MIDDLE EAST CRISIS
People are dying here – the faces and stories behind the escalating death toll of the Israel-Gaza war
As international calls for a ceasefire grow, nowhere is safe for the people of Gaza. In homes, hospitals, shelters and the streets, civilians are being killed and families ripped apart.
Behind the rapidly escalating death tolls of civilians, media workers and healthcare personnel in the Israel-Gaza conflict lie thousands of human stories. As the politics of war unfolds, these individual lives should not be forgotten.
Calling for a ceasefire, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said “no one is safe” in Gaza.
The killing of Ahmed Abbasi, the head of the Gift of the Givers office in Gaza, is the latest brutal indicator of just how true this statement is.
Abbasi was killed alongside his brother in an Israeli bomb strike when the two left a local mosque after morning prayers.
They were among 30 people injured or killed in the attack, according to Dr Malik Abou-Rageila, the Gift of the Givers’ Middle East head.
Gift of the Givers is well known for providing support to communities in crisis, and Abbasi had spent his time with the organisation’s Gazan branch helping those in need.
“Ahmed was so dedicated to the work and his heart was always with the beneficiaries that he helped…
“Many times, he was thanking us for the opportunity to get involved in this work, saying that it made him more humble and helped him identify the real meaning of life. Besides that, he was so active and so humble when he dealt with his team,” said Abou-Rageila.
Abbasi, a father of three, had “served the people of Gaza with distinction” since being appointed in 2013, said Gift of the Givers. He was responsible for implementing multiple projects, including those aimed at caring for orphans, widows, the elderly and the ill, and was involved in delivering water from the organisation’s desalination plants, and distributing food parcels and hot meals.
“A few days ago, he mentioned that it’s better to sit with his family of 34 in their own apartment and wait for their turn to die in dignity, as unarmed martyrs, rather than run from place to place as directed by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces],” the non-profit organisation said.
Abou-Rageila said Abbasi’s family was not able to attend the burial of Abbasi and his brother. The hospital to which their bodies were taken had no way of knowing when families of the victims would be able to come to the hospital because of communication cuts and the dangers that came with moving between areas.
“In the hospital, they decided that they should bury them quickly because there’s no power there in the hospitals [and] they don’t have mortuary fridges [in which] to keep the bodies,” he said.
Israel imposed a blockade preventing food, water, fuel and electricity from entering the Gaza Strip after a coordinated attack by Islamist group Hamas breached Israeli defences on 7 October. It has been widely reported that more than 1,200 Israelis were killed in that attack and about 240 others were taken as hostages.
Israel has hit Gaza with a barrage of retaliatory air strikes over the past 42 days. As of 15 November, the Palestine Ministry of Health put the resultant death toll at 11,470, including 4,707 children and 3,155 women. The number of injured is estimated to have exceeded 29,000.
Families in crisis
Ayah Jaber, a Gift of the Givers representative working in South Africa, was born in Gaza and has family members in the region. Her mother and sister have been displaced more than 10 times since the war began.
“My sister’s house was bombed on the second day of the war … She lives right on the border [between Gaza and Israel] … They left the first day and then the next day they got the news of their house being bombed – nobody phoned and warned them to leave.
“You can only imagine that if they were at the house, everyone would have been killed,” she said.
Jaber lost 50 members of her family when an airstrike hit her uncle’s home. Many of those who died are still under the rubble. Those bodies that have been recovered are burnt beyond recognition.
“There was only one survivor in that whole house … and that survivor is a child that’s seven years old and she’s completely burnt. How is she going to survive after the war? How is she going to live?” asked Jaber.
“There’s never been a war like this … When we think about it … we wonder, do they even have hearts? Are they aware that there’s people here? Are they aware that there’s lives, there’s dreams? There’s hope, there’s everything that’s wiped [away].”
According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), almost 1.6 million people have been displaced across the Gaza Strip since 7 October. Nearly 813,000 internally displaced people are sheltering in 154 UNRWA installations, including in the north.
Many Palestinians have been displaced to the south of Gaza since the IDF ordered the evacuation of 1.1 million people from northern Gaza in October.
“My sister moved to the south … My family doesn’t have any relatives in the south, so … they’re going to be homeless, they’re going to be on the street. [They are] trying to be in each other’s homes from one area to the next as much as they can for as long as they can before they have to rely on the street or a school or a hospital or a tent … I’m praying for them not to reach that point. A lot of people have already reached that point and … it’s really rough for them,” said Jaber.
