Interview with an international human shield in Gaza
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza continues, with a death toll that has reached 655 – and just as an array of munitions rain down indiscriminately on the heads of those living in Gaza, turning night into day and forcing the residents of one of the most densely populated places on earth into becoming mourners in an instant, Gaza’s hospitals are made to endure the incoming salvo of missiles as well as a crippling siege.
Israel has a well-documented history of deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure in Gaza and Lebanon – homes, police stations, mosques, power plants, sport facilities, schools and hospitals. On Monday in central Gaza the floor housing operating rooms and the intensive care unit of al-Aqsa Hospital was struck by at least three tank shells, which killed five, according to Al-Jazeera correspondent Stephanie Dekker in Gaza. Gaza’s Ministry of Health released a statement denouncing the attack and demanding medical facilities be protected and medical staff, who have also been targeted by Israel, be allowed to provide urgent medical care:
We deplore the escalating violence against Gazan civilians and civilian infrastructure, and demand that the Israeli occupation respect their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians, health facilities and health professionals.
We note that attacks against health facilities can be considered war crimes under international law, and call upon the international community and the United Nations to take immediate action to prevent further such outrages against the Gazan citizenry by the Israeli occupation.
Al-Aqsa Hospital was not the only medical facility directly targeted by Israel, but one of four – another casualty of Israel’s unrelenting assault on the people of Gaza is charity-run al-Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital, the only medical rehabilitation hospital in Gaza that treats and rehabilitates those with special needs and functions as a nursing home. On July 11, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) released a statement on the conditions around the hospital, relaying that not only had Israel fired “warning missiles” at the roof of al-Wafa but international activists were hearing missiles falling nearby Israel and so in an act of selflessness, foreign activists from the USA, Sweden, Spain, UK, Venezuela, Australia, New Zealand and France were maintaining a presence in the hospital so as to protect the patients and doctors inside. “The civilian population of Gaza is being bombed. We will stay with them in solidarity until the international community and our governments take action to stop Israel’s crimes against humanity,” states Swedish International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist Fred Ekblad.
Joe Catron, a freelance reporter who writes for the Electronic Intifada, Middle East Eye and other media outlets, is one of the ISM activists from the United States who remained inside al-Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital. He entered the Gaza Strip in 2011 as part of the first solidarity delegation to arrive after the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and has lived there since. Catron and I spoke by way of email regarding his experiences as well as how doctors and Gaza’s medical facilities are coping as a result of Israel’s continued bombing:
Al-Akhbar English (AAE): What is the situation on the ground in Gaza currently, and how are Palestinians coping?
Joe Catron (JC): The situation is very difficult. Aside from the rapidly-mounting deaths and injuries, tens of thousands have been displaced by Israel’s destruction of their homes, or shelling and airstrikes on their neighborhoods. With many businesses and charities shuttered due to the risks of commuting, obtaining even basic supplies has become difficult for many. And Israel’s attacks on electrical and water infrastructure have made these resources even more inaccessible than the ongoing siege already had.
But people are pulling together, as they always do in times of escalated Israeli aggression, opening their homes to the displaced and sharing what they have. It’s the worst of times; in a strange way, it’s also the best of times. Palestinians are rarely more united than during an offensive.
AAE: What hospitals have you visited and what have you witnessed?
JC: I and seven other foreign activists spent a week in shifts at al-Wafa hospital, the only rehabilitation facility of its kind dedicated to occupational and physical therapy in the Gaza Strip. After an initial flurry of five Israeli missiles damaged it on July 11, we hoped our presence might discourage further Israeli aggression against it.
Unfortunately, it was insufficient. After a week of telephone threats and heavy shelling of the area, Israeli forces struck the hospital hard on July 17, forcing the evacuation of its patients at great risk and leaving smoking craters in its walls.
Al-Shifa hospital, Gaza’s main and largest medical facility, is simply flooded. With new patients pouring in every hour, others are being discharged or transferred as quickly as possible.
On Sunday, four international activists accompanied rescue workers into Gaza’s Shujayeh neighborhood, the site of Israel’s largest massacre yet in its current offensive. Days of Israeli shelling have reduced this once-thriving neighborhood to an apocalyptic landscape of fire and rubble, bombed ambulances and demolished homes. We saw a young man trying to reach his family’s home and locate survivors shot by an Israeli sniper, then repeatedly shot again while prone on the ground. He lay only meters from us, but Israeli gun and artillery fire blocked us from reaching him.
AAE: What else can you tell me about the situation in the hospitals?
JC: Hospitals are crowded and chaotic, but also oddly inspiring. They’re sites to treat the wounded, but also for others to show support for them, their families, and the health care workers looking after them. A number of my friends here are doing what they can for the struggle by preparing food and bringing it to al-Shifa. Many political factions and civil society organizations are doing the same.
AAE: How are doctors dealing with what has been transpiring in Gaza?
JC: Doctors and other health care workers face grave challenges not only from a massive influx of new casualties and critical shortages of medications and other supplies, but also in threats to their own safety. Israel’s attacks on at least four hospitals and six clinics have shown that in its current offensive, they are its targets as much as anything else.
Hospitals and clinics face critical shortages not only of essential medications, but also of supplies as routine as bandages. In some cases, like Israel’s shelling of el-Wafa hospital, staff have been forced to abandon supplies in their facilities while evacuating patients, which hasn’t helped matters.
AAE: What do you want people to know about Gaza, in terms of this situation and beyond it? Anything else to add?
JC: Like most places, the Gaza Strip is a product of its history more than the news. The overwhelming majority of its population are Palestinian refugees ethnically cleansed from land now claimed by Israel. This is the single most important factor in its resistance to the occupation, and also the one most quickly obscured in mainstream reporting, which focuses instead, and almost exclusively, on the events of the day.
You can follow Joe Catron’s updates from the Gaza Strip on Twitter @jncatron