Between 10 and 21 May, Israeli airstrikes and shelling killed more than 250 people and left close to 2,000 injured in the coastal enclave of the Gaza Strip, Palestine. In the space of just 11 days, many Gazans saw their homes and their livelihoods destroyed, and suffered long-lasting physical and psychological injuries. In Israel, rockets and other projectiles fired from Gaza claimed 13 lives, including a child and a teenager, and wounded more than 700 people.
Gaza’s vital infrastructure, including roads, water and sanitation networks, and health and educational facilities – many of which were already impacted by previous Israeli offensives – were also damaged or destroyed. Half of the electricity lines in Gaza no longer function and more than a dozen medical facilities, including the central COVID-19 testing lab, were damaged.
Gazans left with life-changing disabilities
“It was the first day of Eid,” recalls Hani, 26, who was returning home after shopping in preparation for the celebrations at the end of Ramadan. “I was about to open the door of my house when a missile hit a building nearby.”
Hani and one neighbour were severely injured in the bombing while two other neighbours were killed.
With the bones in his lower leg shattered by a piece of debris, Hani was unable to move, so he covered his head and waited for the bombing to end. He counted four distinct strikes before the bombing stopped and paramedics arrived to take him to hospital. Ten days after the incident, the life-changing nature of his injuries is hard to accept. Hani will require multiple rounds of reconstructive and plastic surgery before he can walk again.
“This recent violence has created a huge cohort of new patients who will be facing disability and multiple rounds of surgery over the coming months and even years,” says Helen Ottens-Patterson, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Gaza.
Palestinians deprived of medical care
During the offensive, many people in Gaza were unable to access medical care as stocks of medications and medical supplies ran low.
Mohammed, 31, is back in hospital as a result of these shortages. Shot in the leg during the ‘Great March of Return’ protests in 2018, Mohammed underwent more than 30 rounds of surgery over three years. In May, he finished treatment for a bone infection and was discharged from hospital. But then the offensive started.
“The pharmacy increased its prices when the bombing began, so I could no longer afford dressings or medication,” Mohammed says. Now his wounds are severely infected again and he is back in hospital. Speaking of the most recent Israeli bombardment, he says, “It was 11 days of massacre. That’s what it was.”
Some medical supplies ran out completely. The Erez entry point from Israel into Gaza remained closed for 10 days in a row, so there was no opportunity to replenish medical stocks in facilities treating the wounded. Additional MSF teams bringing much-needed medical supplies, such as blood bags for hospitals, were finally able to enter the Gaza Strip on 24 May. Nevertheless, getting medical teams and supplies into Gaza remains a challenge, where shortages of basic items, certain medications and services such as electricity and fuel were commonplace, even before the recent offensive.
Scaling up the medical response
“Gaza is in a constant state of a humanitarian crisis due to the long-running blockade, and the escalation of violence over recent weeks has compounded an already catastrophic situation,” says Ottens-Patterson. “A ceasefire has held for the past week, but we are very worried about how people are going to cope and rebuild what has been destroyed.”
Throughout the offensive, our teams in Gaza worked in very dangerous conditions and at times were unable to run some regular services. One MSF clinic in Gaza city was damaged by airstrikes and put out of service for a few days, but outpatient consultations at the clinic resumed on 20 May. Since the bombing stopped, we have scaled up all of our regular activities.
Al-Awda hospital, where MSF runs a surgical unit, was damaged by the impact of three airstrikes, which destroyed three nearby buildings in Gaza’s Jabalia district. MSF’s logistics office in the hospital was damaged, as were windows and other infrastructure in the hospital’s wards.
During the offensive, our teams worked Al-Awda hospital’s emergency room and operating theatres, carrying out more than 100 surgeries on patients wounded by missile strikes and shelling. We also donated medical supplies to the Ministry of Health to support other health facilities treating the injured. With Gaza’s only COVID-19 testing lab damaged, the COVID-19 situation is a cause for concern.
“We don’t have clear visibility of the COVID-19 situation, as the only coronavirus testing lab has been damaged,” says Tatiana Chiarella, MSF medical team leader. “We are worried that there could soon be a new surge of COVID-19 infections in Gaza.”
To help prevent the spread of the virus, MSF has distributed face masks and hand sanitisers to people displaced by the bombing who are sheltering in schools.
“I’m only 23 years old,” says another patient called Mohammed, whose arm and leg were shattered by a bomb as he returned from his farm. “I want to think about a bright future, but all I can think about is war.”