Despite the shortage of supplies in Gaza, Gift of the Givers has continued to provide support to local people where it can. Supermarkets and warehouses have run out of stock, but Gift of the Givers members have been working with some local farmers to provide vegetable parcels to those in need, according to Jaber. They are also providing hot meals, hygiene packs and wood for cooking where possible.
Health and aid workers lost
Staff at a number of aid organisations have been displaced or killed. The UNRWA has lost 103 members in Gaza since the onset of the war, the highest number of UN aid workers killed in a conflict since the organisation’s inception. Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières/MSF) reported the death of one of its lab technicians, Mohammed Al Ahel, on 6 November.
Andrew Mews, the executive director of MSF Southern Africa, told Daily Maverick: “Many of our staff are displaced … Northern Gaza Strip hospitals are now very much on the front line of the conflict … It’s [got] to the point where, speaking to a doctor [on 14 November], the conflict was so close to the [al-Shifa Hospital] that they wanted to evacuate the patients, but it was not safe to evacuate the patients because the fighting was raging at the front door of the hospital.
“Therefore, our staff chose to stay with the patients. They are staying in the hospital and are not even able to go home at the end of the day … It’s incredibly difficult conditions in which to deliver healthcare.”
The IDF raided al-Shifa Hospital between 15 and 16 November, claiming that Hamas was using the facility as a command centre, according to an Al Jazeera report.
The Palestine Ministry of Health has reported that 26 of the 35 hospitals in the Gaza Strip are not functioning and nine are partially functioning. More than 200 health personnel have been killed.
The shortage of fuel and medical supplies in Gaza has reportedly brought the health system to the point of collapse. Various aid agencies, including Unicef, MSF and the World Health Organization, have warned of secondary health concerns such as starvation, dehydration and the spread of diseases.
MSF has sent a 15-member international medical team into southern Gaza via the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to make a rapid assessment of the state of hospitals in the area and provide support. However, Mews said that the movement of aid supplies into the region remains very limited.
“On average, I think … there’s 100 trucks a day crossing [the border], but … with the general siege of the strip, the ability to increase aid to the level that it needs to be is not there at all… We know with a million people displaced from the north to the south, it’s a drop in the ocean of what’s really required,” he said.
Journalists on the front line
Akram Al Satarri, a freelance journalist in Khan Younis, Gaza, told Daily Maverick “there’s no way to stay safe in Gaza”. He has been a journalist for about 17 years and says the level of destruction in the current conflict outstrips anything he has seen before.
“You could be just a passerby; you could be a visitor; you could be someone who’s displaced and sitting with other people, and you might end up being killed … No one is secure – the ongoing bombardment, the ongoing conflict has been affecting every single person in the area,” he said.
Since the onset of the war, there have been frequent communication blackouts in Gaza because of cuts in electricity, telecommunications and internet services. This has affected the ability of many local journalists to report on what’s happening on the ground.
Satarri and his colleagues work without the assurance of safety at home or in the field. He spoke about his relative, Palestine TV correspondent Mohammed Abu Hatab, who was killed alongside 11 members of his family in an Israeli airstrike on 2 November.
“[Hatab] was working and then he left his work to go home to rest a bit. His home is three minutes’ … walk away from the hospital and he ended up killed. His son, his wife and … his daughter were killed … We are all working under these very critical conditions, while we are fully aware that we might get killed anytime soon,” said Satarri.
The international non-profit organisation, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), has listed 42 media workers confirmed to have died since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war. Among them are 37 Palestinians, one Lebanese and four Israelis.
This number rivals the 42 recorded media worker deaths worldwide in 2022. The CPJ said there were more journalists killed in the first month of the Israel-Gaza war than in any other similar period of conflict since it started recording such deaths in 1992.
“We see the destruction that is taking place and we believe it’s our duty to communicate to the world the exact things that are happening in Gaza … and we understand that this is a sacrifice that we should be ready to give … for the sake of supporting Palestine,” Satarri said.
“When you see and know the reaction of the people worldwide and how they are responding to this ongoing carnage in Gaza and … how they’re calling for an immediate ceasefire, you feel like … the way you are doing things is … bringing about some change. When there are no comms at all, you also feel that you should live another day or another hour or another minute to be able to deliver a message that can be viewed … by the people of the world.”
