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This has been a war on children, says surgeon in Gaza

23 November 2023

British-Palestinian doctor tells of love under fire in Gaza


People wait for food relief in Rafah, on Sunday

People wait for food relief in Rafah, on Sunday

THE story of a man who pushed his son in a wheelchair for five hours, through streets ploughed by tanks and bulldozers, to seek medical care in southern Gaza was told by a British-Palestinian surgeon on Monday.

The surgeon, Dr Ghassan Abu Sitta, who was working at the Anglican-run Al-Ahli Hospital until last Friday, spoke in a video message at a multifaith service of prayer for peace in St Christopher’s Cathedral, Bahrain, on Monday, which was World Children’s Day.

He spoke of the 5000 children killed, the 2000 “thought to be still under the rubble”, and the “hundreds of thousands of mental-health injuries and trauma and loss”. He concluded: “This has effectively been a war on children.”

On the same day, Richard Hand, the father of Emily, a nine-year-old Irish-Israeli child taken hostage on 7 October, told a press conference at the Israeli embassy in London that every day was a “nightmare”. He said: “She must be saying every day: ‘Where’s my daddy, why hasn’t he come to save me?’” He prayed for her return. Forty children remain hostages in Gaza.

On Tuesday night, the Israeli government approved a deal with Hamas to release Israeli hostages — about 50 women and children — in exchange for 150 Palestinian women and children imprisoned in Israel, and a truce to last for four days. It was announced on Thursday that the truce would begin at 7 a. m. on Friday (5 a. m. GMT) and that the first hostage would be released at 4 p. m. the same day. In addition, 300 lorries carrying aid will be permitted to enter Gaza every day.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said in a statement on Monday: “This war has claimed the lives of more children in a shorter time and with a level of brutality that we have not witnessed in recent decades.”

On a visit to Nasser Hospital, in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, last week, the Executive Director of UNICEF, Catherine Russell, said that there was “nowhere safe for Gaza’s one million children to turn . . .

“The parties to the conflict are committing grave violations against children; these include killing, maiming, abductions, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access.”

On Wednesday, a UNICEF spokesman, James Elder, warned: “If youngsters continue to have restricted access to water and sanitation in Gaza, we will see a tragic yet entirely avoidable surge in the number of children dying.” He also spoke of the Israeli hostage children held “somewhere in this hellscape”.

AlamyProtesters calling for ceasefire display Palestinian flags at Manchester Cathedral, after a march, on Saturday

Also on Wednesday, William Bell, head of Middle East policy and advocacy at Christian Aid, said that news of a pause in the conflict was welcome. It was “absolutely wrong” that all hostages were not to be released immediately, he said, and warned that “a humanitarian pause alone risks a pause, bomb, pause, bomb scenario. That is dehumanising, unacceptable and offers little room for hope or the conditions to achieve a lasting peace.”

Young people played a part in a gathering held on Monday at St Christopher’s Cathedral, in collaboration with “This is Bahrain”. They accompanied the singing of the prayer attributed to St Francis, “Make me an instrument of your peace”, while children from the Bohra community said prayers. At the conclusion of the service, they released doves as a peace symbol.

In his video message, Dr Abu Sitta spoke of his experience in Gaza, which he left on Saturday, after concluding that it was impossible to continue operating at Al-Ahli Hospital, the last functioning hospital in northern Gaza (News, 17 November). He told Reuters on Friday that the hospital had been “completely inundated with wounded”. After operating all through the night on Wednesday of last week, the team had realised on Thursday that they could not continue, having run out of anaesthetic.

He told the gathering in the Anglican cathedral in Bahrain: “For me, the most heart-wrenching thing is that these 30,000 wounded do not have access to the kind of treatment that they need, and that, for many of them, their lives are in danger with every passing day, because these wounds are no longer being treated. They are not receiving the medical care they need.” The Palestinian health sector had been “dismantled systematically, not as a consequence of the war, but as its primary objective”, he said.

He spoke of the “great acts of love” that he had witnessed in Gaza. “One of the last patients that I treated . . . before we stopped being able to operate . . . was a 13-year-old boy who had a right above-knee amputation in his leg and a severely mangled hand that needed surgery to save the hand. When I left the hospital, I told his dad where I would be in southern Gaza. As an able-bodied adult, it took me five hours walking to get to that hospital in southern Gaza, through streets that had been ploughed by tanks and bulldozers.

“Two days after I arrived in southern Gaza, the boy showed up with his dad. His father had pushed a wheelchair with the boy on it through these ploughed streets for over five hours to get to me so he could ensure that I followed up with his child, and I continue to provide the care that his child needs. It’s these heroic . . . even superheroic — acts of love are just . . . this is one of many stories. And it’s this love that will get people through in that darkness that they live through.”

The most important thing that faith communities could do was to help the Al-Ahli Hospital to start functioning again as soon as possible, he said.

Last Friday, Embrace the Middle East, one of the hospital’s partners, issued a statement referring to the part that the hospital had played in the care of women, babies, and children. “Laying waste to Gaza will not bring the desperately needed foundations for peace that both Palestinian and Israeli civilians deserve,” it said. “We call on international political and religious leaders to exercise all their resources to end this violence and to secure the release of hostages.”

The release of doves at St Christopher’s Cathedral, Bahrain, on Monday

The Bahrain service included prayers from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, and Baha’i representatives. In a reflection, the Dean, the Very Revd Richard Fermer, drew on Jesus’s words in Matthew 18.3 (“unless you change and become like little children”) and the poem “Wildpeace” by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: “the peace which is more than just living alongside in co-existence, but is true delight in one another.”

In Gaza, the Israel Defence Forces maintain that Hamas is using hospitals, schools, and other buildings for military purposes. Last week, it reported that it had recovered the body of Yehudit Weiss, a 65-year-old woman who worked with kindergarten children, from a building next to Al-Shifa hospital. She was among the 200 people abducted on 7 October. It has also released footage purportedly showing hostages being taken into Al-Shifa, “a place that’s under their [Hamas’s] full control, that they can trust to give them cover, and that is connected to their intricate web of tunnels that stretches underneath Gaza for miles, allowing them to be moved anywhere, at any time”.

Over the weekend, many patients, including 31 premature babies, were evacuated from the hospital. Some had already died, owing to a lack of electricity and fuel, the UN said. On Friday, the World Health Organization said in a statement that it was “appalled by the attack today on the Indonesian Hospital in North Gaza, which reportedly resulted in the killing of at least 12 persons including patients and their companions residing at the hospital”.

The exodus to the south of Gaza continues. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, described people “carrying elderly family members, and terrified, sometimes wounded children, moving slowly on a bomb-cratered road”. But UN agencies have warned that safety cannot be guaranteed there. On Sunday, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency told the US network ABC that 13 of its sites had been “directly hit”, and 73 people had been killed, “a large proportion of them in the south”. Two Jordanian field hospitals have been established in the southern city of Khan Younis.

In a piece for the Jewish Chronicle on Monday, Rabbi Professor David Frankel, associate professor of Bible studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, offered a reflection on the “terrible devastation and suffering that many innocents in Gaza will have to endure”, in which he drew on the story of David in 1 Chronicles who was not permitted to build the Temple, “because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth”, and yet was commended for his victories.

“The fact that a terrible sin must be committed does not mitigate the fact that it is indeed sinful, and the fact that it is sinful does not mitigate the fact that it indeed must be done,” he wrote. “This is the essence and reality of war.”

On Tuesday, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the UN, Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, spoke of “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip,” concluding that “this indiscriminate suffering of the population is unacceptable.”

Donations for the hospital can be made at jmeca.org.uk

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