Reporter's notebook'The doctors treat us well, the soldiers don't'

Angry and tired, Gazan mothers stuck in Israel after medical care want to get home

Civilians were in Israel on October 7 as their children received life-saving surgery. They make plain they appreciate the care, even as some blame Israel for Gaza’s woes

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Gazan women and children in the Shevet Achim house in Ashdod as they receive ongoing medical care in Israel, October 29, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
Gazan women and children in the Shevet Achim house in Ashdod as they receive ongoing medical care in Israel, October 29, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

ASHDOD — As Hamas terrorists were rampaging through Israeli communities on the morning of October 7, sick Gazan children were being treated in Israeli hospitals.

With a war now raging in Gaza, and the civilian Erez Crossing facility between Gaza and Israel destroyed during the Hamas onslaught, the kids and their families are unable to return home.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, they are stuck in the coastal city of Ashdod, living at Shevet Achim, an Israel-based Christian organization that brings children from neighboring countries into Israel for heart surgery.

In interviews, they express appreciation for the life-saving treatment their children are receiving from Israeli doctors, which is paid for by Israeli taxpayers, and for the medical staff they encounter in the hospitals. At the same time. several hold Israel to blame for all of Gaza’s woes, while one or two are more nuanced.

Running to bomb shelters to protect themselves from Hamas rockets several times a day, and endlessly scrolling through images of dead Gazans on Arabic social media, the mothers and grandmothers are scared, angry, and want the fighting to end so they can get back to their families and their homes, if they are still standing.

“We experienced a lot of mercy in the hospital, yes,” said Umm Roz, a 24-year-old mother from Shejaiya. “But we are not experiencing mercy in Gaza.”

People enter Nasser hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 24, 2023. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

Praise for the doctors only

Umm Yousef, who is in Israel for the first time with her 2-month-old nephew Hor, told The Times of Israel on Sunday that she did not hear anything positive about Israelis when she was growing up in Jabaliya.

“We were under occupation; what am I going to hear about them?” she asked.

Umm Yousef said she is afraid to be anywhere except the Shevet Achim house or Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. She and Hor were the only Gazans in the ICU on October 7, and she initially feared for their safety.

An ambulance outside the emergency entrance to the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on July 15, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Though Umm Yousef quickly understood that she was safe, she was in the hospital four days later when members of the far-right La Familia group broke in, amid rumors that wounded Hamas terrorists were being treated there.

“They protected us; the management brought the police,” she recounted.

But she sees the care and protection provided by the Sheba staff as an exception.

“There’s a difference between the doctors and the soldiers,” she explained. “The doctors treat us well, the soldiers don’t. If I walk in the hospital I’m safe, if I walk in the street, I’m not safe.

“We are asking for protection, and we want to get home to our families,” pleaded Umm Yousef.

If and when she does make it back, it’s not clear where she’ll go. Her family home has been destroyed, and her five children are in the southern Gaza Strip, she said. “Totally, totally, totally, it’s gone,” she said.

And Umm Yousef has lost more than just her home. The day before the interview, she said, her brother was killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza.

Relatives and acquaintances hold pictures of hostages and missing persons during a meeting on behalf of hostages abducted from Israel by terrorists on October 7, 2023, at the French National Assembly, in Paris, on October 31, 2023. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

She also sees the kidnapping of Israeli civilians as justified.

“We have somebody in the Israeli prisons. We want our prisoners back, and you want your prisoners back.”

Hamas, she said, “is trying to protect the women and children among the hostages, but Israel isn’t protecting women and hostages.”

The Palestinians at Shevet Achim mostly spoke in Arabic, and an Iraqi Kurdish mother translated to English.

It is impossible to separate their comments from the fact that they and their families live under Hamas control in the Gaza Strip, and speaking too warmly about Israel could put them in danger. They asked that their full names not be used and their faces not be shown.

Umm Leen is with her 6-year-old daughter. The two have made multiple trips to Israel to receive treatment for Leen’s heart condition.

Palestinians inspect the damage of a destroyed building after Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, October 10, 2023. (Hatem Ali/AP)

Her family’s home, in an agricultural village east of Khan Younis, has also been destroyed by Israeli attacks, she said.

She said she is angry at the Israeli people. “When someone does something harmful to us, yes, it has an effect. Am I still going to feel love for them? No.”

When asked if she had any sympathy for Israeli mothers butchered by Hamas on October 7, she simply shook her head.

“I was only afraid for my house and my family and my children, and the people in Gaza, when I heard about it,” Umm Leen said.

But she and Leen might be in Israel for months. Her daughter has defective heart valves, and suffers from seizures. She is scheduled for more treatment early next year.

“I want to go home, I want to see my family,” she said. “What is going to happen, am I going to stay here for another three months?”

Umm Roz, who came to Israel for the first time two months ago and returned shortly before the war, also wouldn’t express sympathy for Hamas’s victims.

View of cars destroyed by Hamas terrorists during the October 7 attack, at a field near the Israel-Gaza border, October 31, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After hearing about the October 7 attacks by Hamas, “I felt the world had turned upside down and I was very afraid,” she said.

