The sheer number of bodies he’s had to deal with at Gaza City’s Al-Shifa Hospital morgue has numbed Musa Hassan to the anguish.
“I’ve taken hundreds of bodies to the morgue,” said the 42-year-old Hassan, clad in a blue jumpsuit and long black rubber boots. “In the beginning, I felt sad for each body I took to the refrigerators, but after taking so many, it’s become normal. I have carried bodies shredded by missiles and tanks shells, children, women, old men and militants.”
Nearly 1,500 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, where 1.8 million people are packed inside a 363-square-kilometer area the size of Detroit.
Israeli munitions fired from the air, ground and sea at sites across the territory have caused heavy damage, leveling homes and shops where the smell of rotting flesh now seeps out from rubble. The bombardments have also sent at least 200,000 people fleeing their homes, the United Nations says.
“Civilian casualties are a tragic inevitability of systematic Hamas exploitation of the local population,” Capt. Eytan Buchman, a military spokesman, said by email. Israel’s army “takes unprecedented measures to prevent harming civilians, including real-time aerial surveillance, leaflet distribution, warnings prior to targeted strikes,” he said.
Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza and one of six still functioning after the Israeli strikes, is on the war’s front line. The facility is buckling under the strain, burdened by shortages of medicine, equipment, beds and frequent power failures, said Bassem Naeem, a former health minister who serves as Hamas’ chief of foreign relations.
“The Gaza Strip is witnessing a real medical catastrophe,” Naeem said in an interview. “It’s the first time our wards have been so full. Electricity shortages affect the medical machines and electronic respiratory systems. Fuel shortages mean generators can’t run.”
Many of Al-Shifa’s personnel rarely make it home, catching sleep when they can because they’re needed in the wards and operating rooms – or because it’s too dangerous to leave.
Dr. Mohammad Heweihi, a 29-year-old surgeon who postponed his wedding because of the fighting, says he has left the hospital only once since the war began to help his fiancé move after her neighbor’s home was destroyed in an airstrike. He has been sleeping in outpatient clinics, or on sofas in staff offices.
“I don’t even see the light of day,” Heweihi said. “I’m in the operating room all the time, removing fragments of shrapnel from bodies and pieces embedded deep inside bones.”
Ambulances raced one morning between Al-Shifa and a six-story apartment building witnesses said was hit by Israeli warplanes. After opening the doors, paramedics pulled out two wounded Palestinians, a dead man and charred body parts. Inside the vehicles, three children covered with dust and blood screamed.
The crowd outside the hospital swelled as dozens more people arrived – some walking wounded, others women without their head scarves and barefoot men searching for family members. Ali Zaqoot, 48, lives across the street from the house that was hit. One of his children was hurt by a flying piece of rubble. “I was at home, and suddenly we were thrown into the air like pieces of flying paper,” he said.
Since the conflict began, at least 6,650 patients have been admitted to Al-Shifa, said Nasser al-Tattar, the hospital’s director. To make room for new casualties, many patients are discharged prematurely or moved to the yard, where they sit in chairs or lie on the grass, some with intravenous drips attached to their arms. The homes of many have been destroyed, Tattar said.
Even before the war began, 30 percent of medicines and half of disposable surgical equipment was out of stock at Gaza’s central pharmaceutical warehouse, according to a World Health Organization report in December. The WHO is appealing for $60 million to help Palestinian health services.
A shipment of $1.4 million of medical supplies has been bought with donations from Switzerland and Norway and was due to be delivered to hospitals this week.
Complicating matters are hostile relations between Hamas and Egypt’s anti-Islamist government. While Egypt has been involved in efforts to mediate a cease-fire, it hasn’t thrown open its Rafah crossing with Gaza to the war wounded, though it says it sent humanitarian aid.
“During the 2012 war, Rafah crossing point was open, we referred dozens of casualties to Egyptian hospitals,” Naeem said. “Now, the number of wounded is much higher than usual, many of them are in critical conditions and need complicated surgeries.”
At the morgue, Hassan carries on with his day’s grim tasks.
“When the dead are brought to the emergency room, they are accompanied by shouts and screams,” he said. “But when I take them to the morgue, I take them silently. Their suffering is over, the problem is with those still fighting to live.”