Physicians in Gaza recount airstrikes on clinics, medical staff

Editor’s Note: The following is the latest report from our special coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in Palestine newsletter. To receive the newsletter, sign up here.

The Latest:

  • 333,809 Palestinians tested positive for COVID-19; 325,474 recoveries; 3,720 deaths
  • Of those who tested positive, 198,560 live in the West Bank, 106,408 live in the Gaza Strip, and 28,841 live in East Jerusalem
  • 839,263 Israelis tested positive for COVID-19; 832,295 recoveries; 6,396 deaths

After 11 days of intense fighting between Israel and Palestinian armed groups, primarily Hamas, a fragile ceasefire that took hold Thursday evening is still in place Friday afternoon. With a brief reprieve from hostilities, Palestinians immediately began repairs to the main in Gaza COVID-19 testing and vaccination site that were damaged by Israeli airstrikes on the ministry of health medical complex earlier in the week. 

The ministry of health in Gaza announced today that it had reopened the main COVID-19 lab and could continue processing new coronavirus tests. Additionally, a small lab opened yesterday by the border with Egypt in order to run the COVID-19 test for exiting Palestinians.

Friday also marks the first day in over a week when goods could enter Gaza. In the first round of shipments, UNICEF imported 11,000 doses of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine, first aid kits, antibiotics, fire extinguishers and bags of blood and saline-glucose. 

Palestinians inspect the rubble in front of ministry of health headquarters Gaza City on May 17, 2021. (Photo: Naaman Omar/APA Images)

Six hospitals, 11 health clinics hit in airstrikes

Since the escalation began on May 10, Israeli forces damaged or destroyed six hospitals and 11 primary healthcare clinics, according to the United Nations. One additional hospital shut down for five days due to fuel shortages, and one hospital was forced to suspend chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients.

Gaza runs on one power plant and six of its ten power lines were destroyed in airstrikes. GEDCO, the local electrical company said it currently supplies 93 megawatts a day and needs 400 to be fully operational. The shortages caused blackouts for 18 hours a day, although we’re hearing from most Palestinians in Gaza that they only have electricity for about three hours each day. 

Dr. Rasha, a physician in the Gaza Strip who specializes in internal medicine and treating patients with severe infections told us that since 2008, hospitals in Gaza have outfitted their ICUs and critical care devices (like oxygen ventilators) to run on diesel-powered generators. With checkpoints closed, no one inside of Gaza, hospitals included, could restock their fuel reserves. 

Outside of compounding electrical shortages, World Health Organization said the checkpoint closures impacted around 100 patients a day. Meaning, Palestinian with cancer and other severe illnesses who receive treatment in Israel were not able to exit Gaza.

First-line medical care was totally disrupted over the last week and a half. Dr. Rasha, who asked that her full name be withheld from publication said, “For now I’m not treating patients because I can’t access the health facilities and because they are severely damaged. We have been told that at any time when hospitals are overwhelmed and they need our services, I will be going instead to the main hospital.”

This is a common course for physicians across Gaza who awoke last week to find their workplaces were struck in airstrikes. On Sunday, a bombing damaged a sterilization room and a waiting area in a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières. According to the group, the blast killed 42 people, including two physicians and 10 children.

“The situation has already been horrible this week, with the number of civilian casualties rising daily, but when I saw the damage to the area and the MSF clinic the morning after the attack, I was speechless,” said Dr. Mohammed Abu Mughaiseeb, MSF’s Deputy Medical Coordinator in Gaza. 

“The clinic, where we see over 1,000 children a year with burns and trauma injuries, was missing a wall and debris was lying everywhere.” Dr. Abu Mughaiseeb said. 

WHO’s regional director Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari  said this week: “At least 42 health care workers have been injured.”

“This includes the almost total destruction of Hala Al Shawa primary care clinic and substantial damage to the central testing laboratory for COVID-19 at Rimal clinic in Gaza City. The latter incident resulted in the severe injury of a doctor who was on duty at the time, who is currently in an intensive care unit,” he said.

Injured Palestinians receive medical care al-Shifa hospital after an Israeli air strike in Gaza city on May 17, 2021. At least 200 people in the besieged Palestinian enclave were killed, including 59 children and 35 women. Photo by Naaman Omar

Roads destroyed leading to hospitals and clinics

Outside of destruction to the physical building, the roads leading to the clinic were loaded with debris, and pavement was ripped from the ground in the explosions. Dr. Rasha told us the same has occurred in the streets that feed into Gaza City’s main hospital and emergency room.

“The streets leading up to al-Shifa hospital have been destroyed, so ambulances have difficultly getting to the emergency room,” she said. “I feel this is an important point to mention, that even if the hospitals themselves aren’t targeted the infrastructure around the medical facilities is.”

Unable to provide medical services, she is isolating in her house with her husband and two children under the age of ten. At night, when airstrikes are most intense, they took to sleeping in one room, “We prefer to be killed together or to survive together because of the stories. A whole family is lost except for a baby, or a father, or a mother. No one can imagine how this is for that one person who is left,” said Dr. Rasha who described several individual cases of multiple members of the same family, including children being killed in a single airstrike. 

“My husband, he is trying to support me because sometimes I collapse crying when I see photos of people killed,” she said. 

The UN has calculated that “at least 14 families in Gaza have lost three or more family members in the same incident,” for a total of around 77 casualties. “On 20 May, an Israeli missile hit a three-story residential building in Khan Younis with 30 people, including 10 children and six women, inside: the missile did not explode, but three civilians, including two children, were injured,” the UN reported. 

“It’s very difficult to sleep, It’s like a dream to have five hours of continuous sleep. Maximum I have had an hour of sleep,” she told us. 

When bombs are dropped nearby, the impact rattles her house, “Me and my husband hug our children and try to calm them down.” Earlier in the week “We bagged precious items, and documents. We sleep nightly by the exits of our apartment building,” she explained. “This is not only me, this is everyone, my family, my friends my relatives.”

Aggravating the crisis, most of Gaza is without access to piped water. Both pipes for drinking water and sewage lines were damaged in airstrikes, along with one of Gaza’s two landfills. The three mains desalination plants and sewage treatment facilities have all shut down, leaving 100,000 cubic meters of wastewater pumped directly into the sea. The Palestinian Water Authority said they have no ability to repair the infrastructure, as they do not have a stock of parts. 

In terms of water, Dr. Rasha’s family has a relatively more stable source. Her family uses a tanker system and does not rely on public infrastructure. Still, the tank needs to be refilled. “I anticipate that I have two weeks more, maximum, drinking water, but after that, if there is not movement for cars, we might run out,” she said. 

“I am scared to walk in the streets,” she said. “We have some things stored at home. My husband goes to the supermarket to buy the additional things, but rapidly.”

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