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18 October 2023

Letter from Gaza: “What we have witnessed has never been seen before”

I have seen children writing their names on the palms of their hands. When they die, they want people to know who they are.

By Mahmoud Shalabi

Life in Gaza is utterly miserable. Israel is not only killing Palestinians by bombing our homes, but by slowly cutting off the basic commodities we need to live. One recent morning I queued for more than two hours to get bread for my family. I got ten pieces of bread for my wife and three children, my parents, and my extended family who are all now living with me.

Healthcare services were already at crisis point prior to this offensive, with shortages of medical supplies a daily reality. But Israel’s bombardment has resulted in the near total destruction of what services we had. Beds are full so patients lie in corridors with serious wounds left untreated. Medical supplies and staff are both exhausted.

[See also: Israel, Gaza and a war without limit]

The grounds of the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City have turned into what is effectively a refugee camp filled with those desperate for safe shelter from the bombing. The main trauma centre in Gaza is so overwhelmed that they can only treat patients in need of life-saving procedures, such as those with neurosurgical or vascular injuries. Those with limb injuries must wait. Morgues are already overflowing, with the dead piled outside.

Most Palestinians here in Gaza would now rather be killed than left injured and in need of medical treatment. This is a more merciful way for them to die.

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In the week following the 7 October attack, more than one million people are estimated to have been displaced in Gaza as they flee bombardment. Yet many are not able to leave. For critically ill hospital patients, evacuation orders are a death sentence. Others, like me, refuse to leave. I am already a Palestinian refugee, and I refuse to become a refugee for the second time.

In any case, those who have left have not found safety. Many fleeing southwards have been killed on the road. Some fear that this is just the beginning, and that civilians will be pushed ever further south into Egypt – ­permanently and forcibly displaced.

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What we have witnessed in Gaza this month has never been seen before. My colleague, the British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu-Sittah, told me that in one morning he had received two children from different places who were both severely injured and who both carried the label  “wounded child, no surviving family”. I have seen children writing their names on the palms of their hands because when they die, they want people to know who they are, and they want to be buried with their loved ones. How many dead bodies does the world need to see before it takes action to end these atrocities?

[See also: Misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war is a serious problem]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts