Gaza diary: The gathering storm

Greg Manahan continues his recounting of his experiences in Gaza after the assassination of Ahmed Jabari.

Frequent power cuts put the lives of some newborn babies in the neonatal ward at high risk [EPA]

Israel and Hamas may have agreed to a ceasefire that brought eight days of fierce fighting between Gaza and Israel to an end, but the tension the deadly attacks created, the damage and destruction it brought, will keep reminding the world about the wrath incurred on the people of Gaza. The attacks killed more than 160 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, while injuring hundreds of others. Greg Manahan, an Irish peace activist, recounts his time spent in Gaza – from arriving shortly before the assassination of Ahmed Jabari to his departure after Israel’s assault was in full swing.

In part 1 of a three-part series, Manahan arrived in Gaza to do a film about an Irish ship attacked by Israel and went on to explore ordinary life and civil society in the small territory – shortly before Israel launched its Operation “Pillar of Defence”.

In part 2, Manahan goes to hospitals and meets people critically injured by Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip. He sees hospitals lacking sufficient beds and equipment, medicines, medical disposables, and specialist expertise to cope with the situation.

As a documentary filmmaker, I wanted to see the institutions that supported ordinary civil society life in Gaza. I was particularly intrigued to meet the man who had gone so far out of his way to assist my arrival in Gaza, Dr Mofeed Mukhalality, and I spoke with him at the Ministry of Health. 

When we got down to business, we could see that he was a committed healthcare professional. We discussed the issues facing the Gaza Strip’s healthcare system. “The main problems we have as a result of the siege are lack of medicines, medical disposables, equipment and specialist expertise.” 

I then asked about clinical problems that were unique to Gaza. He had an extensive list: “Malnutrition, severe burns from candles which catch fire in small poor dwellings, congenital diseases and cancers that we can’t explain. We have people presenting with myocardial infarction in their 20s.” 

What were the causes? “Poor diet and stress.” 

“May I see some of your hospitals, particularly those involved in critical care?” I asked. 

Emergency room 

We travelled in an ambulance to our first port of call, a place that has sadly featured too much in the world media, al-Shifa hospital. 

The emergency room was eerily familiar. I had seen many videos of the victims of Israel’s attacks being rushed into this room. Its dark-blue painted walls and high windows are very distinctive. 

We saw plenty of staff and equipment in the ICU department. On one bed was a 16-year-old boy, Hamza Assussawi. He was in a coma from extensive wounds to the head and abdomen he had sustained from an Israeli shell, which destroyed his home the previous weekend. This had become real to me: These were real people, critically injured by Israel’s bombing machine. 

Looking at the end of the ICU unit, I saw an empty bed. This immediately piqued my curioisity, since I was told this room did not have enough beds and equipment.

One young doctor explained, “This patient expired from the wounds this morning.” This brought the weekend’s butcher bill to nine. We had to leave as our presence was frustrating families of patients who were trying to see their loved ones. 

The Renal Dialysis Department was the story I had covered in the past. Dr Mohammad Ibrahim Shatta, the director of this department, showed the stress lines of his work. 

“First we don’t have the money for machines and we don’t have machines. The number of patients is growing every year. The medical disposals such as filters and blood lines are also in short supply and it takes too much time to get them across the Israeli border.”

The Norwegian government had generously donated a state of the art MRI scanner in a new wing called the Prince Naif wing at a cost of $2m. It was locked up and unusable now, as the manufacturer refused to send technicians, citing “danger” in the Gaza Strip. 

Hospital wards

It was time to board our ambulance and travel to Gaza’s only psychiatric unit. Dr Mundar Dallula treated these patients and it became clear that he cared, yet was frustrated to the point of tears. Local Islamic leaders down south had told me that there were few psychiatric problems; when people get upset, they look to God. 

But Dr Dallula had a very different view of this subject. There were only 16 beds in his unit for the entire 1.8 million people living in the Gaza Strip. The doctor, clearly moved, explained that mental health was a taboo issue and that he needed international support. 

