Adham Abu Taima was hunkered down in his home when an Israeli shell slammed into his cousin’s kitchen about 30 yards away, igniting a gas tank and bringing the house down on top of eight people.
He and his neighbours in the central Gaza village of Khuza made frantic calls for help to the Red Cross, hospitals, a radio station and anyone else they could think of. But the response was always the same: Ambulances couldn’t get into the area because of the fighting.
So friends and relatives clawed the family out of the rubble with their hands, dragged them over a wall and pushed them through a neighbor’s broken window, all while Israeli warplanes roared overhead and the earth shuddered from exploding shells.
Ferocious fighting in the border areas of the Gaza Strip has trapped residents in their homes for days as rescue workers struggle to reach them. Time and again, the International Committee of the Red Cross has negotiated with Israel and Hamas to give them windows of time to evacuate the injured and trapped civilians, only to find that troops on the battlefront didn’t get the message or chose to ignore it.
The plight of these trapped civilians lends urgency to international efforts to negotiate a cease-fire.
“That is the challenge ... when you want to enter into an area where there is active fighting going on,” said Larry Maybee, a Red Cross delegate.
Ambulances and paramedics have come under fire in the conflict, which began July 8. Palestinian news reports said one paramedic was killed Friday when an Israeli strike hit an ambulance in the northern town of Beit Hanoun. Another paramedic was killed Sunday during heavy shelling in the east Gaza City neighbourhood of Shajaiya.
On Wednesday, Maybee led a convoy of ambulances and rescue workers into Shajaiya, where Israeli ground forces had been battling Hamas militants for days.
People with relatives trapped in their homes or beneath the rubble cheered as the vehicles rolled in. The team managed to locate four injured people and a family of about 12 who were trapped, Maybee said. But when the gunfire got too close, they were forced to beat a hasty retreat, leaving bodies behind.
Desperate relatives threw rocks at the retreating vehicles and beat them with the soles of their shoes.
“Having our family members buried under the rubble for three or four days is not right,” yelled one man. “It’s their responsibility to go get them.”
Gaza authorities said they continued to receive phone calls from people trapped in Shajaiya, Beit Hanoun and communities east of the central city of Khan Yunis.
More than 860 Palestinians have been killed and 5730 injured in the conflict, Gaza health officials said. More than half of them have been civilians, according to United Nations estimates.
Israel says it makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties, dropping leaflets and sending recorded messages to residents’ phones advising them to evacuate before ground operations began in these areas. It accuses Hamas and its allies of using densely populated neighbourhood to launch attacks against Israel.
Rockets and mortar rounds launched from Gaza have rained down on Israel by the hundreds over the last 18 days, killing three civilians, disrupting flights to Tel Aviv and sending people running for bomb shelters. Israel has lost 35 soldiers in the fighting.
With many Khuza residents unable to reach hospitals this week, Dr. Kamal Abu Rujila said he treated severely injured patients at a clinic he ran from his house. When he started running out of supplies, he said, he had to disinfect wounds with perfume, stitch them up with sewing needles and bandage them with ripped-up towels and clothing.
After repeated calls to the Red Cross, the men of the neighbourhood decided they would take off their shirts to show they were unarmed and leave with their wives and children. As they approached the entrance to Khuza, Israeli forces opened fire, Abu Rujila said, causing many more injuries.
“I can assure you that none of them were fighters,” he said. “So why would they be targeted?”
That night, scores of people camped out in his basement and backyard. In the morning, he said, a shell landed outside, killing his brother and causing more injuries. The residents decided to make another attempt to flee. Abu Rujila went with them.
Once again, the men removed their shirts and headed into the street with their hands in the air. “We carried white flags, and we carried our children in our arms,” the doctor said.
This time, he said, they were allowed to pass without incident. But he worries about the people left behind. “I want to tell all parties involved to end this ridiculous joke,” he said. “Give people what they need: a life.”
Abu Taima said ambulances were finally able to come for his injured relatives, but it took two more days for them to return for other civilians.
On Thursday morning, he heard loudspeakers telling residents that the ambulances were in the area and it was safe to leave. He and his family scooped up their children and raced outside without bothering to pack.
“We weren’t walking, we were running,” he said.
It took them about an hour and a half to reach Khan Yunis, where they found shelter at a United Nations-run school. Later that day, he took his 1-year-old boy, Aimad, to the Nasser Medical Complex to get treated for a shrapnel wound to his hand.
Hospital staffers said they had received more than 80 bodies and treated hundreds of victims of the clashes since Tuesday.
“The greatest problem we have is getting access to the injured people,” said Dr. Jamal Homs, who heads the medical complex.
The flood of patients has overwhelmed the hospital’s emergency room, where doctors and nurses have been working round the clock to stabilise patients and transfer them to other facilities. Without enough beds to accommodate them all, some are being treated on mattresses on the floor.
The hospital is running short of medical supplies and has appealed for donations, Homs said.
Then, there is the worry that the hospital itself might be hit. At least four hospitals, 12 clinics, 10 ambulances and a specialised center for the disabled have been damaged in the conflict, the World Health Organization said this week.
There were crowds of people waiting to be treated and searching for relatives when Abu Taima arrived. As he waited in the hallway, a child’s body was wheeled out of the emergency room and toward the morgue.
“That’s my neighbour's’s boy,” Abu Taima said softly.