x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Doctors at the border

As Israel rejects calls to end its attacks on Gaza, Egypt's Rafah crossing has become the latest flashpoint of anger in the conflict.

RAFAH, EGYPT // By noon, the gate at the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip was swarming with doctors and nurses from all over the world. A daily three-hour ceasefire that Israel had agreed to observe was about to begin and many were hoping, suitcases at the ready, that they would be allowed in to help the thousands of Palestinians wounded in the two-week old assault. Some doctors were arguing, some shouting, while others tried to keep their temper in check as they sought to convince the Egyptian security officials to open the gate. But like previous days, the guards remained impervious to their pleas, allowing only an occasional convoy of medical supplies to cross the border, and accepting only a few of the most severely wounded victims for transfer to local hospitals. As Israel rejects calls to end its attacks on Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, the Rafah crossing has become the latest flashpoint of anger in the conflict that has killed nearly 800 and injured at least 3,000 Palestinians. Arab nationals have urged Egypt to give unfettered access to doctors and humanitarian workers so they can reach stranded civilians caught up in the fighting between Hamas and Israel. Hundreds of doctors, surgeons, paramedics and nurses from countries as diverse as Turkey, Russia, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Yemen and Greece have descended on Rafah and El Arish, a resort town near the border. Yet the government has refused them access on the grounds that their safety cannot be guaranteed. "How can I explain? People are suffering, dying and they won't allow us to help," said Khalil Alniss, a British citizen of Palestinian origin who drove from London to Rafah two weeks ago in a white van laden with supplies. "I've lost my voice fighting with the intelligence services for permission." As he spoke, two Egyptian ambulances ulled up to the gate carrying the bodies of two Palestinians who died despite treatment in an Egyptian hospital. Their remains were transferred to a Palestinian ambulance and returned to Gaza for burial. Inside one ambulance was Arif Barak, accompanying his son Anis, 8, whose body was wrapped in a small, white shroud. "He died last night," said Mr Barak. "He was shot, hit directly in the head." Mr Alniss gave the man several blankets and asked him to distribute them inside Gaza as the ambulance pulled away. With both Israel and Hamas rejecting a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, the humanitarian disaster is expected to escalate. The United Nations suspended its aid operations after one of its workers was killed and two others injured by Israeli tank fire at the Erez crossing with Israel on Thursday. Dr Abdel Menim Abul Fotouh, head of the Arab Doctors Union and a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was trying to negotiate access for 40 doctors and had sent several urgent letters appealing to the government. "A three-hour ceasefire is quite sufficient to allow doctors to enter," he said, wearing a white medical overcoat. "There is a golden hour, during the first hour of injury nine out of 10 victims will die if they are not treated." The few Palestinian ambulance and lorry drivers who managed to reach Rafah said thousands of wounded civilians were being prevented from receiving medical treatment because of road blocks set up by the Israeli army. "The ceasefire is nonsense," said Mohammed Hamid, from the Martyrs of Al Aqsa hospital who dropped off a man hit by gunfire. "The Israelis have blocked the road with tanks. This is a massacre of the Palestinian people, regardless of ideology. The road all the way down from the sea is blocked." "What do you need?" asked a volunteer standing on a lorry carrying medical goods. "I need bandages, medicines, quickly," said Mr Hamid, as several people pushed boxes of blood bags into his empty ambulance. "But don't pack too much or I won't get through the security checkpoints." A dozen lorries carrying hundreds of tonnes of supplies including antibiotics, X-ray machines, powdered milk and generators, donated by Islamic countries were stationed in the car park of the customs area. The goods were checked by security and loaded onto Palestinian vehicles. A fleet of Egyptian ambulances also waited to receive casualties and take them to hospitals in El Arish, 60km away, or Cairo, but as the ceasefire wore on only about six victims arrived. Many doctors watched from a distance, looking frustrated. "The ceasefire should ensure our safe crossing because it would take an hour to reach a safe place and from there we'll be inside in a hospital," said Dr Ali al Ekri, a Bahraini orthopaedic surgeon. "Once I am inside I don't need to leave the hospital, I can sleep there so I am not worried about safety. We've spoken to our colleagues inside Gaza and they have medical supplies but they are short on manpower. They need plastic surgeons, vascular surgeons. "Apart from politics we feel it is our compelling responsibility to be with them at this moment. We're not coming with weapons, just our skills and devotion." Two Norwegian doctors have been working in Gaza's hospitals for at least a week after an agreement between Egypt and Norway. This has angered some of the Arab doctors. "These are my people, this is my land, we speak the same language, why aren't they letting me in?" asked Dr Mohammed Abou-Arab, a Palestinian-Danish citizen who specialises in emergency medicine. The only person who managed to cross the border successfully into Gaza was a Palestinian woman carrying her infant daughter. "I'm going back to my husband," she said, boarding the empty blue bus, which had a sign that read Gaza Bus Co and was being used to take medical goods into war-torn villages and cities. She said she was not afraid of being killed. "My husband is waiting for me. My land, my house, my family are all there." Within seconds of the ceasefire ending, and as the bus pulled away, the shelling began. Ahmad Ramadan, an Egyptian pharmacist looked up at the sky in disbelief. "We will raise our children only to get rid of the Israelis," he said, yelling at the sky and punching the air with his fists. "You will regret this." As dusk fell, some doctors reluctantly picked up their suitcases to return to the hotel. Another ambulance carrying a dead body arrived from El Arish. The victim's injuries were so bad he could not be saved. Dr Abou Arab looked on as the gates opened briefly. "I'll be back tomorrow," he said. "I will set up a permanent residence here if I have to." hghafour@thenational.ae