…We went to visit Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Wednesday, 20 February, our first visit in almost a year…The first thing that struck us was the near emptiness of the huge Israeli “terminal” that one passes through – we saw no one else entering and passed only one emaciated man in a wheelchair seeking to exit. He is apparently one of the very few to obtain a permit for medical care, while more than 80 have died in the past few weeks while trying to exit for health reasons. We made our way through the endless gates and turnstiles and then waited in the cement enclosure until a huge metal door finally slid open and let us enter the long tunnel that leads to “no man’s land.”
There are no human beings visible anywhere, so we simply have to wait until the magic door opens! Since our previous visit, the last quarter mile of the tunnel has been destroyed (reportedly in fighting between Hamas and Fateh), so we picked our way through marshy mud until we finally reached the gate on the Palestinian side.
The hospital driver collected us after we’d been besieged by taxi drivers desperate for a fare, had drunk a cup of very sweet sage tea, and heard endless stories of deprivation. Then on to Gaza City, where the streets were eerily empty.
The one thing that has always characterized Gaza is the sheer mass of humanity. Gaza is 365 square kilometers (about 28 miles long and varying in width from 3 to 8 miles), with a population of 1.5 million, roughly 4000 people per square kilometer. The streets are usually jammed with cars, donkey carts, outdoor vendors selling everything from underwear to fruits and vegetables to auto parts.
We were shocked to see how wide the streets actually are as there were almost no vendors and very few cars. Some public taxis and cars (and one of the two hospital ambulances) that run on diesel are still moving about, along with the lucky few that have gotten gasoline, which is delivered sporadically, although no one is allowed to fill a tank, so apparently fights break out as people vie for the few liters available. Most of the shops were closed, though it was mid-morning, and only in the central market were there a number of people walking about.
Consumer goods are almost non-existent and, according to our friends, very shoddy and extremely expensive. Inflation has added to the misery of people with no resources – for example, a bag of cement used to sell for 25 shekels (about $7.00) but now sells for 120 shekels IF available. The markets that used to teem with fruits and vegetable seemed primarily to have tomatoes and oranges and potatoes, all grown in Gaza. The one thing that seemed abundant was cigarettes, piles and piles of cartons for sale. When the border to Egypt was breached, apparently black marketers brought in huge supplies, but as people have almost no money, there weren’t many buyers!
We reached the hospital and had a good visit with Director Suhaila Tarazi and Medical Director Dr. Maher, along with Suhaila’s assistant Samira, and a friend of Suhaila’s, who until 3 months ago was the only woman and only Christian to sit as a judge on the Appeals Court. However, she has been dismissed by Hamas because she was a Fateh appointee, even though she was adamant that she was independent in her judgments. We asked if the courts are functioning but she shrugged – maybe a few criminal cases are being tried, she said, but Hamas has no one qualified to judge civil cases according to Palestinian law. We asked if Shariya law was being used instead, but she thought not – the legal system, like everything else in Gaza, has broken down.
The hospital story remains a small miracle. They have electricity perhaps 10 – 12 hours a day and depend on the generators the rest of the time, but fuel for it is hard to come by. They don’t run the boiler when on the generator, so patients simply have to huddle under the covers to try to stay warm. Suhaila used to keep a reservoir of 10,000 gallons of fuel which would last 45 days, but now is lucky to get 4,000 gallons at a time and that disappears quickly with daily use. And the cost of the electricity they are furnished from IsraelGaza power plant, bombed by Israel, in 2005 operates at about 40% capacity when it can get the needed fuel. has increased dramatically in price. The
The hospital can’t get light bulbs for the surgical lamps, but were excited that they’d finally been able to procure detergent for washing the bedsheets and dishes, though mops and cleaning supplies are not available. Somehow, in spite of all this they have no incidence of infection within the hospital, something our best US hospitals cannot claim. Spare parts for equipment are not available. Suhaila confessed that she had asked staff members who went into Egypt while the wall was down to bring her some cement to repair the floor outside the surgical theater and was very pleased to have gotten it! The pharmacy for the in- and out-patients is functioning and the hospital is able to get medicines delivered via UNRWA and the Red Cross, but they never know when deliveries will be allowed. Anesthesia is again available but in the past months they have had to postpone surgeries when it wasn’t allowed through.
We walked about through the various departments and met post-surgical patients in the ward – many recent surgeries are to remove kidney stones as the salty, impure water has caused a huge upsurge of that problem. We saw 3 pre-school children being treated in the burn unit as the number of burns has skyrocketed while people try to cook and heat their homes over open flames. The weekly “mobile” clinic was in session so there were lots of families with children in for diagnosis and whatever treatment is available. Everyone gets a package of basic foodstuffs to take home, along with sandwiches for lunch, but they’ve had to quit providing milk or fruit juice for the kids.
And, of course, the staff suffers the same conditions – no one attempts to keep food in the refrigerator since power goes off so often. Dr. Maher reported that his home had lost electricity at 7 a.m. the day before our visit and it had not come back on by noon the following day. This is simply routine – when the power is on, people rush to heat water for a shower and those who have washing machines try to do a load of clothes, but sometimes laundry sits in the tub for hours or days.
In spite of these endless tales of loss, the hospital continues to be a beacon of hope. It may be the only place in all of Gaza that is totally free of violence – while it is customary for patients in the PA public hospitals (there are 2 in Gaza City) to have armed guards to “protect” them from attacks by their rival party, NO weapons enter Ahli. There are no armed guards at the gates -- if anyone arrives with weapons, they are told either to send the guns away or there will be no treatment. Thanks to the long history of Ahli’s treating everyone in need of care with absolute impartiality, this policy is honored and the Ahli ambulance travels freely through the city.
We asked what they see as the future, but these very remarkable human beings say they can no longer imagine what might come next. Each time they think things have reached the worst possible situation, something worse happens. People die almost daily in Gaza from Israeli attacks. A ten year old child was killed by a bomb the day before we arrived. Israel has announced a policy of targeted assassinations for all Hamas leaders, but that simply means that the “collateral damage” costs many innocents their lives.
And what about the rockets fired at Sderot? The story we heard is that they are fired by “ignorant, immoral” people who belong to no party and cannot be controlled by Hamas or anyone else. In a place where people have no hope and no future (50% of the population is below age14), where 2/3 of the population live in squalid refugee camps, where collective punishment means that everyone who lives in Gaza is subject every day to bombing by F16’s or attacks by tank shells and mortars, the only surprise is that violence is not even more widespread. We saw a six story apartment house that had been bombed a couple of weeks ago because it happens to be near the Ministry of Interior building.
Startling fact for those who hear from the US media about the rocket attacks and the suffering they cause for Israelis: in the years 2006 and 2007, 2 Israelis died in Sderot. In January 2008 alone, 96 Gazans were killed by Israeli military attacks. (If you’d like more statistics, see www.btselem.org. This Israeli human rights organization provides excellent data.)
What is ultimately striking about Gaza is the sheer disproportionality of the situation – the collective punishment inflicted on 1.5 million people is against every measure of international and humanitarian law, but the world thus far seems to believe that Israel is somehow justified.