Health officials in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip say all hospitals in the north of the Palestinian enclave are now out of service as Israel presses its offensive against the Islamist militant group. FRANCE 24 spoke to the head of Al Shifa hospital about the desperate situation at Gaza’s largest medical facility, which has become a focal point of the five-week-old war.
Israeli tanks were massed near the gates of Gaza City’s Al Shifa Hospital on Tuesday, a day after health officials in the besieged enclave said northern Gaza’s last medical facilities had gone “out of service” due to power shortages and the continued fighting.
US President Joe Biden has pressed Israel to protect Al Shifa Hospital amid reports of premature babies dying for lack of electricity to run their incubators. Israel accuses Hamas fighters of using tunnels under the hospital as a command “node”, effectively engaging the sick and injured as human shields. Hamas denies the charge.
FRANCE 24’s Arabic channel spoke to the hospital’s director, Muhammad Abu Salmiya, on Monday about the increasingly dire situation at Al Shifa, where hundreds of patients remain stranded, many in critical condition, along with thousands of civilians displaced by weeks of bombardment.
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Hamas has announced that all hospitals in northern Gaza are out of service. What is the situation at Al Shifa?
Now that everything here has broken down, we can no longer speak of a hospital. There are only walls for people to die within because they cannot receive treatment. It’s a mass grave. Since this morning, another seven people have died due to the lack of oxygen. Three died in intensive care and another in an operating room. Every minute this goes on, the death toll risks going up.
Our medical staff are unable to provide any care to patients, to any wounded, to any children, whatever their condition. Al Shifa is without electricity, water or oxygen. Right now, a little girl suffering from heart disease is fighting for her life every minute because we can no longer provide her with oxygen. I saw it with my own eyes, and if we still had internet, I would have sent the videos of this little girl to the whole world. Everything has come to a standstill, even the hospital blood bank is out of action. No injured or sick person in need of blood can receive it.
What is the security situation around the hospital? Has it been hit by the bombardment?
There have been no direct hits this morning, but the cardiology unit was hit yesterday. On previous days, the intensive care unit and the obstetrics and gynecology departments were also hit. There has been massive bombardment today next to the hospital, which is encircled by tanks. No one can leave or enter the building. Some of the displaced people have tried their luck, but have come under fire. There are almost 5,000 people here, maybe more. Entire families have taken shelter in the corridors of the hospital, and they find themselves under siege, just like us. They are in a very critical situation, without food or drink. Some have contracted diseases here. Children are suffering from gastrointestinal illnesses and are dehydrated, while the elderly are deprived of anti-hypertensive drugs. Some have died as a result.
The Israeli army accuses Hamas of blocking the hospital’s access to 300 litres of fuel. Can you comment on the allegations?
The whole world goes on about these 300 litres of fuel which would only keep our generators going for half an hour. The world has forgotten the almost 12,000 dead, the 30,000 wounded, and the crimes committed against Al Shifa hospital, whose patients are at risk of death. We did not turn down the 300 litres of fuel. We proposed that they be channelled through the International Red Cross or some other international organisation. We are ready to accept any aid that comes through the International Red Cross or is deposited in a safe area by the occupying forces [Editor’s note: the Israeli army deployed in the Gaza Strip]. I cannot simply go out in an ambulance at two in the morning, in the middle of aerial bombardments and 300 tanks, and risk the life of my ambulance driver to fetch fuel that will only last half an hour and will do nothing to relieve the hunger.
You mention the International Red Cross. How much are you able to coordinate with humanitarian organisations?
There is some coordination but, to be perfectly frank, not on this issue of the 300 litres of fuel. For instance, we are in communication with the International Red Cross to bury the victims. More than one hundred and fifty bodies are currently being kept at Al Shifa. We contacted the International Red Cross about this yesterday. They gave us the green light earlier today, but an hour later they told us not to move as we would be exposed to bombardment. The bodies are still lying in the hospital courtyard and the smell of death has begun to spread among the wounded and displaced. [Editor’s note: on Tuesday morning, the hospital director told AFP that staff had started burying the dead in a “mass grave”].
The Israeli army says it has opened evacuation corridors to allow the displaced to leave the hospital safely. Why are they not being used?
It’s a lie. I wish we had internet so I could send video footage of this corridor, which is stacked with bodies. We want to get out of here and so do the wounded and the displaced families, but we want this to happen safely, via protected corridors towards safe havens where the wounded can receive medical care. We don’t want our patients and the injured to be abandoned along the way. Most of our patients have undergone open-abdomen procedures, head and heart operations, or amputations. We demand safe corridors and ambulances for the patients as almost 400 of the 650 in the hospital are unable to move. That’s what we’re asking for.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.
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