Readers of VQR will remember Elliott Woods’s fantastic story from our Fall issue about the after-effects of the Mosul chow hall bombing. Woods is now in Egypt, where he was working to gain access to Gaza for an upcoming story for us when the current conflict there broke out. As the fighting continues, we will be posting periodic dispatches from Woods here on the blog, along with Elliott’s photographs. —Ed.
A father and son look on from a hilltop on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border terminal as Israeli jets bomb Rafah City, Gaza, on January 9.
A steady stream of ambulances arrived at Al-Arish Hospital on Sunday, transporting severely wounded Palestinians from the Rafah border terminal between Egypt and Gaza. The trip from the Rafah terminal to nearby Al-Arish, Egypt, takes about an hour—but it can take up to three days for Palestinian ambulances to reach the Egyptian border, even from hospitals in Gazan Rafah, just three kilometers away.
Fear of Israeli bombs and tank shells prevents Palestinian ambulance from delivering patients to Egypt in large numbers. “We have no way to protect ourselves,” said Dr. Bilal Jomah, a Gazan trauma physician who works on the Palestinian ambulances. The International Red Cross has accused Israel of blocking medical assistance after forces fired on aid workers, killing two.
Dr. Jomah’s ambulance crew delivered twenty-year-old Ahmed Asfour into Egyptian hands on Saturday afternoon. Asfour and his two brothers sustained severe abdominal and cardiovascular trauma when their home was destroyed by an Israeli air strike.
Infection is a major concern of Gazan doctors and the Egyptian physicians who receive their patients. Depleted supply stores, electricity outages, and water shortages make it difficult for Gazan hospitals and ambulances to maintain sterility in operating rooms and ambulances, and the deep tissue wounds caused by explosions are highly infection-prone.
“With explosions there is massive destruction of muscle,” said Dr. Ahmed El-Aziz, an orthopedic surgeon from Cairo University Hospital. “Tissue dies and infection sets in. The condition is life threatening, not limb threatening.” Dr. El-Aziz crossed into Gaza on Friday evening with a group of eleven doctors from Arab countries.
Volunteer physicians are trickling into Gaza slowly. Only thirty-eight doctors—all Arab—have entered since Friday, and none entered on Wednesday or Thursday. Hundreds of volunteers have placed their names on a waiting list at Rafah, and some have been waiting for more than a week.
Khaled Atteyah, coordinator of the Rafah terminal, says that physicians and aid are allowed to cross whenever the security situation allows, a vague statement considering that the dull thud of bombs can be heard even during the daily ceasefire, which is supposed to take place between the hours of 1 PM and 3 PM according to an agreement between Hamas and Israel reached last Wednesday.
Anas Abd El-Aziz, 15, arrives Sunday at Al-Arish Hospital in Egypt with cranial hemorrhaging, the result of shrapnel from an Israeli air strike in Rafah, Gaza.
Dr. Tarek El-Mahdawy, Secretary of Health Affairs in North Sinai, Egypt, says Egyptian facilities have been specially equipped to care for up to three thousand Palestinian cases, but scores are dying before they can get to the border. As of late Sunday afternoon, only 260 patients had been transferred to Egypt.
At the Rafah terminal, lines of ambulances stand idling from daybreak to dusk. Dozens of jumpsuit-clad EMTs wait in the shade, smoking and chatting. The listlessness is unsettling—there is a war going on less than five miles away. Middle Eastern countries—especially Syria and Iran—have criticized Egypt’s response to the Gaza crisis harshly, but Egyptian doctors insist they’re doing all they can. “It’s just political games,” said Dr. El-Mahdawy. “The others are talking, we are working.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Dr. Mohammad El-Desoky, who has been volunteering at Al-Arish Hospital for the past twelve days, is less certain about Egypt’s response to the Israeli attacks. “We haven’t done anything for the Palestinian people for the past thirty years,” he said. “This job we’re doing now, any country could do it.”