GAZA CITY — An Israeli group, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, said it was sending eight Arab doctors from Israel to Gaza to treat Palestinians wounded in demonstrations against Israel at the Gaza border.
The NGO also will deliver insulin syringes collected by Israeli volunteers in a Facebook campaign, 93 iron rods for surgery to repair bone fractures, blood thinners, vitamins, sewing thread for operating rooms and other medications.
The eight doctors, among them experts in orthopedics, pediatrics and mental health, entered the enclave on Thursday and were set to stay for two days during which surgeons will carry out complex operations.
An Army Radio report Thursday said they would also be available to treat Gazans wounded in a third weekly “March of Return” planned for Friday if necessary.
A recent surge of patients with gunshot wounds incurred during clashes with Israeli forces on Gaza’s border has severely taxed the coastal enclave’s clinics and hospitals, Palestinians said.
Gaza’s health system has been buckling under years of shortages of essential medicines and equipment caused by an Israeli border blockade and Hamas’s power struggle with the rival Palestinian Authority, doctors said. The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority accuses Hamas of selling medicines it sends, while Hamas accuses it of delaying medicine shipments. Israel maintains the security blockade to prevent Hamas, an Islamist terror group which seeks to destroy Israel, from importing weaponry.
The violence comes at a time when 40 percent of basic medicines are no longer in stock in Gaza hospitals, according to the World Health Organization. Equipment is also in short supply. At Gaza’s main hospital, Shifa, half of 200 available fixators had been used up for bones broken by bullets, officials said.
The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, has sent more supplies to Gaza hospitals, among them 27 essential drugs and medical supplies, including saline and glucose, critical for treating serious injuries.
Friday will mark the third week in a row of mass Palestinian protests, backed by Gaza rulers Hamas, dubbed the “March of Return.”
The protests, near the border with Israel, drew some 30,000 Palestinians on the first Friday, and around 20,000 on the second.
While most people appeared peaceful, groups of rioters tried to approach the fence, despite Israeli warnings not to do so, to throw firebombs and rocks at Israeli forces on the other side, to try to breach the fence or to plant explosives along it. Protesters burned large numbers of tires to create a smokescreen blocking Israeli troops’ ability to see.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says 3,078 Palestinians have been injured during the protests, 1,236 of them by live fire, 971 by tear gas, 300 by rubber bullets and 500 for other reasons.
Of all the injuries, 3.5 percent are categorized as serious, 38.5% as moderate and 58% as light.
A ministry analysis of the bodily location of injuries shows that 45% were hurt in the lower limbs, 29% in the lungs, 12% in the upper body, 5% in the head and neck, 2% in the stomach, chest or pelvis and 5% in more than one location.
Among the injured, 2,926 were men and 152 women, with 2,633 classed as adults and 445 as children.
The ministry says 33 Palestinians have been killed during this period, including 26 in border demonstrations. The latest casualties came on Thursday, when Israel bombed Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, killing one operative and wounding another, in retaliation for a bomb planted near an IDF bulldozer and machine gun fire directed at IDF aircraft.
Hamas has acknowledged that several of those killed were its members, and Israel has also identified others as members of terrorist groups. Israel does not issue figures for Gaza fatalities.
The Israeli military has disputed the Gaza count of wounded, saying that at most, dozens were struck by Israeli fire. In a response Thursday, the military did not refer to its previous challenge of the figures of wounded Palestinians. It said that it “contends with terrorist organizations that are trying to turn the area between Israel and the Gaza Strip into a combat zone, above and below ground,” near Israeli communities.
Doctors carefully manage scarce resources, said Ayman Sahbani, the spokesman and emergency room director at the Shifa Hospital. Those with relatively simple soft-tissue gunshot wounds are treated and sent home the same day to make room for the most serious cases and new arrivals, he said.
Earlier this week, 64 patients with complications from gunshot wounds — mainly sustained in the large protests on two consecutive Fridays — were still hospitalized, filling up orthopedic and surgery wards.
A majority suffered either open, compound or multiple fractures, or damage to blood vessels, said Sahbani, adding that there is concern about permanent disability in some cases.
“A noticeable number of the gunshot injuries comprise an exit point larger than the entry point,” he added. The Israeli military did not respond to questions about the type of ammunition used by its snipers, but such wounds could be consistent with rifle fire.
The European Hospital in southern Gaza received 100 people with gunshot wounds last Friday, including 78 who remained hospitalized this week, said spokesman Yehiyeh Nawajha. Among the wounded are four women, he said.
The casualty figures are at the heart of an intensifying debate over the military’s open-fire orders, branded as unlawful by rights groups because soldiers are permitted to use potentially lethal force against unarmed Palestinians approaching the border fence.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Hamas organizers were trying to use protesters as a diversion to “open up the fence and then to insert terrorists into Israel.” Conricus said snipers were used “sparingly” and only against those that pose a “significant threat.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have praised the actions of security forces during the violent protests, which Liberman called “a terrorist march.”
The defense minister said that Hamas had “sent terrorists disguised as civilians to challenge our sovereignty and the world portrays it as a civil protest.”
The army will not necessarily investigate every death, but will more likely focus on a few particular cases where there appears to be cause for an inquiry — for instance, in the death of Palestinian photojournalist Yasser Murtaja, who was reportedly shot in the torso on Friday while wearing a vest emblazoned with the word “press.” Murtaja reportedly died from a gunshot wound he sustained while filming in an area engulfed in thick black smoke caused by protesters setting tires on fire.
The protests have urged on by Hamas, but have also been fueled by widespread despair among the territory’s 2 million people. Gaza has faced more than a decade of border closures imposed by Israel and more recently Egypt after the Islamic terror group seized the territory in 2007 from Palestinian Authority control in a bloody coup.
Critics say the blockade mounts to collective punishment. Israel says it is necessary to isolate Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since 2008, and to prevent the terror group from smuggling in arms and materials for military use against the Jewish state.
More bloodshed on the border is likely, with organizers calling for protests to continue until mid-May and Israel saying it won’t change its rules of engagement.
One patient interviewed by the AP news agency said he had been throwing stones about 15 meters from the fence and was just leaving when he was shot.
He said he had been drawn to the protests by the organizers’ slogan of a “Great March of Return” to destroyed Palestinian communities in what is now Israel. Hamas leaders have sent mixed signals about a possible border breach, which Israel says it will prevent at all costs.
At Shifa, 17-year-old Mohannad Hamouda was in agony from a gunshot wound to the back.
He was hit March 30 while running from tear gas and gunfire toward protesters who had approached the fence. With his parents at his bedside, he would not say whether he was throwing rocks or had gotten close to the frontier.
Hamouda had joined the protests over the objections of his parents. “I was bored, life is grinding here,” he said.
Doctors said they were concerned about bullet fragments near his spine and feared surgery to remove them could cause permanent paralysis.
Two-thirds of Gaza residents are descendants of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation.
The Palestinians have always demanded, along with sovereignty in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Old City, a “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees who left or were forced out of Israel when it was established. The Palestinians demand this right not only for those of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are still alive — a figure estimated in the low tens of thousands — but also for their descendants, who number in the millions.
No Israeli government would ever be likely to accept this demand, since it would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Israel’s position is that Palestinian refugees and their descendants would become citizens of a Palestinian state at the culmination of the peace process, just as Jews who fled or were forced out of Middle Eastern countries by hostile governments became citizens of Israel.
Hamas leaders have told the demonstrators that the protests are aimed ultimately to erase the border and liberate Palestine.