Israeli medics battle lack of sleep to save lives in the south

Volunteers, midwives and doctors among the few civilians still at epicentre of Israel's new war with Hamas

Cars burn after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a car park and residential building in Ashkelon, southern Israel. AP
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On a trip to southern Israel on Sunday as Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants who had crossed over from the Gaza Strip, The National was able to speak only to medics and armed Israeli men.

It was not by intention – civilians were simply nowhere to be seen. The area had since emptied after Hamas launched a barrage of thousands of rockets and sent hundreds of militants across the border in a well-planned operation on Saturday morning. The missiles smashed into homes as gunmen rampaged through the towns and settlements, killing civilians and taking hostages.

Nobody who spoke to The National recalled seeing a situation so bad, quite something for this part of Israel which has been bombarded the most by militant groups in Gaza in recent years.

“Have you ever seen what a bullet does to a human head?” said Moishe Paskesz, a volunteer paramedic bringing the wounded to a field hospital set up on Route 232 just outside Sderot.

He said was he teeming with adrenaline and ready to venture out once more but the scenes he had witnessed were so bad that he knew lasting trauma was on the way.

“We made the mistake yesterday of taking the bodies and remains in the ambulances,” he said.

Israel sets up field hospital in Sderot

Israel sets up field hospital in Sderot

“There were so many corpses that we ran out of vehicles and couldn’t transport the gravely injured, whose lives could potentially be saved.

“We now use trucks to take the dead away.”

He was proud about the work being done by paramedics such as himself and Yitzhak Drezner, another volunteer who gave a tour of a rudimentary ward of a few operating tables, with IV drips hanging from above.

“Many of the cases we’ve been called to are for PTSD, they’re hysterical and it’s our job to calm them down,” Mr Drezner said.

He, along with a number of religious colleagues, had to take the rare step of breaking the Shabbat. Jews are allowed to do so in life-and death-circumstances. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rarely serve in the military for religious reasons and those who want to often choose the ambulance sector.

“It’s a 'mitzvah',” one explained, a good deed done in the name of Judaism.

Throughout the conversation, volunteers come up to shove food into the hands of journalists. The press are very much welcome.

That was not the case at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, where the trauma seemed to be setting in.

Almost none of doctors who were moving around purposefully, focused on their mission, wanted to speak. Midwives on duty also refused to respond to questions.

One doctor who did, but did not want to be named, joked that no one his department would ever talk to journalists. “We are cursed. Any time one of us speaks to a journalist, we get killed or wounded.”

The staff that appeared the most broken were the hospital porters, whose job it was to deal with the dead.

The National spoke to two, who did not want to be named, one originally from Kazakhstan and the other from Ukraine.

The former had barely slept in two days. On his lunch break, he sat on a wall, showing The National video footage taken the night before of Israeli troops entering his hometown in pursuit of Hamas gunmen that were roaming the streets. His two-year-old son was tottering around the flat in a nappy, as his ex-wife tried to distract him from the situation outside.

He watched the footage while chain-smoking. A local millionaire philanthropist had recently come to the hospital to hand out hundreds of packets of cigarettes, as well as food from McDonalds.

A military helicopter interrupted his lunch as it roared into land. Two soldiers covered in foil blankets were rushed out, as a porter quickly blocked the view with a large plastic screen to preserve the dignity of the injured.

The few civilians in the waiting room sat around awaiting news about their loved ones. A child with a disability was receiving routine care – the hospital was continuing to admit patients who were not casualties of war.

Updated: October 10, 2023, 3:51 AM