She did have plenty of praise for the medical staff at Sheba, however.

“The doctors have mercy and a humanitarian attitude toward children,” she said. “They give the same treatment to everyone.”

‘This is my voice’

Despite the palpable anger among most of the adults, some of the Gazans wanted to focus on the positive.

“Everything is good here,” said Fares, a gentle Khan Younis carpenter holding his 3-month-old daughter Abeer. “I’m not afraid to be here.”

He seemed to put the blame for the war on Hamas. “There’s a war because they came into Israel; before that there wasn’t one. We could come and go and there weren’t any problems.”

Umm Naim, 47, lost her husband during the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas. She gave birth to her son in Sheba Medical center shortly afterward, and named him after her husband Naim.

She said she didn’t hate Israel after her husband was killed. “It was conflict,” she said.

I love peace, this is my dream for me.

Umm Naim stressed that her father had worked in Israel for many years.

“I want peace, to be with my children, because I am all the time afraid,” she said in English.

“I do not have the power,” Umm Naim continued. “I love peace, this is my dream for me.”

People walk through a gate to enter the Rafah border crossing to Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on November 1, 2023 (Mohammed ABED / AFP)

She said she wanted Arab countries to sit around a table and solve the Gaza issue. “Solve the problem.”

“Stop kill the children, for both sides,” said Umm Naim. “This is a human and this is a human.”

She also expressed hope that Arab states could facilitate elections in the Gaza Strip.

“We hope all the children, all the people in the earth, to be smile, to be happy,” Umm Naim continued. “Muslim, Jewish, anyone. Anyone. This is my voice.”

A blessing to the nations

Jonathan Miles, the founder of Shevet Achim, told The Times of Israel that he works to bring sick Gazan children to Israeli hospitals because “we’re Christians from the nations who believe the word of God that we received from the Jewish people.”

Jonathan Miles (L) and Lazar Berman speak to Gazans in Israel for medical care, October 28, 2023 (courtesy)

“We’re created in the image of God, so every life is of value,” he said. “At the very beginning of the covenant with Abraham, his seed was promised to be a blessing to all the families of the Earth.”

Miles, who has also brought dozens of children from Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and the West Bank to Israeli hospitals for life-saving heart surgery, had no shortage of praise for the values of Jews and Israelis.

“It’s in their spiritual DNA,” he said. “Like it or not, to be a faithful Jew means to be a blessing to the nations. No other nation is willing to do for these children what Israel is doing.”

Illustrative: A father waits while hospital staff attend to his baby, brought to Israel for life-saving heart surgery by Shevet Achim NGO. (Screen capture: Vimeo)

Miles said that Israeli authorities “will go to almost any length to allow children who need life-saving care to enter Israel, that the doctors and nurses will fight for these kids with every resource they have, including the sacrifice of their personal time, and that if we’ll stand with them the hospitals are willing to absorb at least half the cost themselves.”

At the same time, Miles observed that “this war is such a hard blow that people in Israel are struggling to value the life of their neighbors in the same way they always have. Without God’s help, it’s impossible.”

‘There is no Hamas’

Toward the end of the hour-long conversation, the Gazans let their frustration with Israel flow freely.

“We are peaceful people, but I’m afraid we are going to get a call that my kids are killed,” said Umm Leen. “Four of my family members were killed today. Why did they attack the home?”

Palestinians flee following an Israeli army’s warning to move south before an expected ground offensive, in Gaza City on October 13, 2023. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

“This war is between Hamas and the Jews, and we pay the price.”

Hamas is not preventing anyone from heading south, she insisted, accusing Israel of targeting those fleeing.

“Israel says to get out, then they shoot rockets at the car, and there are kids and women. There was no Hamas,” Umm Leen charged.

This war is between Hamas and the Jews and we pay the price.

“Our families are trying to do what we’re told, we’re trying to seek shelter, and people are being killed.”

Hamas, she said, is underground and nowhere to be seen. “Hamas didn’t stop people. There is no Hamas. Where is Hamas?”

“The people here are saying they are attacking Hamas, but there are no Hamas people there,” said Umm Leen. “They are attacking the hospital.”

The Gazans endorsed Hamas’s claim that Israel was behind the October 17 blast at the Al-Ahli Hospital. Israel has produced evidence, endorsed by the US and leading Western news outlets, to show it was caused by an Islamic Jihad rocket misfire.

A girl carries blankets as she walks past the site of a deadly explosion at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, October 18, 2023. According to AP video analysis and other investigations, it was likely caused by a failed rocket launch from within the enclave. (AP Photo/Abed Khaled)

They also had plenty of criticism for Egypt’s government.

“Why don’t any of our neighbors allow us to come?” asked Umm Naim. “Nobody wants us.”

“Just like Netanyahu won’t let us into this land which was once ours, Egypt won’t let us go there,” lamented Umm Leen.

“We’re sick of war, we just want to see our families,” said Umm Fares, a 35-year-old grandmother from the Nuseirat refugee camp who is slated to give birth in Israel in the coming weeks. “We want a clean and peaceful life.”

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