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A Palestinian toddler wounded in an Israeli airstrike receives care at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on May 16, 2021. (Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A Palestinian toddler wounded in an Israeli airstrike receives care at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on May 16, 2021. (Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

'A Huge Loss': Israel's Killing of Top Doctors Further Strains Overwhelmed Gaza Health System

"I have not seen this level of destruction through my 14 years of work—not even in the 2014 war," said one emergency rescue official. 

Brett Wilkins

Gaza's medical infrastructure suffered a major blow on Sunday as two senior doctors died amid the ongoing Israeli bombing campaign that has killed at least 200 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,300 others in the coastal strip while straining a healthcare system already reeling from Israel's 14-year blockade.

"I have never seen anything like this in my life. There were body parts collected on hospital beds and unbearable scenes."
—Shaima Ahmed Qwaider, nurse

Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf, head of internal medicine at Al-Shifa Hospital, died with an unspecified number of relatives when Israeli missiles struck his family's home in the al-Wehda district of Gaza early Sunday. At least 33 people were killed in the attack, according to Al Jazeera.

Speaking about al-Ouf's death, former student and Al-Shifa colleague Dr. Osaid Alser told Al Jazeera: "It is a shock for me and for the entire medical community. He is one of the most senior internal medicine doctors in Gaza... That means a huge loss to the medical community."

Dr. Mooein Ahmad al-Aloul, a 66-year-old psychiatric neurologist, was also killed during the Israeli bombardment of al-Wehda on Sunday. His daughter Aya, who survived the attack, told The Guardian she was "lying awake chatting with a friend on WhatsApp while my mum and dad were sleeping, when suddenly the sound of the bombing started violently."

"Within a second it was black. I couldn't see anything, and I found myself on the ground in the street," she said. "There was a lot of concrete on top of me. My mother was next to me under a lot of rubble too."

"I got out and I tried to free my mother, but I could not," she added. "I ran until I found a street with lights on, and started screaming loudly. Then neighbors came and I asked them to get my mother out." The woman ultimately survived the attack. 

Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of the global health organization MedGlobal, said that there was already a critical shortage of neurologists in Gaza before al-Aloul's death.

"People in this specialty are facing difficulties in Gaza because of lack of certain equipments that are required like MRI eyes and CT scans," Sahloul told Al Jazeera. "And some of the hospitals lack adequate training because they're not able to travel outside of Gaza. A loss of a neurologist is a huge loss in Gaza."

Jack Byrne, country director for American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera), a U.S.-based humanitarian group supporting medical infrastructure in the region including in occupied Palestine, told Al Jazeera that doctors like al-Ouf and al-Aloul are "people whose expertise is badly needed in Gaza, where the blockade drives a brain-drain and prevents doctors from attending international conferences to learn about the latest advances in their field."

As was the case during Israel's 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014 assaults, Gaza's medical facilities are struggling to deal with the massive influx of patients resulting from Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attacks on densely populated civilian neighborhoods. Medical workers described the horrific carnage at hospitals and clinics.

"I have never seen anything like this in my life," Shaima Ahmed Qwaider, a nurse at Al-Shifa Hospital, told Al Jazeera. "There were body parts collected on hospital beds and unbearable scenes."

Samir al-Khatib, an emergency rescue official, concurred. "I have not seen this level of destruction through my 14 years of work—not even in the 2014 war," he said, referring to the Operation Protective Edge campaign that left over 2,100 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, dead and more than 10,000 others wounded

Another Al-Shifa nurse, Amal Badawi, added that "the hospital is filled with people and relatives. It was difficult to work and conduct the needed treatment in light of this overcrowding. The number of injured or killed is huge and they just keep arriving."

This past weekend saw the deadliest IDF strikes of the weeklong Operation Guardian of the Walls; in addition to the al-Wehda bombing, at least 42 Palestinians—including a 1-year-old and 3-year-old—were killed in an airstrike in the upscale Al-Rima neighborhood of Gaza City early Sunday, according to The Times of Israel. 

The paper reports at least 10 members of the Abu Hatab familiy—most of them children—were also killed in a nighttime attack on a home in the city's Shati refugee camp late Friday night or early Saturday morning.

In addition to being inundated with wounded patients, hospitals and clinics—which were repeatedly attacked during past Israeli campaigns—have again been hit in IDF strikes. The international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, said Sunday's Al-Rima bombing damaged its trauma and burn care clinic in the neighborhood, forcing its closure.

"The situation has already been horrible this week, with the number of civilian casualties rising daily, but when I saw the damage to the area and the MSF clinic the morning after the attack, I was speechless," said Dr. Mohammed Abu Mughaiseeb, MSF's deputy medical coordinator in Gaza.

"Everything was impacted—houses, roads, trees," he added. "The clinic, where we see over 1,000 children a year with burn and trauma injuries, was missing a wall and debris was lying everywhere. The clinic is now closed not just because of the damage to its structure but also because the road to access it has been destroyed and the area is still unsafe."

World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday said he was "highly concerned" by the escalating violence and its impact on efforts to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in Gaza.

Dr. Midhat Abbas of the Gaza Health Ministry said that even before the latest assault, the Israeli blockade left hospitals and clinics with serious shortages of medicine and equipment.

"We hope patients will be going to Egypt because our capacity is very limited," he told Al Jazeera. According to the outlet, Egypt has sent 16 ambulances into Gaza to retrieve wounded patients; a bus with 95 people aboard also arrived in Egypt from the embattled strip on Sunday morning. 

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