Morgue at Gaza's biggest hospital overflows as Israeli attacks intensify

AP , Thursday 12 Oct 2023

The morgue at Gaza’s biggest hospital overflowed Thursday as bodies came in faster than relatives could claim them on the sixth day of Israel's heavy aerial bombardment on the territory of 2.3 million people.

Gaza morgue
People stand by the bodies of victims of Israeli air strikes outside the morgue of al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on October 12, 2023. AFP


With scores of Palestinians killed each day in the Israeli onslaught after an unprecedented Hamas attack, medics in the besieged enclave said they have run out of places to put remains pulled from the latest strikes or recovered from the ruins of demolished buildings.

The morgue at Gaza City's Shifa hospital can only handle some 30 bodies at a time, and workers had to stack corpses three high outside the walk-in cooler and put dozens more, side by side, in the parking lot. Some were placed in a tent, and others were sprawled on the cement, under the sun.

“The body bags started and just kept coming and coming and now it’s a graveyard,” Abu Elias Shobaki, a nurse at Shifa, said of the parking lot. “I am emotionally, physically exhausted. I just have to stop myself from thinking about how much worse it will get.”

Nearly a week after Hamas militants crossed through Israel’s heavily fortified separation fence and killed over 1,200 Israelis in an unprecedented attack, Israel is preparing for a possible ground invasion of Gaza for the first time in nearly a decade. A ground offensive would likely drive up the Palestinian death toll, which already has outpaced the past four bloody wars between Israel and Hamas.

The sheer volume of human remains has pushed the system to its limit in the long-blockaded territory. Gaza's hospitals are poorly supplied in normal times but now Israel has stopped the water flow from its national water company and blocked electricity, food and fuel from entering the coastal enclave.

“We are in a critical situation,” said Ashraf al-Qidra, the spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry. “Ambulances can’t get to the wounded, the wounded can’t get to intensive care, the dead can’t get to the morgue.”

Lines of white body bags — soles of bare feet sticking out from one, a bloodied arm from another — brought the scale and intensity of Israel's retaliation on Gaza into sharp relief. Hospital officials asked stricken family members to identify their loved ones. Some peered into the body bags, then collapsed into tears or screams.

Israel’s campaign on Gaza has leveled entire neighborhoods, killing over 1,400 people, more than 60 percent of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. More than 340,000 have been displaced — 15 percent of Gaza's population.

The Israeli military says it is striking Hamas militant infrastructure and aims to avoid civilian casualties — a claim that Palestinians reject.

The deaths, and over 6,000 injuries, have overwhelmed Gaza’s health care facilities as supplies dwindle.

“It is not possible, under any circumstances, to continue this work,” said Mohammad Abu Selim, Shifa's general director. “The patients are now on the streets. The wounded are on the streets. We cannot find a bed for them.”

With resources stretched thin, clinics understaffed and ambulances taking hours to get victims to medical care because airstrikes have ravaged the streets, some say it's not worth the trip.

“We know that if a case is critical, they just won’t survive,” said Khalil Abu Yehiya, a 28-year-old teacher from the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, whose neighbor's home was bombed Thursday in a deadly assault that residents said killed many members of the same extended family.

When more heavy bombardment hit the Shati refugee camp just north of Gaza City along the Mediterranean coast on Thursday, a new wave of wounded streamed into the hospital complex — toddlers with bruises and bandages, men with makeshift tourniquets, young girls with blood caked on their faces. Because Shifa's intensive care unit was full, some lay in the hospital corridors, pressed up against the walls to clear aisles for staff and stretchers.

“I’ve been to many places and seen horrors and shelling. Not this level of insanity,” said 36-year-old local photojournalist Attia Darwish as he watched the wounded pour into Shifa Hospital.

Among those killed in the strikes on Gaza City’s Shati refugee camp was Yasser al-Masri, whose body arrived along with those of his wife and infant daughter. Medics circulated photos of al-Masri and his daughter, covered in filth in the same body bag.

His friends shared his final Facebook post just hours before Israel's warplanes struck.

“I only have a few hours before my phone dies because we're without electricity,” he wrote. “There is no light at night except the moon. Please forgive me. I forgive all of you.”

Gaza's sole power plant ran out of fuel on Wednesday. Shifa and other hospitals were desperately trying to save whatever diesel remains in their backup generators, turning off the lights in all hospital departments but the most essential — intensive care, operating rooms, oxygen stations.

Abu Selima, director of Shifa, said the last of the hospital's fuel would run out in three or four days.

When that happens, “a disaster will occur within five minutes,” said Naser Bolbol, head of the hospital's neonatal department, citing all the oxygen equipment keeping infants alive.

Hospital authorities said there wouldn't be electricity left to refrigerate the dead, either.

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