The sheer number of bodies he’s had to deal with at Gaza City’s 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.”
More than 1,200 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in 23 days of fighting between the Israeli army and the Hamas group that controls Gaza, where 1.8 million people are packed inside a 140-square-mile (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. In addition to the fatalities, attacks have wounded more than 7,000, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Qedra.
Schools, medical centers, mosques, parks, a power station and water and sewage facilities have also been hit since the offensive was launched on July 8, the Palestinian minister of housing and public works, Mofeed al-Hasayna, said in an interview. He estimated damage at $3 billion.
Israel said it embarked on its offensive in response to rocket fire from Gaza. It later widened its objectives to destroy dozens of tunnels that militants have built, and used, to infiltrate its territory. Fifty-three soldiers and three civilians have died on the Israeli side.
Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Israel, which accuses it of deliberately jeopardizing Palestinian civilians by operating within residential areas. Militants have fired almost 3,000 rockets and mortars during the conflict, Israel’s army says.
“Civilian casualties are a tragic inevitability of systematic Hamas exploitation of the local population,” Capt. Eytan Buchman, a military spokesman, said by e-mail. Israel’s army “takes unprecedented measures to prevent harming civilians, including real-time aerial surveillance, leaflet distribution, warnings prior to targeted strikes,” he said.
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 and beds and frequent power failures, said Bassem Na’eem, a former health minister who serves as Hamas’s chief of foreign relations.
“The Gaza Strip is witnessing a real medical catastrophe,” Na’eem said in an interview. “It’s the first time our wards have been so full. Electricity shortages affects the medical machines and electronic respiratory systems. Fuel shortages mean generators can’t run.”
Many of 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 just too dangerous to leave.
Dr. Mohamed 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 air strike. 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 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 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, al-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 were due to be delivered to hospitals this week.
Complicating matters are hostile relations between Hamas and Egypt’s current 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,” Na’eem said. “Now, the number of wounded is much higher than usual, many of them are in critical conditions and need complicated surgeries.”
On July 20, as warplanes targeted Shujaiya, a district that has seen some of the worst fighting of the conflict and where at least 100 bodies were pulled from the rubble during one of several brief cease-fires, the Israeli army set up a field hospital at the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza. It treats mainly Palestinian women and children and has sent about 20 patients to Israeli, Jordanian and West Bank hospitals for further care, the military said.
Israel accuses the Islamist group of hiding weapons in schools, setting up command centers in hospitals and driving its fighters in ambulances.
Fighting escalated after the breakdown of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in April. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded by ending his seven-year rift with Hamas, which has backed his West Bank-based government, shunned by Israel. The killing of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers and the suspected revenge murder of a Palestinian youth added to tensions, and weeks of militant rocket fire and Israeli air strikes escalated into war.
The U.S., which is calling for a cease-fire, “fully supports Israel’s right to self-defense,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said July 28. It can’t be expected to tolerate the use of tunnels for “kidnapping or murder operations,” she said.
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.”