Exhausted and under fire, Gaza’s paramedics risk lives to save others

At great personal risk, ambulance drivers in the Gaza Strip are racing to the scene of the latest Israeli attacks to try and save lives, Hugh Naylor reports.

Bassam Ali Sayma, a paramedic that works for Gaza's Red Crescent with an injured boy as they arrive at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on July 11. The child suffered shrapnel wounds from an Israeli air strike near his home in Nussarat, Gaza. Heidi Levine for The National
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GAZA CITY // For 15 years, Ayman Shahwan has raced his ambulance through the death and destruction of Gaza’s seemingly unending war with Israel.

Braving the threat of air strikes and shelling, he has ferried scores of wounded men, women and children — and presumably fighters — to hospital from the wreckage of bombed-out Gaza homes. Often, he arrives to the grim aftermath of body parts that he must also collect for the authorities to identify.

“Sometimes you think this could be the end of your life. But you have to do this because there is no one else who will,” Mr Shahwan, 42, said during a short break at Gaza City’s Tel Al Hawa neighbourhood ambulance station.

Taking advantage of a lull in the bombardment, he and a dozen colleagues from the Palestine Red Crescent Society fought of exhaustion by watching television news and discussing the war’s latest developments. Drowsy from their Ramadan fast and having only two hours sleep the night before, they did their best to resist the urge to doze, knowing that at any moment they could be called to the scene of the latest attack.

During peace time they provide emergency medical care, such as CPR and administer life-saving drugs, while also shuttling patients to hospital, like emergency responders the world over. But unlike their counterparts in other countries, these Palestinians have endured three wars in six years — 2008-2009, 2012 and now.

Since the most recent flare-up with Israel began on Tuesday, 18 of Mr Shahwan colleagues have been wounded in attacks, according to the World Heath Organisation.

To many here, their courage under fire makes them heroes, including during the current onslaught that has killed at least 135 Palestinians, many of them civilians, and injured hundreds more.

“I’m here in the hospital treating all the victims that these people risk their lives to rescue, and I have to tip my hat to them,” said Youssef Jarboa, a paediatric surgeon at Gaza City’s Al Shifa Hospital. “Many more people would die if these people didn’t risk their own lives to bring victims to us as quickly as possible.”

Red Crescent officials say Israel inhibits their ability to respond to attacks and other emergencies during peace time by denying them permission to enter the buffer zone inside Gaza that extends metres from the wall Israel built around besieged territory, along with refusing to allow them to import communications equipment.

Despite being focused on only humanitarian work and not holding any political affiliation, sometimes the emergency responders are hit by Israeli attacks.

Khalil Abou Foul, the Red Crescent’s director of disaster management in Gaza, said three of his emergency responders operating in the central part of the territory were wounded by debris from an air raid during the first days of fighting.

In the northern Jabalia refugee camp, more than a dozen more were wounded on Wednesday by an air raid that also damaged three emergency vehicles.

Mr Abou Foul said he was concerned about the safety of his 120 full-time emergency medical technicians and 250 volunteers. Despite coordinating with the Israelis, providing them names, IDs, vehicle-number plates, he said his personnel are at great risk.

“There is no respect for ambulance workers on the Israeli side,” Mr Abou Foul said.

Activists reported that at least five Israeli projectiles struck a geriatric hospital in Gaza City on Friday, while the WHO has reported attacks that either targeted or damaged at least three other medical clinics and hospitals in the territory. One of those included an attack on the Gaza European Hospital in Khan Younis that injured a nurse and damaged the facility’s intensive care unit.

Emergency responders recalled losing colleagues during the years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Adel Al Azbat, who has volunteered for eight years at the Tel Al Hawa station in Gaza City, said two responders were killed in Gaza by an Israeli attack in 2006.

“You’re always thinking about whether this could happen to you, but at the end of the day, you have to put your fears aside and do your job. You have to help people,” said Mr Azbat, 30, who is enrolled in a local master’s degree programme specialising in media studies.

Mr Shahwan admits being psychologically scarred by what he saw during Israel’s three-week war on Gaza that began in December 2008. During that conflict, which both Israel and Gaza’s Hamas leadership faced accusations of war crimes, as many as 1,400 Palestinian were killed and another 5,000 wounded.

“The hard part about that war was that it lasted for so long and there were so many wounded people,” he said. “We didn’t sleep for weeks. We were exhausted. And at the same time were seeing so many dead people, women and children.”

He recalled how during that war, an unexploded, 1.5-tonne bomb from an attack across the street lodged itself at the entrance of their station.

On a different occasion during the war, a petrified colleague refused to exit the ambulance at a bombed-out home because of fear that Israeli aircraft, looming overhead, were going to strike the area again.

Mr Shahwan, a father of three, went in with a bystander who volunteered to help him pull out any survivors, but there were none. Just bodies and limbs, which Mr Shahwan collected on a stretcher to be identified later.

In a rush to leave the building, Mr Shahwan stumbled and the body parts fell on top of him.

“For a moment, I was overwhelmed with shock.”

Some ambulance drivers during the 2008-2009 war, complained that Hamas militants tried to hijack their vehicles. Israel, for its part, accused the Islamist group of using ambulances to transport fighters and weapons.

But Israel’s disaster-relief organisation, Magen David Adom, told the United Nations fact-finding committee into the war that “there was no use of [Red Crescent] ambulances for the transport of weapons or ammunition … [and] there was no misuse of the emblem by” the Red Crescent.

At least seven ambulance workers were killed by Israeli strikes during the 2008-2009 conflict, according to Amnesty International, which documented how Israeli forces also barred ambulances from reaching victims of attacks in Gaza City. In one instance, emergency responders were forced to enter a bombed area by foot, using a donkey-pulled cart to bring wounded children, as well as three bodies, 1.5 kilometres back to their ambulances.

“The rescue team had to leave tens of bodies behind as they had no means of carrying them away,” said the 2009 Amnesty report.

In the current conflict, the numbers of emergency responders may not be enough.

Khalil Abu Mrahel, a taxi driver, said he had to help carry two cousins to an ambulance and then perform CPR on his brother because the attack on his Gaza City neighbourhood on Wednesday produced too many victims for ambulance crews to handle.

“It was all so chaotic,” said Mr Abu Mrahel, 25, who was at Al Shifa Hospital tending to wounded family members there.

But for Mr Shahwan, who has not seen his family since Tuesday because of his non-stop work schedule, the emergency responders are doing their best.

By Friday morning, he had been called to respond eight times.

The ninth came during an interview with The National. He jolted out of his chair — his energy belied the dark circles under his eyes — and rushed to his ambulance to drive a few kilometres down the road, the site of the latest Israeli air raid.

Two more wounded were brought to Shifa Hospital.

“We’re doing our best with what we have,” he said afterwards.

“This is what we have to do for our people.”