Sunday, January 11, 2009
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The medics who brave Israel's assault on Gaza have come under fire from tanks and faced days-long delays in getting to the scene of attacks, sometimes finding animals gnawing at corpses when they finally reach the dead and wounded.
Few are more exposed to the carnage of Israel's two-week military offensive than Gaza's medics, who number around 400 including volunteers. They work long hours, get little sleep and risk their lives daily. Many have lost friends and family, but the overwhelming workload leaves no time to process what they've seen.
Awaiting coordination with Israel often delays access to the injured, medics said. Some reported finding people stranded in their homes for days, or bodies lying in the streets uncollected.
"Disgusting is not the word," said Shawki Saleh, 24, a volunteer medic at Kamal Adwan hospital. "If it's not a dog, it's rats around the bodies. ... I've been doing this volunteer work for two years but I never imagined I'd see this. Who knows how many people are still under the rubble. We were carrying them out screaming."
In one long workday, medic Haitham Adgheir carried five corpses, saw six more at a Gaza hospital, and his medical convoy took Israeli tank fire that showered a driver with glass.
"My mind is like a video of body parts and injured people," said Adgheir, 33.
Israel launched airstrikes across the Gaza Strip on Dec. 27 and sent in ground troops a week later in an attempt to halt years of Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel. More than 800 Palestinians have been killed, about half of them civilians, according to Palestinians medical officials. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed.
Israel says it targets only Hamas sites, but has hit mosques and apartment buildings throughout the crowded seaside territory. Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields and launching attacks from schools, mosques and homes.
Since the fighting began, 21 Palestinian medical staff have been killed, 30 have been injured and 11 ambulances have been damaged, according to the World Health Organization.
The International Committee of the Red Cross made a rare public criticism of Israel this week, saying there were "unacceptable" delays in letting rescue workers reach the injured. And Gaza staff say soldiers sometimes fire on ambulance crews.
Earlier this week, after waiting four days for coordination, ambulance crews entered the Zeitoun neighborhood and found at least 12 bodies and four small surviving children next to their dead mothers, the Red Cross has said.
Ahmed Abu Sal, 26, a volunteer medic who responded to the scene, recalled finding a young girl still clutching her dead mother. The girl, who was perhaps 9, was unable to speak from dehydration, her lips shrunken and dry, he said Saturday. He carried her from the building.
Elsewhere in the rubble he found a woman quietly weeping and still holding the bodies of two young men who appeared to be her sons, he said.
Red Cross officials working with ambulance crews coordinate with the Israeli military by cell phone before moving, said Red Cross spokesman Simon Schorno in Geneva. At other times, fighting breaks out near authorized crews, putting them at risk.
The Red Cross has similar lines of communication with Palestinian militants, Schorno said, though they are less organized. He knew of no recent run-ins with Palestinian militants.
An army spokesman said Israel works hard to coordinate with aid crews and that soldiers don't fire at clearly marked medics.
"The area is a combat zone, and obviously the risk of any medic working in a combat zone is that there is fire from all sides," said Capt. Benjamin Rutland.
But many medics say they are deliberately targeted, though ambulances in Gaza are clearly marked.
Adgheir, a medic with the Palestine Red Crescent at al-Quds hospital, said Israeli soldiers fired toward him four times in the past week, despite Red Cross coordination.
On Tuesday, he waited more than 12 hours for coordination with Israeli forces before he could reach a car full of people who had been shot at by an Israeli tank along the beach road near the town of Khan Yunis.
The tank fire sent shards of glass into the driver's eyes. Only able to reach the car after dark, Adgheir said Israeli soldiers shot at his ambulance as he approached.
He also said an Israeli tank fired Thursday at an ambulance convoy that he was part of at the Netzarim crossing in central Gaza. One of the ambulance drivers, who was showered with glass, was lightly injured and the convoy aborted its mission.
The medics say they have no time to deal with the psychological toll of their job. They report nightmares, short tempers and feelings from numbness to rage.
The fighting allows little time to pause — even to pray. On Friday, doctors and medics at Gaza City's Shifa hospital joined relatives of the injured in a communal prayer outside the emergency room. In blood-spattered smocks, the medics prayed for the dead.
Moments later, an ambulance rushed in with the body of a man killed by shelling and the medics rushed back to work.
Mohammed Azayzeh, a central Gaza medic, said the hardest thing to handle is not seeing the dead but rescuing the wounded, some of whom have horrific injuries such as missing limbs that leave them screaming for help.
"What can you do?" he said. "I want to smash my head against a wall."
Hubbard reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press Writer Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem contributed to this report.