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A Long "Hot Winter" and Painful Spring

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Issue: 53 Section: Accounts Geography: Middle East Palestine, Egypt

July 28, 2008

A Long "Hot Winter" and Painful Spring

Putting a name to Gaza's injured

by Eva Bartlett

Abed's father has thus far been denied an exit permit to leave Gaza in order to be at his 16-year-old's bedside. Photo: Eva Bartlett

CAIRO, EGYPT -- Bedridden yet painfully conscious, nearly paralyzed with no feeling from the waist down, 16-year-old Abdul Rahman (nicknamed Abed) is one of the hundreds injured by intense Israeli shelling and firing on Gaza between February 27 and March 3, 2008, during an operation dubbed "Hot Winter" by Israel. According to a World Health Organization report, during this period the Israeli army killed at least 116 Palestinians--nearly half of them civilians and more than a quarter children, including a six-month-old infant and a 20-day-old baby--and injured 350. Later counts tallyed the number killed as over 150, with more than 55 killed in one day alone. Over half the week's fatalities and injuries occurred in and around Jabaliya, the refugee camp where Abed was born and has called home all his life.

At 11 a.m. on March 2, Abed stood on the roof of his family's home, observing as Israeli tanks overran the camp. No curfew had been announced and he was unaware of the presence of soldiers on a neighbouring rooftop. The youth was struck from behind by an Israeli sniper bullet that dug into his spine, destroying three of his vertebrae and leaving him paralyzed and bleeding on the roof, where he lay for 15 minutes before his younger brother found him. The 13-year-old dragged Abed to the stairs and down into the family's home, dodging further sniper fire as he went. The invasion outside continued, preventing ambulances from reaching Abed. Three hours after his injury, the teen was finally taken to a hospital in Gaza City, where doctors, after seeing his injury, were surprised to see the boy was still alive. Unable to provide adequate emergency care in Gaza, they immediately loaded him into an emergency transfer ambulance bound for the Rafah border crossing to Egypt.

With the high number of serious injuries, Rafah crossing--closed virtually continuously since June 2007, when Israel imposed complete closure on Gaza--was opened temporarily to allow some of the wounded passage for treatment in Egyptian hospitals. Due to the siege and its detrimental impact on the availability of essential medicines and functioning equipment, Gaza's own hospitals are not able to meet patients' needs. As one of the more critically injured, Abed was transported to a hospital in al-Arish, roughly 50 kilometres from the Rafah border, and eventually to Cairo's Nasser Hospital, where he arrived 15.5 hours after being shot.

Over four months later, Abed lies gaunt and sickly pale, wondering how this happened to him and waiting for a series of operations that may help him recover. The operations to strengthen the broken vertebrae and plug the bullet wound in Abed's spinal cord have only a minimal probability of success and ‘success’ would still mean being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Dr. Saleh Abu Sobheh, a surgeon who treated Abed in Cairo's Palestine Hospital for a period, is more grimly pragmatic: "Spinal surgery is a highly risky procedure. Abed will be paralyzed for life and will be lucky if he does not suffer brain damage from the operation."

On seeing him in the hospital, one might imagine he had always been a slight, sickly boy, not a youth who used to enjoy football and who lifted weights every day. Activity and sport were some of the things he didn't allow Israel to deny him under the siege. Now he can barely lift a bottle of water.

Samir (who prefers to be known by his first name), an Egyptian accountant and humanitarian, volunteers by helping Palestinian patients from Gaza in Cairo, visiting different hospitals to see that patients are receiving adequate treatment and are able to pay for their care. Samir, who has monitored Abed's case since Abed arrived in Cairo and has consulted with his doctors, explains, "The first operation will be to strengthen his vertebrae with a sort of metal splint." Without reinforcing his vertebrae, even the negligible weight of his now-emaciated mass would put immense pressure on the remaining vertebrae, causing further damage. Samir adds, "The two operations will take place during one week. Samples which two months ago were taken from Abed's spinal cord will be re-injected into the hole left by the bullet." Like Dr. Sobheh, Samir is also worried and he cautions that, "This is highly experimental surgery."

Abed's options are few: to remain bedridden for life or to risk brain damage to try to regain some feeling from his waist down and be able to sit upright. Either way, according to Dr. Sobheh, "People who suffer spinal injuries usually develop respiratory disease." Altogether, there is little hope to coax him through his long days of waiting. He is one of many injured from Gaza who have become numbers that disappear into statistics.