Daily Maverick asked the IDF about the high rate of civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip. It said it followed international law and took feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm. DM
Norwegian doctor highlights plight of Gaza during solidarity tour in SA
Imagine if doctors at Bara or Groote Schuur Hospital were told to evacuate their ailing patients, babies in incubators and thousands of people who had taken refuge on the grounds of the hospital complexes on a night when army battalions were at battle?
Unimaginable, here. But an apt comparison to help understand what happened on the night of Wednesday, 15 November, in Gaza as the al-Shifa Hospital complex, the Gaza strip’s most extensive, fell to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
The IDF alleges that Hamas used tunnels beneath the strip’s most prominent medical complex to hold Israeli hostages.
As the raid happened and was live-streamed to the world, Dr Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian emergency doctor, told a packed hall in Johannesburg what life is like at al-Shifa, which means healing.
Gilbert is in South Africa with the humanitarian journalism organisation Salaamedia on a solidarity tour with Palestine. He said South Africa’s struggle against apartheid was an animating one in Palestine and that quotes by Nelson Mandela that South Africa cannot be free until Palestine is free were common graffiti. “What you managed here is a huge inspiration,” he said.
Back in Gaza, the hospital had become a de facto refugee camp after the IDF issued notices for people to move from northern Gaza as they cleared it on 9 October, two days after Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis in various theatres of mass murder.
People fled as the tanks descended, and an estimated 50,000 packed into the 45,000m² al-Shifa complex. When the order came for doctors to take their patients and leave this week, they refused. “Thirty-eight neonates [babies born prematurely] had to be taken out of their incubators because of damaged oxygen systems. This is a man-made, not a natural disaster,” said Gilbert, who constantly communicates with his colleagues.
The attacks have made al-Shifa a point of global attention this week. South Africa will make a formal complaint to the International Criminal Court, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on a visit to Qatar, which is trying to negotiate a ceasefire.
Gilbert has worked in Gaza for more than 40 years and commutes there two or three times a year. Until he flew to South Africa for the solidarity tour this week, he had been on the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza, trying to get back.
“I wish I was in Gaza; I wish I wasn’t here,” he said. “It’s tough to get people in and get equipment in because Israel has Gaza in a complete siege. This happens not in 1423, not in 1123, but in 2023,” he said, echoing the world’s disbelief at the violent war that has ripped the hearts of Israel and Palestine.
He worked with doctors in Gaza and showed on-site photographs of his colleagues, Dr Sara Al Saqqa, Dr Marian Abusada and Dr Sobhi Skaik at al-Shifa. “They are exhausted from weeks of extreme workloads. I don’t want to paint a picture of a begging, pitiful Palestine,” said Gilbert, who said the characteristic of Palestine that best described its people was “steadfastness”. He said the doctors in Gaza were “masters of improvisation”, showing photographs of teams treating people on the floor.
Doctors and health workers worked without electricity or supplies. He said they had only 40% of essential drug lists, but denied they were doing operations without anaesthetics, as some reports said this week.
He played videos from inside al-Shifa taken by Dr Yousef Abu al-Rish, the minister of health in Gaza, a paediatrician. These showed thousands of people crowded into every available floor space to live. Winter is setting in and, this week, it rained. “There is no more time, Dr Mads,” Gilbert said the minister had told him a few nights before.
On Wednesday night, after taking over the hospital, IDF soldiers made videos alleging that al-Shifa was a Hamas compound. They showed uniforms and armaments. Earlier in the week, they made other videos alleging that some of the estimated 240 Israeli hostages may have been held there. The videos had not been independently verified, said global broadcasters that showed them.
“I have been working in Shifa for 16 years and I have never seen a soldier. They [the Israelis] bomb Shifa every time there is an attack,” alleged Gilbert.
The regular attacks on al-Shifa are well documented. The Norwegian doctor has written a book on Gaza, and is a frequent commentator and noted medical specialist. The UN has said that 198 healthcare personnel, 31 doctors, 68 nurses, 20 paramedics and 26 pharmacists had been killed, and 152 healthcare structures attacked, according to figures quoted by Gilbert.
He will tour Durban and Cape Town before trying to return to Gaza, where he said the entire social fabric is being torn apart. A five-day ceasefire is being negotiated in Qatar to allow in more substantial medical and food supplies. The Israeli Embassy and the ambassador did not respond to requests for comment. DM
Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.