BEIRUT: During a lull in bombardment after yet another failed cease-fire, Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah, the only Lebanon-affiliated doctor volunteering in Gaza, reflected on the aspects of the crisis that had eluded his medical forethought.
“I was unprepared for the number of orphan children lying in intensive care without anyone visiting them, because there is no one left,” he said, speaking to The Daily Star over the phone from the overwrought Al-Shifa Hospital, which itself was subject to bombardment last week. “Whole families have been wiped out, we are talking about tens of families that no longer exist.”
The head of plastic surgery at the American University of Beirut Medical Center has conducted numerous missions in Gaza before, but described the ferocity of Israel’s strikes and border blockages, from both the Israeli and Egyptian crossings, as unprecedented, even during the 2009 and 2012 wars.
The lack of access, especially from the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border point is also affecting efforts to mobilize relief for Gazans in Lebanon, as medical volunteers and humanitarian convoys await Egyptian authorization to cross.
Some Lebanese aid workers said they believe only political maneuvering on the part of the government would see the aid delivered to the Palestinians who need it.
“In terms of relief [from the Lebanese side] there isn’t a lot because there’s no way to get it there,” said activist Bassem Chit from Lebanon Support.
Organizations like Lebanon’s National Initiative Committee to Break the Siege in Gaza have recruited dozens of doctors and amassed a warehouse full of medicines to ease shortages in Gaza hospitals, but to date not a pill or a Lebanese health professional has stepped foot in the tiny battered territory.
Abu-Sittah, a Palestinian who holds a British passport, crossed in from Erez with the help of the World Health Organization after waiting for two weeks in Rafah.
Nabil Hallak, coordinator for the National Initiative Committee, said he received assurances from Prime Minister Tamam Salam that a private jet would transport medical aid directly to Al-Arish in the Sinai Peninsula.
“The intention to help is there, and there are people willing to go,” Hallak explained. “But whether there is a way for them to enter, that is the question.”
Apart from playing the waiting game, Hallak and his associates have launched a flurry of contacts with politicians and other organizations to inspire political initiative and hasten Egyptian authorization. He has also been in touch with Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the head of the Arab Medical Association and former Egyptian presidential candidate, to speed up the process. But so far assurances have failed to translate into action, Hallak said.
“We know it can be done if the Lebanese government makes an extra effort – they can through their own connections with the Egyptians, but so far there are no hints that they will push,” he said.
Lebanese organizations working toward humanitarian relief efforts in Gaza maintain close contacts with grassroots organizations to assess needs in the territory, typically medical and financial. The medicine collected by Hallak’s group is meant for patients in need of surgery. About 27 doctors and nurses have volunteered.
Among them is Dr. Ghassan Jaafar, who has been to Gaza twice as the head of a Lebanese delegation in June and December of 2010.
“As a doctor I sympathize with the people of Gaza and Palestine on ethical and humanitarian grounds,” he said. “As part of the next delegation I plan to work all over the [Gaza] Strip’s hospitals and work with Palestinian doctors who are working day and night to provide relief to their wounded.”
In the Palestinian refugee camps of Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh, the local Najdeh Association is also reaching out to their international donors to provide financial support and holding demonstrations in solidarity with Gazans. However, the issue of access has also hampered their efforts.
“We haven’t raised a lot of money because access is totally blocked,” said Leila al Ali, a member of Najdeh’s executive board. “Right now in Gaza, NGOs can’t access banks or ATMs because of the war.”
On the political front, Hamas representative to Lebanon Ali Baraki has also been making the rounds to raise funds, finding receptive partners in local mosques. Last week Sidon’s Rowda Mosque donated LL60 million to the Hamas Movement on the “condition” the money be used, not for food or relief, but to help the resistance, Baraki told The Daily Star.
He said has been in contact with Lebanese officials and associations to send aid through helicopters directly to Gaza. “We won’t send it in Hamas’ name,” he added, “because relations between the Hamas Movement and Egypt are sensitive at this time.”
Meanwhile in Gaza, Abu-Sittah said medical supplies continue to dwindle, including IV fluid, as well as other essentials required to treat patients. The hospital, he said, can no longer discharge patients, as most of their homes have been destroyed and they’ve come to see the institution as a safe haven.
Border closures have resulted in the deaths of the critically wounded, while other patients have been moved to a half finished complex for lack of beds.
“The hospital has become like a refugee camp,” he said. “The whole system is coming to a gridlock.”
Apart from the frustrations of war, the doctor has had to cope with personal ones too. “There was a 10-year-old boy who lost half his face including his eye, about the age of my own children,” he said. “We were able to close up the face, but he will still be blind.”