His current caretaker is "Uncle" Rahme, an unrelated Palestinian in Cairo who travelled from Jerusalem to oversee the medical treatment of his two nieces. Although they'd never met, Uncle Rahme took pity on Abed's isolation and dependency. "Of course I am helping Abed. His father isn't allowed to leave Gaza and he has no family here. I'm here, so I do what I can for him. But he's very unhappy to be away from his family--he's not used to that." Since arriving in Cairo, Abed has been transferred to five different hospitals due to considerations in specialized treatment and cost. Uncle Rahme followed Abed from Cairo's Palestine Hospital to al-Farook Hospital in Cairo's Maadi suburb. But in a few weeks, when Uncle Rahme returns to Jerusalem, Abed will be left alone to deal with his injuries and paralysis; Abed's father's attempts at obtaining an exit permit to leave Gaza to be at the boy's side have thus far been denied.

Down the hall from Abed's room at the Palestine Hospital, 34-year-old Ziyad Hashan lies waiting for his intestinal tract to heal enough for a colostomy, a procedure needed as a result of his intestinal injury. His pelvis has begun the slow road to recovery, time being the only medicine. His urethral and bladder injuries were treated surgically in Gaza. He must wait another three months before doctors can perform the colostomy.

Hashan's complicated injuries are the result of an Israeli attack on Khan Yunis in late March. Shortly before 4 a.m. on March 28, Hashan was en route to his parents' house next door to pick up his father for morning prayers. Four shots rang out, one of which hit him in the pelvis from behind. He never made it to the mosque, where his father was already waiting.

The Israeli army maintains, in statements to Hashan's Gaza-based lawyer, that Hashan was caught in a conflict between the army and Palestinian fighters in Gaza. His father, who was permitted to accompany Hashan from Gaza to Cairo for treatment, countered: "There was no shooting. I had left five minutes before Hashan was shot. I heard nothing. He wouldn't have left the house if there was shooting." Instead, he says, Israeli undercover soldiers were dressed in civilian clothes, posing as Palestinians. Hashan noticed nothing unusual.

After Hashan was shot, his father recounted that he and another son had carried Hashan for half a kilometre; ambulances were unable to get nearer as an Israeli fighter plane flew overhead. "Ziyad lost so much blood he nearly died." And yet, Hashan counts himself "lucky" that someone was around to carry him to safety. In the same incident, one neighbour was killed by the shooting and another wounded in the forearm.

Hashan previously worked in ground operations at Gaza's airport until it was shut down by Israel. Since then, he has had trouble putting enough food on the table for his three young children. This will become even more of a concern with his medical expenses, which, once he leaves hospital, will be his burden to bear. Even after surgery, he will need continual check-ups to monitor his situation and healing.

The family's lawyer has contacted an Israeli lawyer who plans to file a complaint against the Israeli army for having shot an unarmed civilian. Hashan, perhaps subdued by his injuries and depression, is less vocal than his father, who illuminates the injustice: "He is just a normal citizen who was going to knock on the door of his parents' house, on his way to pray."

Israel's siege, backed by the US and EU, has more than crippled Gaza and has meant that injured Palestinians like Hashan and Abed, as well as hundreds suffering from cancer and chronic kidney, liver and heart disease, cannot be treated within the confines of Gaza. The Gaza-based Popular Committee Against the Siege lists over 180 Gaza patients who have died over the past year due to unattainable surgery or lack of medicine because of Israeli-imposed closures. Dr. Sobheh points out that, given the circumstances, "the quality of emergency care in Gaza's hospitals is phenomenal." However, he adds, serious surgery and treatment is out of the question. According to Dr. Sobheh, "What we really need to focus on is getting foreign doctors into Gaza. Before the siege, specialists used to visit Gaza's hospitals to share knowledge and techniques with Gaza-based doctors." Since the siege, this has become impossible.

Back in their respective Cairo hospital beds awaiting surgery, Abed and Hashan are just two of the "faceless victims," testimony to the agony of Palestinians in Gaza confronting continued military attacks and a cruel siege that has largely been ignored and minimized by the international community. Abed hopes one day to sit in a wheelchair with his father by his side, and like Hashan, wants to see an end to Israel's siege and the attacks that brought them here.

This article was originally published on The Electronic Intifada

Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities.

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