Gaza conflict: ‘They treat us like the enemy’ – the ambulance drivers on the front line

During a rare moment of calm, the emergency workers of Gaza tell Kim Sengupta of the horrors and dangers they face


Omar al-Khadar was using the few surprising hours of calm to try and scrape off the tar from his boots. It had formed a perfect contour when he rushed into a burning mechanics yard in Shujaiya after a missile strike. The task had been made especially awkward with one hand, scalded when pulling aside a piece of red hot metal to get to an injured man, heavily bandaged.

It had been hours of frantic work after a missile strike on the main market which resulted in more than 150 injured and 15 dead. “It could have been many more killed if both the fuel tanks they had in that garage had exploded, luckily only the smaller one did,” said 34-year-old Mr Khadar. “There were people lying in the streets. Two of us had to jump over them to get to the men in the garage; otherwise the people there would have burned alive. It was a terrible thing that happened,”

The scenes at the market place in Shujaiya were truly awful. People had been caught unawares, out shopping in the days of Eid al-Fitr. There was a degree of reassurance as the Israeli military had declared a four hour humanitarian ceasefire; it was a rare opportunity to stock up.

There was also the unspoken hope that lightning, albeit man made, would not strike twice on the same day. In the early hours of the morning an attack had taken place on a UN school, Jabaliya Elementary Girls, being used as a refugee shelter.

Video: (WARNING) Explosions continue as emergency services struggle

It had cost 19 lives and more than a hundred wounded. International condemnation had followed, with the UN charging that Israel may have committed a war crime and even strictures, albeit muted, from the US.

The Israeli military had insisted that its troops were responding to mortar rounds from near the school. It had, however, added that it would carry out an investigation into what happened.


Residents had relaxed a little, the ambulance service, after being busy with Jabaliya and also bombings near Khan Younis, were regrouping. Most of the wounded had to be ferried to hospitals by private cars and taxis.

“We used all the ambulances we had available, which is not many”, Mr Khadar acknowledged. “There is always problem with getting fuel, and the shifts were light because some of the men, who were living in different towns, had gone home for Eid.”

Mr Khadar had rushed out without telling his wife and children where he was going, a practice many in the emergency services have adopted to spare them further worry: “An ambulance I was standing next to got shot up by the soldiers in Beit Hanoun and I made the mistake of phoning home to tell them I was alright. Bad mistake, they wanted me to go home straight away. I tried to explain we have a job to do, but it's difficult.”

Most of them have been doing the job without getting paid, because they are employed by Gaza's Hamas administration which is bankrupt. Public employees hired by Fatah, on the other hand, receive their salaries; another point of the internecine friction between the two Palestinian organisations.

Sitting at their office at the European Hospital in Khan Younis, a group of paramedics reflected on other tribulations of being a Hamas employee. “The Israelis treat us like the enemy, they see us not as the ambulance service but Hamas. We have come to accept being shot at,” said Yusuf Abu Musahem. Sometimes it is with lethal consequences - one of their colleagues, Mohammed al-Abdala, was killed in Beit Hanoun last week.

Smoke rises after an Israeli strike in Gaza City Smoke rises after an Israeli strike in Gaza City (AP) The Israeli military have claimed that fighters had been using ambulances for transport. This, unsurprisingly, is denied by the paramedics. They did so with a touch of weariness. “They always say that, but then they check the ambulances in the frontline areas anyway, if there were resistance people there, they will find them,” stressed Abu Moussab. “But perhaps they think all ambulances are carrying the resistance, maybe that's why they shoot at us routinely; deny us entry to pick up the wounded.”

But the paramedics had been allowed in part of the way on that day. We had seen them carry out people who were dead, or barely alive, after being trapped, injured, in their houses for days in Abbasan and the outer edges of Khuzoo.

The corpses were taken to the morgue of the European Hospital. Most of them were mutilated by shrapnel, decomposing after being left in the heat. Relations who had come to collect bodies could not identify them, many were shaken. Zeinab al-Haddad clung to her husband, tears rolling down her cheeks. “That cannot be my brother, that is not him, he is a handsome boy,” she said, shaking her head.

Palestinians inspect a destroyed bus after Israeli airstrikes in the central Gaza City Palestinians inspect a destroyed bus after Israeli airstrikes in the central Gaza City (EPA) Watching, Hussein Mahmud, said: “It is very hard for them, of course. But they see this once, or maybe, in times like these, twice. But we have been seeing this every day. We cannot talk to our families about this; there is no one we can talk to really. I am sure we all have psychological problems.”

There was laughter at the suggestion that counseling may be available someday. “Who's going to pay for that? It would help if they started paying us our salaries: that will be one stress lifted from our minds,” was the view of Abu Moussab.

“We are not the only ones who need help”, said Yusuf Abu Musameh, who had worked as a nurse for nine years in Tel Aviv. “I would like to speak to the Israelis, yes I can speak Hebrew. I would like to ask them 'how can you people, who have suffered so much in the past, do this to us?' I do not believe this is not damaging them, it must do.”

people And here is why...
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
footballLatest scores and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties