The Israeli army targeted and destroyed the Gaza strip’s only rehabilitation hospital even though Israeli authorities said they did not believe weapons were inside of the facility. El-Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital, which treats long-term injuries and physical disabilities, was heavily shelled Thursday evening causing an emergency evacuation of all staff and patients. El-Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital treats long-term injuries and physical disabilities. All of the patients have some degree of paralysis, require around the clock care and many are on oxygen support and feeding tubes.
“We’ve seen a lot of launches of rockets that came from exactly near the hospital, 100 meters near,” said a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), continuing, “Obviously the target was not the hospital.”
The IDF News Desk also confirmed that the military understood there were no weapons inside of el-Wafa hospital. When asked how far a humanitarian site needs to be to ensure there is not direct fire, the IDF said, “It’s not a matter of science, the IDF is very precise and they usually target what they intend to target.”
Still the hospital was an army target.
While under fire from the Israeli military on Thursday, hospital director Basman Alashi communicated with the army via a delegate from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). The military said that they were not only going to shell the facility, but that it would be fired upon so heavily that they recommended all people in the hospital evacuate. The ICRC attempted to coordinate the evacuation, relaying messages from the IDF in two phone calls made to el-Wafa’s hospital director during the shelling.
The first call from an ICRC delegate to Alashi was after 9:30 pm, an hour past when the army had already initiated fire on el-Wafa. In that call the delegate asked Alashi how much time he needed to evacuate and he told her two hours. But an hour later when the ICRC delegate phoned for a second time, staff was already abandoning the building under duress. The blasts from the artillery shells had cut the hospital’s power and destroyed the second and third floor. Smoke was filling into the patients’s rooms due to a fire sparked by the strikes.
According to Alashi, the second call from the ICRC came while his 25 nurses loaded 17 patients into ambulances that they flagged down by running into the streets while dodging Israel fire. At that time the delegate told him his message had “just reached them [the IDF] and they said they will not bomb the hospital.” They also told Alashi that his pleading for a lull in fire was sent to “the highest level of army officials.”
When Alashi told the delegate the message was too late and that the hospital was already being evacuated, the ICRC representative told him her message to the IDF “did not go fast enough.”
At the time of the evacuation there were two internationals also inside of el-Wafa hospital. Rina Andolini from the United Kingdom said she was in contact with the same delegate that coordinated with Alashi no less than five times that evening.
The ICRC and the IDF were reached for comment on Alashi’s timeline. Both confirmed they were in communication to coordinate a humanitarian evacuation but said the contents of their conversations were confidential. The ICRC was unable to confirm their conversation with Andolini, but Andolini did provide me with the phone number of the ICRC staff she communicated with in Gaza. I spoke to the ICRC delegate in question and she was unable to comment, directing me back to her organization’s communications department. It is not uncommon in times of warfare for the ICRC to secure the transfer of good and protected persons.
“I’m not belittling Red Cross’s efforts, they are the delegate, they are the middlemen, they are trying to save lives on both sides,” said Alashi when I followed up with him today.
The night of the shelling, Alashi asked me to inquire with the IDF why they fired on the hospital. When I told him they said it was fired on because it was within 100 meters of a rocket site, but they knew the hospital itself was clean of munitions he said, “My authority, my control is within my premises, it is my hospital. I cannot control what people do 100 meters from me.” He reiterated, “My control is my hospital, my staff my patients. I have nothing to do with what happens 100 meters from the hospital,” adding “A hospital should not be involved in any conflict according to Geneva law.”
According to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) hospitals are protected sites. Article 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also states: “The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit…acts harmful to the enemy.” The Geneva Convention also requires “a reasonable time limit,” for allowing an evacuation. If a hospital is used to launch weapons, under IHL it can only be targeted when there is an imminent strike originating from the location. Even storing caches of weapons do not meet international law’s stringent threshold for firing on humanitarian sites.
Furthermore, on July 11, 2014 the army fired five missiles at el-Wafa, taking out part of the hospital’s fourth floor. The first blast was a smaller “warning strike,” followed by four significantly larger blasts. In that instance the IDF phoned Alashi directly the night before and told him the hospital was going to be hit with artillery shelling. A team of eight internationals then moved into the facility in hopes of protecting it from Israeli fire. The also IDF confirmed that they struck the hospital that night.
After the evacuation two nights ago, el-Wafa relocated its operations to the Sahaba medical clinic where they are caring for patients in cramped quarters with limited access to medications and supplies. Before July 8, 2014 when Operation Protective Edge was launched, el-Wafa was already running at reduced levels. A bulk of their funding from the Palestinian Authority was frozen two months ago after the announcement of the unity government between West Bank-bound Fatah and Gaza-based Hamas. In fact all medical facilities in Gaza have not received the funding they expected for the past two months as it has to be transferred from the Palestinian Authority via Israeli’s central bank. As well no public medical staff has received a salary. El-Wafa tried to stock up on gas for a generator and medications, but supplies were running low throughout the Gaza strip and bank closures limited the amount of cash they had access to. After running the generator for one night, their fuel reserve were a quarter depleted.
“We are trying to cope, so we can get more medications. I wouldn’t say good, but we are coping,” said Alashi today. He was in the process of preparing space to take on more patients that will be transferred from Gaza’s largest hospital al-Shifa to the space they are using inside of Sahaba clinic.
“The Israeli actions are interrupting the health system that we have when someone is injured,” said Alashi. “At al-Shifa hospital they cannot keep patients for a long time after their surgeries,” adding, “There is no other hospital in Gaza that can provide long-term care.”
“I have two patients and I do have a place for them,” he added explaining some were discharged earlier following the first round of strikes. Yousef, a patient paralyzed from the waist down has developed an infection that spread throughout his body causing a fever. Due to a lack of access to clean water and medication, his family is no longer able to provide proper care for him. “He has a spinal cord injury from falling while working in construction, from the waist down. His arms are partially paralyzed.”