Working miracles on the frontline: Palestinian medics traumatised by healthcare catastrophe and targeted by Israeli settler attacks

Palestinian medics traumatised by healthcare crisis horrors
5 min read
16 October, 2023

Since the start of Israel's onslaught, medical teams across the occupied West Bank and Gaza have been targeted by Israel's indiscriminate campaign of destruction. Healthcare workers have been attacked by Israeli airstrikes and settlers have opened fire on paramedics rescuing the injured. 

Gaza's healthcare system is now at breaking point. At the time of writing, the number of Palestinians killed by Israel in Gaza is 2,808. The scenes from the hospitals are horrific, and paramedics have told international media that they have been bombed whilst trying to carry victims to hospital. 

Ahmad Jibril, director of the Red Crescent Society in Nablus, told The New Arab that their job has become almost impossible in the face of Israeli aggression. "Our paramedics were recently shot at in Tulkarm a few days ago when trying to carry the injured to the hospital." 

 This is nothing new, Israel has always tried to thwart medics from doing their job. But Ahmad explained that recent events are unprecedented. 

"The work is unrelenting. I sometimes cry in the operating room. The elderly who seek shelter in the hospital brings back memories of the Nakba. These are our grandparents, it isn't easy to see this"

Over the past week, the Red Crescent Society in Nablus has documented scores of occasions where Israeli military forces have prevented healthcare workers from rescuing the dead or the injured. 

On 11 October, Israeli settlers attacked the village of Qusra in the south of Nablus, killing four Palestinians and injuring 11. When the Palestinian ambulances arrived, they were shot at by settlers under the protection of the Israeli army. This is a regular occurrence - Huwara and Qusra are often targeted - but incidents of assault have dramatically escalated.

Medics in Jenin operate under Israeli sniper fire

Palestinian paediatric doctor Walaa Khalaf, 28, still remembers the screams of a father rushing his newborn daughter through the government hospital to save her. The father's daughter was suffering from severe hyperbilirubinemia.

The father came from one of the villages surrounding Jenin, and the road towards the hospital was full of Israeli armed soldiers. "He was clearly afraid," she told The New Arab. "He threw the baby in my arms. I knew her life was on the line."

Tear gas enveloped the hospital's nursery department. Walaa had to rush towards another room to safety and to administer an urgent blood transfusion. "Never before have I felt such pressure," said Walaa. "I told myself: 'There is life in my hands and I have a duty to save it'."

Palestinian doctors on the frontline speak of healthcare horror
Hospital staff in north Gaza have refused to abandon their patients, despite Israeli threats [Getty Images]

At the nursery department, Walaa operated on the child next to a broken window smashed by tear gas bombs. She told The New Arab that there have been many times when she and her colleagues have operated on premature babies under the watch of Israeli snipers. "Every time Israel invades the city and the refugee camp, Israeli snipers are located on top of the home next to the hospital. There's always a possibility of a shooting," Walaa sighed.

Fears of an Israeli attack quickly permeate across the city. Hundreds of mothers and children flee their homes to the hospital to save themselves, with Walaa explaining that breastfeeding mothers' milk secretion often stops because of trauma. The hospital becomes a shelter, and milk, food and diapers are provided to anyone who is in need. 

The government hospital in Jenin is no stranger to disaster. Founded in 1961, the hospital provides treatment to more than 350,000 Palestinians in the governorate. During the last two years, frequent Israeli invasions have brought the hospital to its knees, with 2023 the deadliest year since 2002. 

The memory of pain

The New Arab interviewed a surgeon at the Jenin Governmental Hospital who has worked in the emergency department during multiple Israeli invasions.

"The work is unrelenting. I sometimes cry in the operating room. The elderly who seek shelter in the hospital brings back memories of the Nakba. These are our grandparents, it isn't easy to see this," the doctor said with deep sorrow. 

This year, Israel aimed to crush groups in Jenin and Nablus to instil a new memory of pain as a deterrent against resistance. The invasion triggered memories of the 2002 camp attack, especially for doctors who had worked during that time.

These experienced doctors played a vital role in supporting and guiding the new generation in handling the influx of patients and injuries. This mix of generations among the medical staff, including resident doctor Walaa, fostered greater cohesion and effectiveness, even under pressure.

Walaa, who was a child during the 2002 invasion, vividly recalls the names of those killed from Jenin, many of whom were neighbours, friends, or familiar faces from daily life. She and her family sought refuge at her grandparents' home, away from the camp and the clashes.

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Walaa recalled her encounter with the late Mohammad Sabbah, a hospital worker who tragically lost his life when an Israeli shot him and his loved ones.

As she toured the hospital, she also shared the harrowing memory of the assassination of Dr. Abd Allah Abu Teen, a colleague at the Jenin governmental hospital. Walaa described the intense emotions of seeing a colleague covered in blood while others worked desperately to save him. "It's not easy to see a colleague killed when all they wanted to do was to save lives. I'm still processing his death, but we must continue our work."

"We learn quickly that when our brothers and sisters are killed, there isn't time for mourning," Walaa concluded. We have an obligation to our community and our people to continue our work."

Salam AbuSharar is a Palestinian pharmacist, activist and blogger

Follow her on Twitter: @SalamAbuSharar