US evacuates 17 volunteer doctors trapped in Gaza since Israel took Rafah crossing

Physicians leave via Kerem Shalom after working in one of the few hospitals in Strip still functioning amid war; several others choose to stay despite uncertain plan for departure

Dr. Ammar Ghanem, an ICU specialist from Detroit volunteering in one of Gaza's last functioning hospitals, stands by a young patient recovering from pneumonia on May 9, 2024, in Khan Younis, Gaza. (Photo via AP)
Dr. Ammar Ghanem, an ICU specialist from Detroit volunteering in one of Gaza's last functioning hospitals, stands by a young patient recovering from pneumonia on May 9, 2024, in Khan Younis, Gaza. (Photo via AP)

The United States on Friday evacuated out of Gaza 17 American doctors who had been stuck since Israel took over the Palestinian side of the Rafah Border Crossing with Egypt earlier this month, according to official American sources.

US diplomats arranged for the doctors to leave instead through the Kerem Shalom Crossing into Israel.

“Some of the US citizen doctors who had been stuck in Gaza have now safely departed and made their way to safety with assistance from the US embassy in Jerusalem,” a State Department spokesperson said.

“We have been in close contact with the groups that these US doctors are part of, and we have been in contact with the families of these US citizens,” he said.

At least 14 doctors from a delegation made up of 35 US and other international volunteer physicians, including three Americans, chose to stay despite the uncertainty on when they will again have a chance to leave, according to the Palestinian American Medical Association. The US-based non-profit medical group FAJR Scientific, which organized a second volunteer team, could not immediately be reached.

The Rafah crossing into Egypt has been the main gateway for goods and people entering Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put the onus on Egypt to reopen the crossing.

IDF troops on the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Egypt has accused Israel in turn of denying responsibility for a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and says that truck drivers and aid workers do not feel safe crossing through an Israeli checkpoint.

The doctors came to help one of the Strip’s few hospitals still functioning. They brought suitcases full of medical supplies and had trained for one of the worst war zones in the world. They knew the health care system was decimated and overwhelmed, with local doctors and nurses beyond exhausted after seven months of treating never-ending waves of Palestinians wounded since war erupted in Gaza after Hamas’s October 7 massacre.

“I did not expect that (it) will be that bad,” said Dr. Ammar Ghanem, an ICU specialist from Detroit with the Syrian American Medical Society. “You hear the news, but you cannot really recognize … how bad until you come and see it.”

The teams were trapped beyond the scheduled end of their two-week mission when Israel began what it has called a “pinpoint operation” into the crowded southern Gaza city of Rafah on May 6.

Those who left included Ghanem, who said the 15-mile trip from the hospital to the Kerem Shalom Crossing took more than four hours as explosions went off around them. He described some tense moments, such as when an Israel Defense Forces tank at the crossing apparently took aim at the doctors’ convoy.

Dr. Ammar Ghanem, an ICU specialist from Detroit volunteering with the Syrian American Medical Society at one of Gaza’s last functioning hospitals, second from right, poses on May 7, 2024, in Khan Younis, Gaza, with a Palestinian doctor and two other American doctors volunteering at the European General Hospital where they have been since early May. (Photo via AP)

“The tank moved and blocked our way and they directed their weapons (at) us. So that was a scary moment,” Ghanem said.

The 14 doctors with the Palestinian American Medical Association who stayed behind include American Adam Hamawy. US Sen. Tammy Duckworth credits Hamawy with saving her life when, as a military helicopter pilot in Iraq in 2004, she was hit by an RPG, causing injuries that cost her her legs.

The two international teams have been working since early May at the European General Hospital, just outside Rafah, the largest hospital still operating in southern Gaza. The volunteers are mostly American surgeons but include medical professionals from Britain, Australia, Egypt, Jordan, Oman and other nations.

The World Health Organization said the UN, which coordinates visits of volunteer teams, is in talks with Israel to resume moving humanitarian workers in and out of Gaza. The IDF said it had no comment.

Nearly two dozen hospitals in Gaza are no longer operating, and the remaining dozen are only partially working.

Dr. Ammar Ghanem, an ICU specialist from Detroit volunteering with the Syrian American Medical Society, third from left, poses with a local team of ICU nurses and staff at the European General Hospital on May 6, 2024, in Khan Younis, Gaza, where he has been volunteering since early May. (Photo via AP)

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages, mostly civilians, many amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

Vowing to destroy Hamas and free the hostages, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign which has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 79,000, according to Gaza health officials. Almost 500 health workers are said to be among the dead.

Figures issued by the Hamas-run health ministry cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. An estimated 15,000 terror operatives have been killed in Gaza amid the war, according to Israeli officials.

The IDF also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7 and that 280 soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border.

Much of the European Hospital’s Palestinian staff left to help families fleeing Rafah amid new evacuation orders to find new shelter. As a result, the foreign volunteers are stretched between medical emergencies and other duties, such as trying to find patients inside the hospital. There is no staff to log where incoming wounded are placed. Medicines that the teams brought with them are running out.

Displaced Palestinians carry water cans back to their tents at a temporary camp in Rafah on May 17, 2024. (AFP)

Thousands of Palestinians are sheltering in the hospital. Outside, sewage overflows in the streets, and drinking water is brackish or polluted, spreading disease. The road to the hospital from Rafah is now unsafe: The United Nations says an Israeli tank fired on a marked UN vehicle on the road Monday, killing a UN security officer and wounding another.

When the Rafah assault began, FAJR Scientific’s 17 doctors were living in a guesthouse in the city. With no warning from the IDF to evacuate, the team was stunned by bombs landing a few hundred meters from the clearly-marked house, said Mosab Nasser, FAJR’s CEO.

They scrambled out, still wearing their scrubs, and moved to the European Hospital, where the other team was staying.

Dr. Mohamed Tahir, an orthopedic surgeon from London with FAJR, does multiple surgeries a day on little sleep. He’s often jolted awake by bombings shaking the hospital. Work is frantic. He recalled opening one man’s chest to stop bleeding, with no time to get him to the operating room. The man died.

Tahir said when the Rafah assault began, Palestinian colleagues at the hospital nervously asked if the volunteers would leave.

“It makes my heart feel really heavy,” Tahir said. The Palestinian staff knows that when the teams leave “they have no more protection; and that could mean that this hospital turns into Shifa, which is a very real possibility.” IDF troops raided Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, the territory’s largest, for a second time in March, killing and detaining hundreds of terror suspects. Israel says that Hamas uses hospitals as command centers and hideouts, an accusation denied by Gaza health officials. The Gaza health ministry is run by Hamas.

Palestinians inspect the damage around Gaza’s Shifa Hospital after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from the complex housing the hospital after two weeks fighting terror groups there, on April 1, 2024 (AFP)

The patients Tahir has saved keep him going. Tahir and other surgeons operated for hours on a man with severe wounds to the skull and abdomen and shrapnel in his back. They did a second surgery on him Wednesday night.

“I looked at my colleagues and said, ‘You know what? If this patient survives — just this patient — everything we’ve done, or everything we’ve experienced, would all be worth it,'” Tahir said.

Dr. Ahlia Kattan, an anesthesiologist and ICU doctor from California with FAJR, said the hardest case for her was a four-year-old boy, the same age as her son, who arrived with burns on more than 75 percent of his body, his lungs and spleen shattered. He didn’t survive.

“He reminded me so much of my son,” she said, holding back tears.

“Everyone has different stories here that they’re taking home with them.”

Weighing heavily on all the volunteers, Kattan said, is “the guilt that we’re already feeling when we leave, that we get to escape to safety.”

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