Israel’s use of live ammunition against Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip has left health workers struggling to cope with an unprecedented crisis, with more than 13,000 wounded, a senior Red Cross official said Monday.
At least 132 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since the protests at the border with Gaza began at the end of March. Israel has said most of those killed were members of terror groups, many of whom were in the middle of carrying out attacks or attempting to breach or damage the fence when they were shot. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups have acknowledged that dozens of the fatalities were members of their organizations.
Robert Mardini, head of Middle East for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told reporters that the “vast majority” of the 13,000 hospitalized protesters had suffered severe wounds, including multiple gunshot wounds.
“This is I think a crisis of unprecedented magnitude in the Gaza Strip,” said Mardini.
The wounded caseload from the seven weeks of protest had surpassed that of the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
The Red Cross is planning to open a new 50-bed surgery unit at Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital to help deal with the surge in gunshot wounds.
Some 1,400 patients have been hit by three to five bullets, many in the legs, which require several complex orthopedic and reconstructive surgeries.
Israel maintains the use of live ammunition is necessary to defend its borders and stop infiltrations. It accuses the Hamas terror organization of seeking to use the protests as cover for attacks.
Mardini said the Red Cross was holding talks with Israeli security forces to minimize civilian harm.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has circulated a document that warns Gaza is close to the brink of war and expresses shock over the number of Palestinians killed and wounded by Israeli live fire during protests, in a report obtained by AFP on Monday.
Guterres told the Security Council that he “unequivocally condemns the steps by all parties that have brought us to this dangerous and fragile place” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The report was sent to the council last week ahead of a meeting on Tuesday on the crisis.
The violence in Gaza marks the most serious escalation between Israel and Hamas since the 2014 war.
“It is and should be a warning to all how close to the brink of war the situation is,” said Guterres.
“I am shocked by the number of deaths and injuries of Palestinians resulting from the use of live fire by Israel Defence Forces” since protests began on March 30, he said.
Israel has a responsibility to “exercise maximum restraint” and protect civilians in line with international humanitarian law, the UN chief wrote.
“The killing of children, as well as of clearly identified journalists and medical staffers by security forces during a demonstration are particularly unacceptable,” he added.
Two Palestinian journalists were killed while covering the protests in April while a 21-year-old medic was shot dead in early June.
Guterres renewed his call for an independent investigation of the shooting deaths in Gaza. Israel has rejected the appeal and argues that the use of force is justified to defend its borders.
The UN chief criticized Hamas and other terror groups for attempting to put explosives near the fence and for shooting rockets at Israel on May 29 and 30.
But he also expressed exasperation at “Israeli government officials,” particularly Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, for asserting that all Palestinians were affiliated with Hamas, signalling a “permissive Israeli policy towards the use of live fire against protesters.
A UN resolution passed last week by the General Assembly harshly criticized Israel, but did not address Hamas. A US amendment seeking to also condemn Hamas was blocked from being added to the measure, despite being widely supported by the body.
Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, has been under increasing pressure as the coastal enclave teeters on the verge of an economic and infrastructure collapse that UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov said last week was already “well beyond” a humanitarian crisis.
Gaza’s woes have been exacerbated by an ongoing dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which has cut the salaries it pays to workers in Gaza and imposed various sanctions, including cutting off payments for electricity supplies to the enclave.
Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade on the Strip which they say is designed to prevent Hamas from importing weapons and other goods that could be used to build fortifications or cross-border tunnels.
Israeli ministers are reportedly looking at ways to ease the crisis in the Strip as a way to defuse the weekly border protests, which are seen partly as a result of the dire situation there.
The border protests peaked on May 14, when some 40,000 Gazans protested along the fence and violent clashes took place between troops and Palestinians.
Protesters have hurled grenades, improvised explosives and rocks at soldiers, burned tires and flown hundreds of incendiary kites and balloons into Israeli territory, sparking dozens of fires daily that have destroyed thousands of acres of fields and nature preserves.