Hospital chief says ‘can’t recall’ medical event on scale of Eritrean migrant clashes

With over 150 said injured in street brawls between Eritrean government’s supporters and opponents, Ronni Gamzu says staff also had to keep warring sides separate at hospital

A stun grenade thrown by Israeli police explodes next to Eritrean protesters during a protest against an event organized by the Eritrea Embassy, in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
A stun grenade thrown by Israeli police explodes next to Eritrean protesters during a protest against an event organized by the Eritrea Embassy, in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The director of Ichilov Medical Center said Saturday he could “not recall” a medical event on the scale his hospital faced Saturday in his time running the institution, after Saturday’s violence between Eritrean government opponents and supporters, as well as clashes with police who tried to quell the unrest.

“I do not recall in all my years as director-general such a massive ongoing event with so much uncertainty,” Prof. Ronni Gamzu told Channel 12. “This poses a huge challenge to our staff.”

Gamzu added that he had to go back to the terror bombings of the 1990s and early 2000s to think of an equivalent type of mass casualty event.

The hospital was initially overwhelmed by the sudden influx of wounded people. Gamzu said the event began highly unusually as the injured began arriving on their own to the hospital rather than through Magen David Adom or other rescue services. Without the initial usual communication with rescue services, it took some time for hospital staff to understand what was going on. It quickly declared a mass casualty event, cleared six operating rooms, and called in extra staff.

By the time the hospital announced the end of the emergency event at 4:15 p.m., 43 patients had been received, 14 of whom were in serious condition. Some of the injuries were a result of gunshots and stabbings.

Five of the patients in serious condition were sedated and intubated. The most seriously injured underwent surgery and were being cared for in the intensive care unit. The rest of the casualties were in light to moderate condition.

Hundreds of doctors and nurses were called in to treat the incoming patients. Some patients underwent brain surgery, officials said.

Over 150 wounded in total were reported in the violence. In addition to Ichilov, the injured were taken to Sheba Medical Center, Wolfson Medical Center, Shamir-Assaf Harofeh Medical Center and Beilinson Medical Center.

File: Prof. Ronni Gamzu director of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Of the injured, Magen David Adom said 30 were police officers, none of whom were in serious condition. The police officers’ injuries were predominantly comprised of bruises, many resulting from stones and other blunt objects.

“An additional complication to the situation is that we need to not only provide regular social support to the patients and their families, but we also need to keep the conflict out of the hospital. People from both sides of this are arriving here and we need to keep them separate,” Gamzu added.

Police said that 39 suspects were arrested during the clashes as quiet was being restored. Authorities were maintaining a significant presence on the streets and conducting further arrests.

Eritrean asylum seekers who oppose the regime in Eritrea protest outside a conference of regime supporters in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

While they had been aware of the potential for clashes outside the Eritrean embassy in Tel Aviv as it held an official event, police said they were “surprised” by their intensity. Haim Bublil, Yarkon District Police chief, said that authorities had coordinated with both sides in the lead-up to the event, but the groups did not adhere to requirements set up by the police.

“Opponents of the regime broke through the barriers, fought with police, threw rocks and fencing. We used crowd dispersal methods. We were surprised by the intensity of the violence,” Bublil said.

“It was a breach of all the norms that we allow,” said Buvlil. “And it created a situation in which we had to use significant means, including live fire by police officers.”

Representatives of the Eritrean community in Israel said that they had warned police a week ago over threats of violence surrounding the event hosted by the Eritrean embassy.

Eritrean protesters clash with Israeli riot police in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 2, 2023 (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Eritreans make up the majority of the more than 30,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel. Most asylum seekers arrived in Israel through Egypt between 2007-2012.

Those who arrived say they fled danger and persecution from a country known as the “North Korea of Africa,” with forced lifetime military conscription in slavery-like conditions.

President Isaias Afwerki, 77, has led Eritrea since 1993, taking power after the country won independence from Ethiopia in a long guerrilla war. Since Afwerki took power, there have been no elections or free media, and exit visas are required. Many young people are forced into military service with no end date, human rights groups and United Nations experts say.

The nation on the Horn of Africa has one of the world’s worst human rights records, and the asylum-seekers fear death if they were to return.

Eritrean asylum seekers protest against the regime in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In Israel, migrants and asylum-seekers face an uncertain future as the state makes attempts to make life difficult and deport them. The legal status of most of the Eritrean community in Israel is that of “infiltrators,” as asylum requests are often not checked, rejected outright, or never filed by migrants.

Government and Knesset efforts to entice members of the Eritrean community to leave the country or to deport them forcefully have been repeatedly struck down by the High Court of Justice. The issue is oft-cited by supporters of the government’s judicial overhaul as an example of court overreach in defiance of public will, while opponents of the overhaul cite the same decisions as proving the court’s key role in protecting human rights.

Saturday’s violence is not isolated — last month, as Eritrea marked 30 years of independence, festivals held by Eritrea’s government and diaspora in Europe and North America were attacked by exiles. The Eritrean government dismissed them as “asylum scum.”

Renee Ghert-Zand and the Associated Press contributed reporting.

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