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Gaza: buckling healthcare system turns to volunteers

October 30, 2023 at 4:11 pm

Palestinian civil defence officers injured in Israeli attacks, receive medical treatment at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza Strip, Gaza on October 16, 2023 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

Palestinian medical chiefs in Gaza are turning to volunteers to help run an emergency healthcare service buckling under Israel’s offensive as ambulances struggle to reach bomb sites past rubble-strewn roads and with ever-depleting supplies of fuel, Reuters has reported.

Medical and emergency staff have worked with little rest and are deploying in the most dangerous areas, witnessing the horror of violent death, terrible injuries and grief. The Palestinian ministry of health has called on all trained paramedics to help staff hospitals and call-out teams, but although dozens have responded, the system is still in dire need of more workers.

According to the health authorities in Gaza, Israeli air and artillery strikes have killed more than 8,000 men, women and children since 7 October, when Hamas fighters broke out of the Gaza Strip to attack army barracks and settlements. Israel says that more than 1,400 of its citizens were killed, and more than 200 were taken back to Gaza as hostages.

The health ministry said that 116 medical staff have been killed in the bombardment, along with 18 civil emergency department rescuers.

READ: South Africa calls for UN force to protect civilians in Gaza

“I have not gone home since the first day of the war,” said Loay Al-Astal, a volunteer emergency worker in Khan Younis, in the south of the enclave. “I shower here, sleep here and eat here.”

After Israel began its ground assault on Friday, many Gaza residents fear that the destruction will intensify. Israel has ordered civilians to leave the northern half of the Gaza Strip for the south, but has continued an intense bombardment across the enclave and many people are refusing to leave. Shelling on Gaza’s main north-south road on Monday meant that the enclave was all but cut in two, with any attempts to flee south risking bombardment and death.

Astal, 33, is a volunteer who trained at university to be a paramedic but was unemployed when the war began. He described an incident in which some of his colleagues had nearly been killed by an air strike that blew out the windows of their ambulance. “The glass was smashed and some of our volunteers were wounded.”

He is haunted by the memory of trying to save a woman who was buried up to her neck in rubble from an air strike. “There was a cut on her head and I rushed to treat the wound,” he explained. She asked him to free her from the rubble so she could find her son, but she died minutes later, still trapped. “I felt bad I couldn’t save her,” he added.

READ: Egypt’s Al-Azhar urges help for Palestinians amid Israeli bombardment

The head of the Khan Younis ambulance service, Naseem Hassan, said that it is overwhelmed and needs trained medics. “We opened the door for volunteers and many young people answered that call and have been on duty since the war began,” he pointed out.

Along with the bombardment, Israel has imposed a blockade on the enclave, home to 2.3 million people, cutting supplies of electricity and fuel. Limited food and medical aid deliveries have entered Gaza since last week after international pressure on the occupation state.

“Ambulances are about to go out of operation because we have very limited fuel left,” said volunteer driver Sari Al-Najjar. “We have problems with communications. We lose touch with the ambulances that leave here.”

Phone and internet services in Gaza were cut off for nearly two days over the weekend as Israeli tanks started moving into the enclave. Communications gradually started returning from Sunday. Without reliable power supplies, many residents were unable to charge phones, adding to the difficulties for ambulance crews trying to locate and coordinate rescues.

Thousands of people have gathered at hospitals in Gaza City, with many sheltering in makeshift tents hoping for some safety from the Israeli bombs. Medical officials said that air strikes in the vicinity of the major hospitals in the city, including Al-Shifa, Al-Quds and the Turkish Friendship Hospitals, have caused damage. Israel has accused Hamas of placing command centres and weaponry near hospitals, which the movement denies.

“Where should we go?” asked Hatem Sultan, sheltering near Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s main medical centre. “It is all one death.” Meanwhile, ambulances arrive constantly with more people injured in Israeli air strikes.

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