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Fighting In Gaza Overwhelms Medical System
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Fighting In Gaza Overwhelms Medical System

Middle East


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. First this hour, we're going to hear from a hospital in Gaza about the impact of Israel's offensive. The U.N. says at least a quarter of the more than 500 people killed in Gaza so far are civilians. That includes 14 people from two families killed today. Most of them were children. This is the heaviest fighting in the Gaza Strip since the 1967 war. Doctors, nurses, field medics, and ambulance drivers are struggling under increasingly dangerous conditions, as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The crowded, chaotic, and bloodstained hallways of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City are now makeshift operating areas. Jasim Bahtete this morning tried to comfort his 10-year-old daughter, Asma, who was sprawled out on the floor of the reception area. She was wounded today, her father says, by shrapnel from an Israeli air or artillery strike. He is not sure which.

Mr. JASIM BAHTETE: (Through Translator) She was doing nothing other than walking in the street. They hit a house in the neighborhood. I don't know if others were wounded. I just grabbed my daughter and ran to the hospital.

WESTERVELT: Dr. Eric Fosse, from the Norwegian Aid Committee, says the hospital has been overwhelmed even more since the Israeli ground attack began Saturday night.

Dr. ERIC FOSSE (Norwegian Aid Committee): There were a large number of casualties and dead people, and this hospital was then turned into some kind of field hospital. We operate people in the corridors. We have people waiting for surgery, lying around in the corridors of the hospital, and they were dying before we could come to them. We saw some terrible scenes.

WESTERVELT: Doctors at Shifa say there is now a severe shortage of intensive care beds. They are sending wounded people home early to free up space and trying to get people to go to local medical clinics. But almost no one wants to move around the city. It's too perilous. Doctors believe some civilians are simply going untreated, and corpses are being left to decay in the streets and homes. The hospital's doctors and nurses are near the point of collapse, says Dr. Haitham Dababish.

Dr. HAITHAM DABABISH (Shifa Hospital, Gaza): (Through Translator) The medical crews are really exhausted. They've been working around the clock with no rest or breaks. Medical teams across Gaza are worn out.

WESTERVELT: The territory's fragile medical system already was facing key shortages of equipment, spare parts, specialists, and some medicine due to the international sanctions against Hamas-ruled Gaza. The problem has only gotten worse during the war. For several days now, hospitals across Gaza have been running entirely on backup generators. The U.N. says there's only enough fuel left for three or four days. John Prideaux-Brune, with the aid group Oxfam UK, says hospitals across Gaza are now rationing electricity.

Mr. JOHN PRIDEAUX-BRUNE (Country Program Manager in Jerusalem, Oxfam UK): Keeping wards in the dark, keeping wards unheated to try and eek out the meager supplies of fuel they have so that they can maintain the operating theaters and the life-support machines.

WESTERVELT: Israel has allowed several tons of medical aid to enter Gaza since the fighting began. And the U.N. says for now there is enough of most medicines. But getting the supplies safely distributed from the warehouses to the hospitals and clinics, aid groups say, has been nearly impossible. Ground fighting is raging across the territory. Gaza has been cut in two by Israeli infantry and tanks. Israeli Army spokesman Elie Issacson says Hamas is to blame for injuries to innocents.

Mr. ELIE ISSACSON (Spokesman, Israeli Army): We know they purposefully decide to locate themselves and rocket launchers within civilian areas. We take every possible care we can in being as accurate as we can to avoid risk to civilians in the vicinity.

WESTERVELT: Gaza ambulance drivers and medical crews dispute that. Many have been unable to secure safe passage into combat areas. Miri Weingarten with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel says six medics and ambulance staff have been killed in recent days by Israeli fire while trying to retrieve wounded civilians.

Ms. MIRI WEINGARTEN (Physicians for Human Rights-Israel): Yesterday, a tank hit an ambulance while it was trying to evacuate a family in the area of Tel al-Hawa, and three medics were killed in that situation. So we're seeing a real crisis with regard to medical conditions in Gaza.

WESTERVELT: The group is calling on Israel to allow more wounded to be transferred out of Gaza for treatment in Israel, Jordan, or elsewhere. So far, the Red Cross says 109 patients have been transferred to Israel and Egypt, but that was before the ground attack. Since then, none of the more than 2,000 wounded civilians has left Gaza. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

NORRIS: We got help for that story from NPR News assistant Ahmed Abu-Hamdan in Gaza city. Israel continues to bar foreign journalists from entering Gaza.

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