Medical workers and health organisations have decried the killing of two senior doctors – a neurologist and the head of internal medicine at Gaza’s largest hospital – in Israeli attacks on the besieged Palestinian enclave.
The deaths further exacerbate a medical staff and expertise shortage in the Gaza Strip, the result of a 14-year-long blockade that prevents freedom of movement, causes dire supply and equipment shortages and hinders medical advancement.
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Dr Ayman Abu al-Ouf, head of internal medicine at Al-Shifa hospital, was killed along with members of his family in an early morning missile attack in the al-Wehda district of Gaza on Sunday.
The bombing killed at least 33 civilians and left rescuers sifting through the rubble of apartment buildings to find survivors.
“It is a shock for me and for the entire medical community,” Dr Osaid Alser, a former student of al-Ouf’s who also interned with him at Al-Shifa, told Al Jazeera. “He is one of the most senior internal medicine doctors in Gaza… That means a huge loss to the medical community.”
Dr Mooein Ahmad al-Aloul, a 66-year-old psychiatric neurologist, was also killed in his home during the al-Wehda attacks early Sunday, his brother Mazen al-Aloul told Al Jazeera.
He added that his brother, who studied in Egypt and France and worked in Saudi Arabia before returning to Gaza, had been working at a specialised clinic before his death.
Dr al-Aloul’s 25-year-old daughter, Aya, spoke to Al Jazeera over the phone from the hospital, saying she and her mother were recovering from shrapnel wounds there.
“Without warning,” she said, “they bombed our house.”
‘Huge loss in Gaza’
With nearly 200 Palestinians in Gaza killed since the Israeli bombardment began, including 58 children, as well hundreds wounded, Gaza’s medical system, which was already on the verge of collapse before the coronavirus pandemic, is reeling.
At least 10 Israelis have been killed by rockets launched from Gaza.
Medical personnel remain in short supply, particularly in Gaza where those present are overwhelmed, rights groups say, with many relying on international aid groups for medical care.
In particular, there are shortages in “family practice [particularly with an orientation to children], neurology, oncology, paediatric surgery and psychiatry”, according to a 2017 paper published in the BMJ Paediatrics Open medical journal.
Dr Zaher Sahloul, president of MedGlobal, a global health NGO, said “While there are some of the smartest healthcare workers and physicians in the world [in Gaza], there is a shortage of them.”
“Especially neurologists … people in this speciality are facing difficulties in Gaza because of lack of certain equipments that are required like MRI eyes and CT scans,” he told Al Jazeera. “And some of the hospitals lack adequate training because they’re not able to travel outside of Gaza.
“A loss of a neurologist is a huge loss in Gaza,” he added.
Jack Byrne, Palestine country director for the Anera organisation, which supports medical infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territories, said those killed in recent raids are “people whose expertise is badly needed in Gaza, where the blockade drives a brain-drain and prevents doctors from attending international conferences to learn about the latest advances in their field”.
Urgent: Dr Marwan AbuSada (Chief of Surgery At Shifa Hospital, largest in #Gaza), we are in urgent need for surgeons (trauma, orthopedics, vascular, neurosurgeons, and plastics) and intensivists to help with the current crisis they are dealing with. #GazaUnderAttack @Sci4Pal
— #SaveSheikhJarrah (@OsaidalserMD) May 16, 2021
He also condemned Israeli attacks that have limited access to what healthcare there is, including the bombing of a main road leading to Al-Shifa hospital on Sunday and nearby buildings.
The air raids are “hindering access to the leading hospital in Gaza”, Byrne told Al Jazeera, “which provides almost 70 percent of the public medical services in Gaza and almost 90 percent of emergency medical services”.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on Sunday a clinic that provided trauma and burn treatment had been hit by an Israeli missile in Gaza City.
The World Health Organization (WHO) chief said on Monday COVID testing and vaccination have been badly affected and called for health workers and facilities to be protected.
“In the recent escalation of conflict, dozens of incidents involving health workers and health facilities have occurred,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.
“Furthermore, COVID-19 testing and vaccination have been severely impacted,” he said, cautioning that “this creates health risks for the world as a whole.”
‘What he cared about is patient care’
Dr Alser said he has been part of the Gaza brain drain, leaving his home to pursue specialised training unavailable in the enclave.
He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, in the United States, watching the attacks from afar.
He remembered Dr al-Ouf as “the most apolitical person I’ve ever seen, which is something rare in Palestine and especially Gaza”.
He added that Dr al-Ouf had dedicated his life to working at the hospital, where salaries are paltry and at times non-existent, as opposed to a more lucrative private clinic.
Palestinian doctors perform funeral prayers for their colleague Dr Ayman abualouf the head of internal medicine at al Shifa hospital in Gaza. He was killed last night at his home in an Israeli air strike along with his 19 year old daughter. #غزة_الآن #GazaUnderAttackk1 pic.twitter.com/87XBCl9sxZ
— Ali Younes (@Ali_reports) May 16, 2021
“What he cared about is patient care,” Dr Alser said. “He used to come very early in the morning and he used to spend a lot of time taking care of patients – helping them and communicating with them and explaining their conditions.
“He was very dedicated to his patients and even to us as medical students in Palestine,” he said.
Israel has said the air attacks have targeted the personnel and infrastructure of Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza, and accused the groups of using densely populated areas as human shields.
But the death of the doctors is yet another example of just how indiscriminate the killing has been, said Dr Alser, who added he was expressing his personal opinions, not those of his employer.
“I don’t think there is any justification to target residential buildings in the middle of the night, killing everybody. It’s just a war crime.”