each other's homes, but fortunately they haven't. Dr. Khamis now thinks that Gaza has almost reached herd immunity.

Before the air strikes there was already a shortage of medicine and medical staff. Roughly 65 per cent of children under the age of five and women at childbearing age are anaemic because of the lack of fresh vegetables available and almost 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip's total population are refugees who rely on regular food assistance from international humanitarian organisations.

Palestinian children hold candles during a rally amid the ruins of houses destroyed by Israeli strikes, in Gaza City on May 24, 2021. Slogans in Arabic reads: "Stop the crimes of the occupation of Palestine. - A ceasefire was reached late last week after 11 days of deadly violence between Israel and the Hamas movement which runs Gaza, stopping Israel's devastating bombardment on the overcrowded Palestinian coastal enclave which, according to the Gaza health ministry, killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, and wounded more than 1,900 people. Meanwhile, rockets from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Israeli soldier. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

Palestinian children hold candles during a rally amid the ruins of houses destroyed by Israeli strikes, in Gaza City on May 24, 2021. Slogans in Arabic reads: "Stop the crimes of the occupation of Palestine [MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images]

A 2012 report found that 92 per cent of children in Gaza suffer from PTSD. "I think this percentage might have now reached 99.9 per cent," says Dr Khamis. "The situation here is really miserable. I think not only children, but every Palestinian in Gaza needs psychological counselling and treatment."

Dr. Khamis lost two colleagues and friends in the strikes, head of internal medicine Dr. Ayman Abu Al-Ouf, who was killed at home along with his wife and all members of his family, and also his sister with all of her family members.

Also killed on the same night was Dr. Moein Aloul, a neurologist. Aloul was also killed along with his family and four other families who were completely crushed under the roof of their homes in six apartments in one block during air strikes that hit Al-Wehda in the early hours of the morning leaving a total of 46 killed and more than 100 individuals injured.

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Now, 13 days after the ceasefire, Palestinians have taken a deep sigh of relief, says Dr. Khamis: "Finally there is no more bombing and shelling and we hope this will last for good."

Palestinians have started to clear rubble from the streets and move parts of the demolished buildings to clear the way for cars to pass through. They also started removing the broken glass and debris from the different hospitals and clinics including Al-Remal Clinic, which hopes to be back on its feet and serving the community very soon.

Gaza has received unprecedented global pledges that still need to be followed through on, including from the US, with a total of $1.5 billion pledged.

"If that materialises Gaza will become a state-of-the-art city. Even if one third of these pledges reach Gaza it would be possible to build new homes and buildings for all those that lost their homes," says Dr. Khamis. "However, we don't just need reconstruction, medicine and food for now and then the international community to just forget about the root cause, which is the ongoing Israeli siege and occupation of Palestinian land and the non-stop Israeli settlers and police incitements against Muslims in Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah."

"I always advise relatives, friends, students and colleagues that we have to remain positive in our thoughts and our expectations as well because without it, we will die," he continues. "Many people ask me this question when I keep saying 'be positive, we still have hope and things will be better' – why do you feel optimistic all the time? They ask. I tell them, it's because hope for a better tomorrow is the only thing we have and it is the only thing we will have for sure and without hope we will die, without hope you will find me dead."

"Finally, our simple and single need is to live in our free and independent Palestine with dignity, respect and prosperity like any other individuals worldwide."

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