He brought me into the men’s ward to show me the eight beds which were in two rooms. There was a man in the landing area, lying on the floor. “He has been here 12 years. Because we have such demand, we attempted to send him home, but the schizophrenic attempted to murder his wife.” The patient’s current home is the cement floor of the landing area. 

Al-Nasr hospital is the main paediatric and natal hospital in Gaza. Here, I met another Irish citizen and Royal College of Surgeons Ireland alumnus, Dr Nabil Al Barqouni. The director of the hospital was clearly a competent and confident hospital consultant. Like the other clinicians, Dr Barqouni faced the now all too familiar problems of equipment scarcity, understaffing and shortages on medical disposables. 

A trip to the neonatal ward made it clear that some newborn babies live on a knife’s edge: “If we get power failures, here it takes time for the machines to warm up to their operating temperature; these babies will die.” 

Dr Barquoni spoke at length to explain the congenital diseases that have only started manifesting, he said, in the past few years. He said that he and his colleagues were seeing children with Gulf War syndrome. In his experience, Gaza was the only place outside of Iraq, the United Kingdom and the United States to have young patients with these complications. 

I asked him if he was accusing Israel of using depleted uranium munitions. “I don’t know for sure because I need a study done of the land and the patients, and I have the resources for neither,” he responded. One thing he did make clear was that these patients all came from the border areas with Israel, where the highest concentrations of tank fire by Israeli forces had occured. 

We then met one of these patients. As a journalist, one always has to remain composed in difficult emotional situations, but this was one of the toughest I had encountered. A little smiling face with two enormous brown eyes: Tallay was a year old, but had the body weight of a six-month-old. A $1,000 a day machine was keeping her alive. A tracheotomy tube linked to a ventilator was breathing for her, and she was being nourished through a gastric tube. 

During one power failure earlier this year, the hospital’s generators had run out of diesel. A panicked phone call to the electricity company had gotten the power back on. Tallay had been 30 seconds from death then, but safe for now. 

Back at the harbour 

After touring the hospitals, it was time to make our way back to the centre of my movie – the harbour – with my close protection team. The weather was beautiful, but again there was something wrong. The police were at the gate in some strength.

 Gaza hospitals struggle to cope

“Can we get in?” I inquired. 

“I will talk to them.” After negotiating, we were allowed to enter. 

“We should not spend time here,” one of the government guys exclaimed. 


“Look to the sky.” A mile or so out to sea was an Apache helicopter, hovering. 

“Do you think he will fire?” I asked.  

“Not sure, but he is looking for targets,” was the nervous reply. 

I filmed my B-roll shots and interviewed the fishermen who told their stories of Israeli naval frigates opening fire on them at the three nautical mile limit which, they said, the Israelis impose on Gaza’s coast. They’ve had their fair share of fatalities too. Job done; time to get out of the ominous focus of the US-made and paid-for military equipment around us. 

Bombing campaign 

After an uneventful night, we were greeted by another beautiful Mediterranean morning. It was Wednesday, November 14. Another car and another driver arrived to take us back up to Gaza City where went to the main football stadium to film a piece about culture and sport. This was important for my film, as Trevor Hogan, former Ireland rugby player, was on the MV Saoirse when she was intercepted as was Felim Egan, a famous Irish painter. Both of these wished to forge links with Palestinian sports people and artists. 

The Minister for Sport, Culture and Youth Affairs greeted us at the stadium – a site which Israeli forces completely destroyed on November 17. The Minister invited us to attend a cultural festival with both Palestinian and Egyptian performers. We accepted the invitation and made our way to the studios of Al Aqsa TV, the government-run TV station. This site too was destroyed on November 18. 

We were now done with my wish list for the day, and it meant I could relax for a few hours. The government driver asked if I liked pizza. I thought, “Great!” We drove back down to Khan Yunes to his favourite pizza shop. Khan Yunes has a massive street market every Wednesday that locals told me had been there for hundreds of years with traders converging weekly from all over the Middle East. The streets were heaving with people, small vehicles, forklifts, donkeys and carts, all dismantling the remnants of their day’s commerce. 

