Until the final breath: Ghassan Abu-Sittah's oath to Gaza
British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu-Sittah knows that life in Gaza hangs on the whistle of a warplane; hear it and it’s already too late.
Loved ones remain strewn across the wreckage: scattered limbs; mangled corpses. There’s a taste of metal and a smell of burning flesh. A droned desertion fills the square.
Outside Al-Shifa Medical Complex, those left await their fate. The scene is critical.
"Gazans have been left with two choices: death by airstrike or attrition"
Bodies flood blood-soaked corridors till they overflow. White tents dot the perimeter of the hospital’s entrance as mass graves — body bags are a luxury.
Ice cream vans double as makeshift morgues to chill the deceased.
There’s barely any electricity left; the morgue will shortly run out of service. The stench of thousands of decaying bodies trapped under the rubble will soon mirror the smell coming from the hospital.
Day by day, life is being squeezed out of Gaza. Without fuel, 130 premature babies are at imminent risk of death. Without anaesthetics, Ghassan uses vinegar from the grocery shop to treat bacterial infections; a child agonisingly recites the Quran to ease the pain.
More than 6,546 civilians in Gaza have been killed by the Israeli occupation since October 7, including 2,704 children. At least 17,439 Palestinians have been wounded.
More Gazans have been killed in the last 15 days than the total number of Gazans who died of all causes in 2022. The death toll has now surpassed the Srebrenica genocide.
“There’s no end in sight,” an exhausted Ghassan Abu-Sittah tells The New Arab over WhatsApp. “Seven hundred Gazans have been killed in the past 24 hours. Three times as many have been wounded.”
The Al-Ahli hospital bombing has added renewed vengeance to Israel’s aggression. Gazans have been left with two choices: death by airstrike or attrition.
No one is safe and there’s nowhere left to hide; 1.4 million Palestinians are homeless — 42% of all residential units in Gaza have either been flattened or destroyed — and the schools and hospitals where Gazans shelter are designated Israeli targets.
Airstrikes have already killed 65 Palestinian healthcare workers, and 90 others have sustained injuries.
In the West, our image of Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe is wickedly skewed. Israel’s 16-year blockade does more than control Palestinian movement, it dictates Gaza’s collective inhumanity.
Ghassan Abu-Sittah’s media appearances alone bear witness to Israel’s logic of elimination and the layers of Palestinian tragedy in Gaza. He may be a reluctant hero, but with his voice, the English-speaking world will realise that Palestinians don’t ‘die’, they are killed.
Ghassan Abu-Sittah's press conference outside Al-Ahli Hospital will remain etched in our memories forever.
Lone cries of Ya Allah Hu Ya Allah – ‘Oh God, Just He, Oh God’ – pierce the sobs of fathers clutching their sons. They’re slumped beneath the lectern that Al-Ahli medical staff cram behind. More than 500 Gazans have just been killed by an Israeli strike on the hospital.
Staring down the barrel of the lens, Ghassan sinks over the stand. His face is filled with horror; he doesn’t blink once.
“This morning, when I drove into [Al-Ahli] hospital, I noted how full the courtyard was, with families who had sought refuge inside thinking that it would be a safe haven. It’s these very same families who are now either dead or critically wounded as a result of this attack.”
Eight days after the October 17 massacre, Gaza’s healthcare system has since collapsed. Al-Shifa Medical Complex now treats over 5,000 patients daily; its capacity is 700.
Two-thirds of healthcare facilities – 46 out of 72 – have ceased to function, including 13 out of 35 hospitals.
“The news that the Indonesian hospital – the largest in north Gaza – has run out of fuel and its generators stopped working is an ominous sign of things to come for Al-Shifa,” a despondent Ghassan tells The New Arab.
“On the floors of the emergency department, the wounded are lying everywhere. As more things run out, we have to be really selective about what operations we do, the surgeries we can do, and the materials we use.”
"In the West, our image of Gaza’s healthcare catastrophe is wickedly skewed. Israel’s 16-year blockade does more than control Palestinian movement, it dictates Gaza’s collective inhumanity"
Ghassan painfully catalogues his experiences on his X/Twitter page.
On October 15, Ghassan tweeted: “W.C.N.S.F = Wounded Child No Surviving Family. It’s a thing in Gaza.”
On October 21, he wrote: “We have run out of burns dressings. We have more than 70 wounded with burns covering more than 40% of their body surface. 80% are children.”
On October 22: “2 brothers in their 20s with extensive burns. One succumbed to his wounds 2 days ago. Since then his brother gave up trying. He passed away this morning.”
Today: "344 children have been killed in the last 24 hours. The scale of the carnage is unfathomable."
The limited aid that Gaza’s hospitals have received has, so far, been useless. “We received cotton and gauze and COVID-19 tests. Nothing that can be of use for the critical injuries we are treating,” a doctor at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis revealed.
There’s a feeling among Gazans that this could be the end, a feeling shared by Ghassan. “The health system at Al-Shifa Medical Complex, the flagship of Gaza’s healthcare system, is in its death throes,” he concluded to The New Arab.
“It’s only a matter of days before we’re able to provide any basic service.”
Death’s grip now lingers across Gaza. The Turkish Hospital, the only hospital that provides chemotherapy in Gaza, is operating on a single generator and is expected to stop working within 24 hours. 9,000 cancer patients rely on this service to stay alive.
But one thing is for sure: Ghassan Abu-Sittah and his team will treat their patients till their last breath. As we speak, nurses and doctors are joining any hospital they can access, only leaving to make sure their families have what they need before coming back to work.
Healthcare workers sleep, eat, and work in the same buildings for days. They'll work under cellphone light if they have to.
In spite of Israeli aggression, their commitment to the profession is unshakeable. Doctors, nurses and paramedics in Gaza are bound by a medical oath and humanitarian mandate to continue providing for the sick and the wounded.
Yesterday evening, a video circulated across social media of doctors in Gaza huddled together singing in unison: “We will stay here until the pain is over… We will live here, and we will keep singing.”
There's a lesson here: even when facing death, Gazans teach us life.
Benjamin Ashraf is The New Arab's Deputy Features Editor. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies and a board member of Red Pepper's Admin Collective
Follow him on Twitter: @ashrafzeneca