Palestinian medics struggle to provide healthcare amid attacks

Occupied Territories experience second-highest number of attacks on health workers after Syria.

Shorouq Abu Musameh, who volunteers with other paramedics, tends to a Palestinian who inhaled tear gas fired by Israeli troops during a protest, at the Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip
A volunteer paramedic tends to a Palestinian who inhaled tear gas fired by Israeli troops during protests in Gaza [Samar Abo Elouf/Reuters]

As paramedic Mazen Jabreel Hasna set out towards the field east of Gaza City with his medical team for the Friday demonstration, he had a sinking feeling it would be another bloody day for the unarmed Palestinian demonstrators.

Hasna and his team were in a heightened state of alert, taking into consideration the high number of casualties during demonstrations in the weeks prior.

As he got ready on April 27, he tried to stay positive by reciting verses of mercy from the Quran for extra protection.

His gut feeling, however, turned out be an accurate predictor of the day’s events – only this time it was Hasna among the gravely wounded.

In the moments before he was shot, Hasna noticed a woman 30 metres away, struggling to break free from the barbed wire she was stuck on. The woman was hysterical, trying to reach her wounded son but unable to move, also having been tear-gassed.

As Hasna was rushing towards the woman, he suddenly fell to the ground – he had been shot with a pulverising “butterfly” bullet that exploded through his right leg and settled into his left.

Years of experience working as a paramedic in hostile environments couldn’t prevent the incident.

Wearing a neon green vest and a surgical mask and with no smoke to obscure the view for Israeli snipers, he said Israeli forces deliberately targeted him as a paramedic.

“It’s like art for them. The Israeli sniper knows very well what kind of injury you’re going to have before he shoots you. So if he wants you to live, he can [let you live]. If he wants to amputate you, he will,” Hasna told Al Jazeera from his home, sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by his seven children.

“Where are these human rights they keep talking about day and night? My presence at the border was for a humane reason – to save lives. But [the Israeli forces] punished me with a butterfly bullet… They’re executors of humanity,” Hasna said.

Targeting medics

While Israel has drawn criticism over its “excessive” and “disproportionate” use of force that has killed at least 114 unarmed Palestinian protesters and wounded more than 13,000 since March 30, many have also drawn attention to the Israeli army’s targeting of medical personnel.

During mass demonstrations on May 14, 17 medical personnel were injured by Israeli live ammunition, and one paramedic was killed, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health.

Seven ambulances were damaged that day, having been hit by tear gas canisters.

Since the start of the Great March of Return movement on March 30, 238 health personnel and 38 ambulances have been affected, according to the World Health Organization.

According to a new report by Safeguarding Health in Conflict, a coalition of NGOs, among the countries experiencing the highest number of attacks on healthcare, the occupied Palestinian Territories is second only to Syria.

Ninety-three attacks were recorded in 2017, mostly attributed to Israeli security forces.

These included “violence against Palestinian health workers, interferences with the delivery of healthcare, obstruction of medical transport, and denial of impartial care to wounded civilians”.

Tarek Loubani, a Canadian emergency physician with a specialisation in trauma and years of experience working in hostile environments, shares a similar story to Hasna.

On May 14, Loubani and three of his colleagues were wounded by live fire and one paramedic from his team, Musa Abuhassanin, was killed.

Loubani explained in an interview with Democracy Now that they had all been highly visible, wearing orange jackets. The shooting occurred during a “lull” in the protests, and, at the time, no tyres were being burned to obscure the view with smoke.

Loubani was with his team, resupplying 3D medical devices they had made when he heard a loud bang and found himself on the ground, bleeding heavily from the legs. He’d been shot. 

“We could see the sniper posts, for sure they could see us… It’s very hard to believe that [the Israeli soldiers who shot us] didn’t know who we were, that they didn’t know what we were doing and that they were aiming at anything else,” Loubani said.

While the Israeli army did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, a spokesperson had explained previously that their targeting was “accurate” and “measured”.

On the first day of demonstrations on March 30, Israeli forces killed 17 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and wounded more than 1,400.

The following day, a spokesperson reassured the public on Twitter the military had everything under control.

“Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.” 

No accountability

Attacks on medical personnel, however, are not limited just to the Gaza Strip.

According to the latest report, on several occasions last year, Israeli security forces entered health facilities in the occupied West Bank – including in Ramallah, Hebron and East Jerusalem – and disrupted services.

The most notable incident occurred last July when about 200 heavily armed Israeli personnel stormed Al Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem after firing stun grenades and tear gas into the yard outside. 

They were pursuing Mohammad Abu Ghannam, a young man who was in critical condition, having been wounded in the chest.

According to Amnesty International, Israeli forces entered the operating room and “shoved and hit” the doctor who was trying to provide him with urgent care.

Abu Ghannam died from his wounds during the incident.

A nurse working during the raid said, “I have never been so scared in my life. All I remember were loud sounds and pushing and screaming. It was total chaos … There was blood all over the place on the floor, on the walls.”

In August, the NGO Physicians for Human Rights-Israel called the Israeli health ministry to investigate the case. Nearly a year later, there has been no response.

“There is no indication that the Israeli authorities will hold anyone accountable for the violation of a protected hospital, for the impeding of potentially life-saving medical care, or for the unjustified violence used against staff and patients,” the report noted.

In May 2016, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2286, cosponsored by 80 states, condemning the “prevailing impunity for violations and abuses” committed against humanitarian and medical personnel.

It urged the states to conduct independent investigations, however, none has yet to come to fruition.

Anas Jnena contributed to this report from the Gaza Strip.

Source: Al Jazeera