Gaza: MSF scales up emergency response to Israeli ground offensive

18 Jul 2014
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Occupied Palestinian Territory

As a five-hour humanitarian ceasefire ended on 17th July, explosions were heard in Gaza City near a clinic run by the international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Earlier that day, MSF succeeded in sending an additional medical team into Gaza to reinforce its emergency response.

For the first time since Israel launched its military offensive, Operation Protective Edge, ten days ago, the streets of Gaza City were bustling with life yesterday.

Car horns, traffic jams, vendors with carts piled with melons, stalls selling colourful footballs, stoves, tins of paint and children’s bikes filled the streets, which the day before had been shuttered up and deserted.

Twenty-eight patients managed to reach MSF’s clinic in Gaza City on 17th July, nearly three times as many as on each of the previous ten days. MSF staff in Khan Younis and Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip, were also able to distribute dressings kits for patients in the area.

“Thanks to the ceasefire, we’ve been able to reach most of our patients in need of follow-up care,” says Nicolas Palarus, MSF’s field coordinator in Gaza.

“But while these five hours may have given the people of Gaza a breathing space, it will not protect them from indiscriminate bombings for the remaining 19 hours of the day.” Just a few hours later, Israel launched its ground offensive.

Welcome to Gaza

Leaving behind the barrier that divides Gaza from Israel, and after walking a mile-long corridor, the ruins of a Hamas checkpoint welcome you at the entrance to Gaza. It seems that journalists can enter Gaza more easily than aid workers, says Palarus.

“Our surgeon was blocked on the Israeli side because of paperwork delays at the checkpoint, while TV crews were able to quickly get clearance and come in for their day-trip to Gaza,” he says.

The courtyard of Gaza’s Al Shifa hospital is crowded with mobile studios with satellite dishes pointed at the sky.

But even journalists are finding it hard to enter Gaza from Egypt, as Rafah border crossing is closed most of the time, contributing to the sealing-off of the people of Gaza, and hindering access for aid workers and essential supplies.

Sleepless medical teams

The MSF team that managed to cross into Gaza yesterday is here to support the Palestinian Ministry of Health staff in Al Shifa hospital, where most of the wounded are being treated.

Al Shifa is Gaza’s biggest hospital, with some 250 inpatient beds and eight operating theatres. The surgical teams work in 24-hour shifts. But yesterday there was a lull in the emergency room. At 2 pm, medical staff were watching the clock and counting down the minutes until the ceasefire was due to expire.

A Palestinian surgeon told the story of a little girl admitted to his ward who had lost her mother and sister in an airstrike. “Yesterday, she was crying, asking for her mother and sister,” he said. The girl’s father and brother were taken to intensive care, but they too did not survive.

Sounds of war

There is no need to wait long after 3 pm. Sirens, helicopters, the buzzing of drones, the echoes of explosions – usually far enough away, sometimes much closer; the cycle of retaliation resumes.

Within just a few hours, more than 100 missiles have been fired from Gaza and eight Palestinians have been killed in airstrikes. At 9.30 pm, the news comes through: Israel has launched a ground offensive.

Fortunately most of MSF’s additional team managed to enter Gaza before the ground offensive began, while MSF is working to get its surgeon in as soon as possible. The lull in the emergency room at Al Shifa is over: today is going to be busy.

Find out more about MSF’s work in
the Occupied Palestinian Territories