Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A lottery of life and death for Gazan medics

-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Rafah - January 2009

On one side are the badly wounded, desperate to get out to medical attention; on the other are the bodybags of those who failed to make it waiting to be sent back in for burial. The no man's land of Rafah's border crossing, strewn with barbed wire and reverberating with nearby bomb blasts, is a grim patch between the Gazan and Egyptian borders.

But for Dr Nadal bin-Afifi, though, it was the most reassuring thing he had seen all day. For the second time this week Afifi had made the perilous journey from his home in Gaza City down to the territory's southern limits to ferry the injured across into Egypt. "My colleague was killed by an Israeli bomb while making the same trip three days ago," he said as volunteers rushed to unload his human cargo. "I can't find the courage to tell my wife I'm doing this."

Afifi's ambulance was the ninth to have made it across into Egypt yesterday by late afternoon; six more were expected before sundown. At least two doctors and two ambulance drivers have reportedly been killed in the past week.

Once through a heavily defended Egyptian checkpoint, the ambulances pull up under the baking Sinai sun and are immediately engulfed by a swarm of medics, soldiers, NGO workers and journalists - the latter permitted access by an Egyptian government keen to face down accusations of negligence towards its Palestinian neighbours.

Patients - mostly children, women and the elderly, according to medics - are whisked through the frontier gates to a hospital in the nearby town of al-Arish, with the most serious cases then flown on to Cairo. On their way they pass ambulances carrying the bodies of those for whom help came too late, on their way back to be processed for burial in Gaza.

"We are doing the best we can, but really it feels futile," said one Egyptian paramedic. "There are thousands who need us across the wall. In the past three days I've seen 14 make it through."

Nine days into the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, thousands of Egyptian soldiers are also in Rafah and al-Arish, braced for a possible repeat of last year's border breach by besieged Palestinians. "Rafah is a ghost town," said Nora Younis, an Egyptian journalist and activist who had travelled up from Cairo. "The streets are cold and tense, with barricades and security officers dug in on every corner of every alley."

For every medical emergency trying to make it out of Gaza, there is a healthy Gazan fighting to return. "In other parts of the world people try and escape wars," said Khalil Alniss, a Palestinian with UK citizenship who has driven from Scotland to try to deliver supplies into the strip. "But here people say 'no, I will return to my land and I will die in my land'. Only in Palestine."

There is anger over the Egyptian government's perceived unwillingness to open the border, a stance which has provoked mass demonstrations across the Arab world, but those currently in Rafah are divided over who is to blame.

Yesterday afternoon Israeli F16 jets were dropping bombs less than 500m away, in a Gaza neighbourhood called Hiya-Salaam, which reportedly injured at least 10 Palestinians. Local sources said the targets were tunnels dug underneath houses in the area.

"The people here all have relatives across the wall," said Rami, a Palestinian staying in al-Arish. "Every time anyone hears an explosion, they think 'is that my friend? Is that my family?'

"I've seen young children with no legs transiting through this town in the last few days. They could be anyone's son or brother."

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