After seven days of relentless Israeli bombardment, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is rapidly deteriorating.
Hospitals in the northern part of the besieged enclave have received evacuation orders ahead of a looming ground offensive, while medical facilities throughout the densely populated territory are overwhelmed by wounded patients and sheltering residents.
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Conditions are particularly dire at Shifa Hospital, the largest medical complex in Gaza City, where Palestinian doctors warn of an impending infectious disease outbreak due to overcrowding.
“There are thousands – if not tens of thousands – of people who have flocked to the hospital,” surgeon Ghassan Abu Sitta told Al Jazeera on Saturday.
“They are sleeping on the ground, in the corridors, between patients’ beds. People are absolutely terrified. They think this is the safest place and everything around them confirms that,” he said.
“Unless there is respite there is going to be a public health catastrophe at the hospital.”
As Israeli bombs rain down on Gaza in retaliation to an unprecedented attack by Hamas last week inside Israel, bodies are piling up and people are afraid to bury the dead. The situation is so bad that ice-cream trucks are now being used to store bodies as hospital morgues are full due to the rising death toll – more than 2,200 people as of Saturday, according to health officials.
Abu Sitta said he left Al-Awda Hospital, in the northern Gaza Strip, on Friday after Israeli forces gave the facility two hours to evacuate.
“We made sure the patients were in ambulances and I came back to Al-Shifa Hospital,” he said. “We drove past the Indonesian Hospital and you could see the bodies are piled up outside the morgue. They’ve run out of space. Driving past the destroyed building, the stench was very strong.”
Medics at Shifa were no longer able to operate beyond life-saving surgeries, he said. “The supplies have been exhausted but the staff have also been exhausted. A lot of them have been killed, had family members killed, or are trying to secure their families.”
Abu Sitta said his colleague Medhat Saidam, whom he described as a “lovely man” with whom he had worked since the 2008-2009 war, was killed after escorting his sister to her house. “He decided to stay with them overnight and at 1am he was killed with all of his family,” Abu Sitta said.
According to the surgeon, Israeli forces were “threatening to close” more hospitals, including the Al-Durrah paediatric hospital in eastern Gaza and Al-Quds hospital in Gaza City.
Mahmoud Shalabi, programme manager in Gaza for the United Kingdom-based charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, said people were also running out of water and bread. “All the bakeries are now closed,” he said.
Even if bread was to be found, banks have also been damaged and finding cash is becoming increasingly difficult. “I went to the ATM to withdraw money, but the bank was destroyed due to the bombing,” Shalabi said. “The only ATM machine working is in the middle of Rimal area, which is far away from where I live.”
He described Friday night as “horrific”.
“Artillery shelling was everywhere; air raids, gunpowder was everywhere in the air and we were breathing it heavily,” Shalabi said.
In the hospital, people with wounds, burns and injuries do not have painkillers to soothe their suffering. “Nurses just stop the bleeding and say: ‘Wait for your turn’,” Shalabi reported.
Aid delivery ‘must happen’
Home to more than 2.3 million people, Gaza has been under a crippling land, sea and air blockade since 2007. Earlier this week, Israel announced it was imposing a “total siege” on the enclave in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack that killed more than 1,300 people, according to Israeli officials.
The Israeli army has since unleashed its heaviest-ever bombing campaign on the Hamas-run coastal enclave, dropping some 6,000 bombs in six days, and cutting off access to food, fuel, medicine and other supplies.
As time is running out, the World Health Organization stressed that the delivery of aid to Gaza “must happen”.
“Hospitals are overwhelmed, people cannot get treatment, kids with burns have no pain relief – it’s absolutely critical,” spokesperson Margaret Harris told Al Jazeera.
Following a meeting with the United Nations health agency’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Egypt agreed to open the border for humanitarian deliveries.
The agency is ready to bring international aid into the Gaza Strip, preventing many avoidable deaths, but has been so far been unable to do so as Israel has not given permission.
“This is very frustrating,” Harris said. “The will to open that border is the thing that’s missing.”
Meanwhile, the health ministry in Gaza has denounced what it called “direct and systematic attacks on ambulances”.
Shalabi also said systematic attacks against these vehicles were taking place, in breach of international law.
“This morning I saw people taking dead bodies in their own cars because ambulances are being targeted, so it’s really unsafe,” he said.
“To die during this time is better than to be injured, because your treatment is going to be delayed hugely,” he added.
“Dying is more merciful.”