Ghassan Abu-Sittah tells of nightmare ordeal treating Gaza's injured
A British-Palestinian doctor who treated civilians in the Gaza Strip wounded by Israel's indiscriminate bombardment has spoken of the "dystopian" horrors he witnessed in the beleaguered territory, where almost 15,000 people have been killed in a matter of weeks.
Ghassan Abu-Sittah, an award-winning plastic and reconstructive surgeon with over 30 years of experience working in warzones, briefed journalists at a press conference in London on his arduous, approximately 40-day spell in Gaza.
As he watched Hamas' attack on Israel and its early aftermath unfold on 7 October, Abu-Sittah made the decision to travel to the Gaza Strip, as he predicted Israel's harsh retaliation. Two days later, the surgeon entered Gaza via Egypt’s Sinai desert.
Hamas killed about 1,200 people during its surprise incursion into southern Israel, and took more than 200 others hostage.
Israel has since launched an indiscriminate and unprecedentedly ruthless air and ground assault on the Gaza Strip, killing and injuring tens of thousands of people and displacing a staggering 1.7 million.
The bombardment has prompted calls for international investigations for possible war crimes, and hospitals have not been spared in the assault.
"During my time at Al-Shifa hospital, it became apparent that between 40 and 45 percent of all those wounded were going to be children," said Abu Sittah, who is a member of the charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
"The primary target was residential homes," Abu-Sittah said, adding that entire neighbourhoods and families had been wiped out.
Israel claims a Hamas headquarters is located below Al-Shifa, the biggest hospital in Gaza, but its forces have so far failed to produce evidence to substantiate this. So, why is Israel attacking hospitals in the besieged enclave? 👇https://t.co/ibIsMqhj5a— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 18, 2023
Giving his harrowing account from working at Al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, Abu-Sittah revealed that most of the patients admitted had suffered blast injuries, resulting in traumas and fractures.
He said dozens of other patients suffered from severe burns due to coming into contact with white phosphorus, which Israel has used on densely populated areas both in Gaza and southern Lebanon despite this being banned under international law.
Some patients suffered burns that ran right into their ribs; others had been injured by high-velocity sniper bullets, the surgeon said.
The surgeon spoke of gut-wrenching conditions in which he had to operate on wounded patients, including dozens of children.
"In one night, I had to perform amputation on six children," he said.
Abu Sittah spoke of "horrific scenes, with members of Al-Shifa medical and nursing staff frantically running to see if their relatives were among the dead and wounded" one night after an attack.
Later, as hospitals reeled under airstrikes and began to face severe shortages in fuel and medical supplies, as Israel's total siege on the territory took its toll, some operations – including amputations – had to be done without anaesthesia.
"The idea, as always, is to drum up support for its heavy bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza to 'dismantle' Hamas and bring hostages home, and in turn, justify civilian casualties."— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 6, 2023
How Israel uses social media to justify bombing hospitals in Gaza: https://t.co/an3bAiZUzz
Abu-Sittah said he was forced to carry out some "extremely painful" surgeries on patients without access to morphine or ketamine as painkillers. The situation became so dire that wounds began to get infected, he added.
As hospitals began to shut down in northern Gaza and Israeli troops began drawing in on the city, he decided to move south.
"There was nothing for me to do anymore" in northern Gaza, the surgeon said sombrely.
He had worked between at least three different hospitals, including Al-Shifa and the Al-Ahli Arab (Baptist) hospitals in Gaza City, and Al-Awda hospital in the Jabalia refugee camp. Each of them, Abu-Sittah said, were targets for the Israeli army.
Many of his colleagues and their families were killed in the Israeli air raids during his time there or after he returned, he said. He called for the release of more than 10 doctors he says have been detained or have disappeared.
When travelling to southern Gaza, Abu-Sittah recalled walking through absolute destruction along the Salah Al-Din Road – the main thoroughfare connecting the enclave’s north and south – as Israeli soldiers with snipers and cameras stood on each side of the road.
"They [Israeli soldiers] would call people out, say to someone: you next to that person, leave them and come here."
"They would ask us to look at the cameras so that facial recognition software can find out who you are," he said. He recalled seeing many Palestinian men stripped down naked, blindfolded on their knees, and taken away.
The surgeon said he left Gaza on day 43 of the war back through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
A witness to war crimes
Now back in the UK, Abu-Sittah has expressed readiness to work with British authorities to provide witness evidence of Israeli war crimes.
Abu-Sittah said he will tell Scotland Yard what he saw during his time in the besieged enclave, amid global calls to bring Israeli officials to justice over accusations of collective punishment and the targeting of civilian and medical infrastructure.
The New Arab asked Abu-Sittah whether he believed the British government was serious on such cooperation, amid Downing Street's unwavering support for Israel.
"It is important to say the UK has subscribed to international humanitarian law. Scotland Yard should live up to responsibility, I don’t think efforts my investigations team are making are futile," the director of the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP), Tayab Ali, replied.
Ali’s organisation is leading the investigations with Scotland Yard. ICJP has set up a unit collecting first-hand evidence and witness testimonies of alleged Israeli war crimes and violations in Gaza.
Ali later told The New Arab that the investigations were ongoing and that Abu-Sittah would provide evidence to Scotland Yard "in the coming days."
As the International Criminal Court begins investigating crimes committed in the Palestinian territories, there is cautious hope that Israel could be held responsible for its ongoing atrocities in Gaza.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 8, 2023
At the start of the press conference, Ali said the investigation would include looking into British citizens partaking in the war alongside Israel, and Israeli political, military and media figures who have incited violence in Gaza.
The press conference was preceded with a short video compiling graphic footage of injured children in Gaza, as well as another short clip of Israeli officials making "genocidal" remarks.
"My fear is Israel will try to achieve in this truce what it did not achieve in war," Abu-Sittah said, explaining that he believes Israel's aim was to empty out Gaza in another Nakba - the mass forced expulsion of the Palestinians from their homes in 1948.
Israeli officials and ministers have made several calls to send Palestinians in Gaza to Sinai in Egypt or scatter them to different parts of the world.
By making Gaza uninhabitable, "even those who are steadfast will eventually leave on their own," Abu-Sittah said.