Nation & World

American among volunteer human shields at Gaza hospital

A Gaza hospital director says foreign activists, including a US citizen, are working as human shields to try to protect patients in the facility from Israeli strikes.

Israeli airstrikes hit El Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital in Gaza City five times Friday, said executive director Basman Alashi. The hospital normally houses 30 patients in varying stages of occupational and physical therapy, Alashi said. During the current operation, he trained the families of 16 patients to help provide care at home. For those too incapacitated to move, he resorted to another tactic: asking foreign activists to act as a human shield.

“After the fifth hit we decided to go on air and declare our case,” Alashi said by telephone. “All hospitals in Gaza are extremely busy and there is no other space for our patients. We decided not to take them out. They need the care 24 hours. We can’t leave the building and leave the patients. They are helpless.”

Alashi said he held a press conference Friday evening at Gaza’s Shifa hospital and asked for help. Eight foreigners agreed to stay in shifts in the hospital, including American Joe Catron, a pro-Palestinian activist from Hopewell, Virginia. Catron, 33, said in a telephone interview he hoped the presence of activists from the US, England, Spain, Sweden and Venezuela could bring enough attention to the hospital to deter the Israeli army from striking it.

“The hospital’s administration asked us to come here and maintain a presence,” Catron said. The Israeli army “may have had designs on it at but at this point I’m optimistic that the amount of attention they’ve got on the hospital has discouraged them from carrying through.”

An Israeli army spokesman said that the military takes great care to protect civilians in Gaza, including firing dud missiles and calling residents to warn of impending bombings.

“Hamas is renowned for its use of civilians to protect terror operation centers; whether it be storing missiles under schools, harboring terrorists in hospitals or sending children to the roof of terror operation sites,” the Israeli military said in a statement to McClatchy.

“Generally speaking, despite every effort made by the IDF to prevent civilian casualties, the reality of Hamas’ indifference to non-combatants has lead to tragic consequences.”

Alashi said he was not warned of impending strikes; however, he did receive a call in Israeli-accented Arabic inquiring about the condition of his hospital after it was hit. The caller identified himself as with the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Alashi said, though he believed it was an Israeli probing for information to guide future military moves.

Israel launched Operation Protective Edge seven days ago to stop Hamas rocket attacks, which include rockets that have hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel has targeted more than 1300 sites in Gaza in the current operation. More than 160 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting.

Militants in Gaza have launched about 940 rockets at Israel since the beginning of the operation, according to the Israeli army. There have been no direct Israeli fatalities, although an elderly woman in Haifa died after suffering a heart attack while rushing to a bomb shelter.

El Wafa hospital is in the eastern part of Gaza City. Director Alashi said it treats only rehabilitation cases, so there are no casualties arriving from the current round of fighting with Israel. Alashi said he did not know why Israel had targeted the hospital. He said there are no weapons or Hamas members in the hospital.

The first strike was Friday at 2 am, Alashi said. It hit the eastern side of the fourth floor. Two more strikes followed to the same wall. The fourth strike came through the roof. The fifth came again through the eastern wall. Alashi said the Israeli strikes destroyed the rooftop water containers of the hospital, but he managed to get another water supply for his patients.

Foreigners acting as human shields in Gaza are not a new phenomenon. In March 2003, Rachel Corrie from Olympia, Washington, died when an Israeli bulldozer drove into her as she stood in front of a Palestinian home in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. The Israeli driver of the bulldozer claimed he did not see Corrie; her parents are still embroiled in a lawsuit in Israel. A month later, British activist Tom Hurndall was shot by Israeli sniper fire in Gaza; he fell into a coma and died in 2004.

Catron said he believes he faces less risk than those activists before him.

“Something was different in the Israeli equation in 2003,” he said. “I think after the deaths of Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, and the international outrage that followed, the Israelis realized that course of action wasn’t very good.”

Alashi said he is trying to help his patients cope with the trauma of war. None have been killed or injured by Israeli fire in the current operation, he said. However, although the hospital still stands, Alashi said his patients are terrified by the bombing of nearby buildings. Some grip his hands and beg him not to leave. There are 32 nurses, organized in 24-hour shifts to reduce the risk of driving back and forth. He said he feels the activists have helped him feel “a little bit safer.” They will stay until the operation is over, he said.

“At least I have someone...who understands we are suffering,” Alashi said. “We are human, we are not target practice for the Israelis.”