Our driver dropped us off at a house off one of the main thoroughfares, to be greeted by a bespectacled boy no more than eight years old playing video games on a hand-held device. After letting us in, we found the house to be without electricity, so thought it best to leave the front door open for some much-needed lighting.

Hunger satisfied, we sat down and chilled out. I was checking emails when all of a sudden BABAAM! The house trembled and I could feel the compression wave hit me through the door, my clothing rippling. Rizq jumped up and we both ran to the door. We could hear the rattle of AK-47s. Police were firing up into the sky. 

Then BABAAM again. Another US manufactured and paid-for Hellfire missile hit a compound about a block away from the house. We could see smoke billowing up from the target site and smell the rancid sweet stench of detonated high explosives.

Time to leave. Rizq called the driver on my mobile phone and within minutes, the driver was at the door.  

The driver just informed us that Ahmed Jabari, the head of the Al Qassam Brigades, the militant wing of Hamas, had been assassinated by Israel’s Shin Bet secret police, who had used a drone. The driver was very concerned that we were in a similar vehicle to the one in which Jabari had been killed. We drove through the still-busy streets of Khan Yunes. It was as if nothing had happened. 

“Khan Yunes has a massive street market every Wednesday that locals told me had been there for hundreds of years with traders converging weekly from all over the Middle East.”

After ten minutes, we drove into a compound into a spot concealed by a large veranda, then proceeded to vacate the building, bidding our driver farewell. Walking onto the street, everyday life continued on as usual. Not long after exiting the compound, one of our Abu Ridah clansmen pulled up in his car, so we hopped in.

As we got to Khuzaa, our path was blocked by a stage built in the middle of the street. Rizq said, “We walk” – even though the driver said that he would take another route. “We walk,” Rizq insisted. As we walked on the sandy streets, curious children and young men came out to see this very pale-looking man with a camera tripod over his shoulder. They waved, smiled and shook my hand as all around, we could feel the thumping of Israeli-fired ordnance. 

Time to go

We arrived back at our lodging and found everyone assembled in the living, all eyes fixated on the television. I could hear the loud bangs of Gaza City’s buildings being torn asunder. I asked if this was a recording of the Jabari attack, but it wasn’t – this was live.  

I could hear four loud explosions from the television within about two minutes. Gaza City was being pummelled. While this was going on I could also hear thumps outside, coming from the direction of Khan Yunes. Then more explosions from north of where we were. It was clear that the Israelis had commenced a major bombing campaign. 

I started receiving messages from my family back in Europe. They were extremely anxious, as they should be. At that point, my mind was made up: It was time to leave. I turned to Rizq, but Abu Aymen, in his prescience, spoke first. “I think you should go,” he said. Who was I to argue with sage advice?

Rizq made some phone calls and found that the Rafah crossing was closed at 4pm. My heart sank. How do I tell those whom I promised I would be leaving that I was stuck here? If this was going to turn out to be another Operation Cast Lead, would I be like Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, who had been trapped in Gaza for two months while thousands died? 

Outside, the frequency and intensity of the explosions grew. Some were getting closer.  

At about eight o’clock, Rizq instructed me to go to our room on the first floor of the house. He opened the windows and left the door open. I remembered that in the north of Ireland during the troubles, the IRA used to tell people in their communities to open their windows if they were bombing in the area (opening a window prevents it from shattering in the case of a nearby explosion).

The internet service in the house was quite good, so we went online to see if we could find out what was happening. I went onto Avital Leibovitz’s Twitter page,  @IDFSpokesperson, to learn that we were in the middle of “Operation Pillars of Defence” – and that 70,000 reservists had been called up for a ground invasion. I asked Rizq what he thought, as he was frantically making phone calls.  

“Propaganda; they will not invade,” he said.  

He seemed very confident. And I was grateful: He had organised a driver and bodyguard for me on the Egyptian side of the border. Time to go.

Greg Manahan is a Dublin-based filmmaker and human rights activist. He covers many stories in the Middle East and Europe. He was in the Gaza Strip to complete a documentary about the Irish ship to Gaza that was intercepted by Israeli Naval Special Forces in 2011. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GregFManahan