Reporter's notebook

On Gaza border, an Israeli field hospital stands empty

Hundreds of injured Palestinians leave Gaza through the Erez crossing, but few stay to seek medical treatment. IDF says Hamas is to blame

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

The IDF field hospital at Erez Crossing, northern Gaza Strip, August 1, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
The IDF field hospital at Erez Crossing, northern Gaza Strip, August 1, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

EREZ CROSSING, Northern Gaza Strip — The canvas banners dotting Israeli highways adjacent to the Gaza Strip tell the story of the public mood these days.

“Steadfast in the home front — victorious on the front,” reads one sign. Another asserts that “Together we will win.” Near gas stations with tired-looking reservists in dusty uniforms having breakfast with their families, some of the banners are more bellicose. “Have we gone crazy? Shut electricity to Gaza now!” urges one banner in menacing black and red print, while one simply quotes a verse from Psalms 18: “I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn back till they were consumed.”

But at Erez Crossing, on Gaza’s northern perimeter, the atmosphere is far more conciliatory. Erez is Gaza’s only pedestrian gateway into Israel, and throughout Operation Protective Edge more than 400 Palestinians have crossed through it in local ambulances seeking medical treatment in Israeli and West Bank hospitals.

On July 21, the IDF opened a military field hospital in the enormous border terminal, meant to provide emergency treatment for civilians injured in Gaza and unable to seek medical care in the Strip’s failing medical installations. Two weeks later, the Government Press Office invited a busload of foreign journalists to view the hospital for the first time, striving to show the efforts of the Israeli army to protect Palestinian civilians’ lives.

With a permanent staff of 20 doctors, nurses and medics on location, the Erez field hospital boasts advanced resuscitation equipment, a delivery room, a pharmacy, and lab services. Specialists include a pediatrician, an ophthalmologist and a gynecologist. Yet despite the apparent eagerness of the Israeli professionals to treat Palestinians in need, on Friday the hospital was completely empty.

The pediatric room at Erez field hospital photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
The pediatric room at Erez field hospital (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Colorful stuffed animals rested untouched atop a clean hospital bed in the pediatric room; doctors in military uniforms and white cloaks paced the empty corridors, stethoscopes around their necks.

“We encounter deep suspicion from patients,” said Lt. Col. Sharon Biton of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the IDF branch entrusted with Palestinian civilian affairs, which set up the hospital together with the Medical Corps. Since its establishment, the hospital has treated some 50 Palestinians, providing life-saving treatment to a few, he said.

“At first people refuse treatment, but later they calm down and understand that we are completely on their side. We are entirely detached from the fighting going on inside [the Gaza Strip],” Biton told The Times of Israel.

One would expect more activity in the state-of-the-art field hospital, given the high number of injured Palestinians just kilometers away in Gaza’s understaffed and under-equipped hospitals. Biton said the primary force keeping Palestinians away was Hamas.

Lt. Col. Rachel Mezan of the IDF Medical Corps (left) and Lt. Col. Sharon Biton o COGAT (right) at the Erez field hospital, August 1, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Flash90)
Lt. Col. Rachel Mezan of the IDF Medical Corps (left) and Lt. Col. Sharon Biton of COGAT at the Erez field hospital, August 1, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Flash90)
“We know that the enemy is preventing people from coming here,” he said. Gaza health ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

In one case cited by Biton, a seven-year-old child was brought to the hospital and quickly diagnosed with leukemia. Before being referred to Shiba Hospital outside Tel Aviv, his grandmother was asked to sign Israeli admission forms.

“At first the grandmother said she couldn’t read or write, but then she told us she’s a school headmistress, so apparently she could,” said Biton, who oversees the Arabic-Hebrew translation at the hospital. “When I asked her why she had told us that, she said that I must understand the basic fear and mistrust, which I indeed do.”

The few patients who did arrive at Erez were either picked up by IDF fighting units in the field, or referred by UNRWA or the Red Cross. A 75-year-old woman was left behind by her fleeing family in Khan Younis and brought to Erez in a state of dehydration and fatigue by Israeli soldiers. A 21-year-old man arrived in serious condition with shrapnel in his lung. Both were referred to Israeli hospitals.

“Our capabilities await the residents of the Gaza Strip to come and receive medical treatment,” said Lt. Col. Rachel Mezan, chief nurse of the Medical Corps and head of the field hospital. “We are very experienced in this type of mission. We set the hospital up quickly and adapt to the changing needs. In some cases we’ve definitely managed to save lives.”

Mezan herself took part in numerous IDF humanitarian missions overseas, most recently as part of the Israeli medical team sent to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.

Not all journalists on the tour were convinced that the empty hospital was a good PR move on Israel’s part. Some were inclined to believe it was rather a cynical Israeli ploy to garner international sympathy, as it was unrealistic to expect that Palestinians would seek medical assistance from the enemy’s army.

“I was surprised there were no Palestinians here,” said one French reporter. “This could be very damaging to Israel’s image.”

The journalist said that rather than use images of the empty hospital to tarnish Israel, he would completely ignore the whole story.

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