GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Gaza's health system is riddled with crowded hospital rooms lacking basic supplies, detailed electronic records of gunshot victims and dozens of people suffering from serious wounds, health workers, officials and activists say.
During the past two weeks of mass protests against a decade-old Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory, 1,297 Palestinians have been shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers across the border, according to a computerized count by the Gaza Health Ministry. An additional 1,554 Gaza residents have been treated for tear gas inhalation or injuries by rubber-coated steel pellets.
Some protesters acknowledged approaching Israel's border fence during the protests and throwing stones, though they say they were otherwise unarmed. The surge of patients has severely taxed Gaza's clinics and hospitals.
In addition, 33 Palestinians have been killed during this period, including 26 in border demonstrations. The latest casualties occurred Thursday, when Israel said it bombed Hamas militant targets in the Gaza Strip, killing one Palestinian and wounding another.
The Israeli military has disputed the Gaza count of wounded, saying that at most dozens were struck by Israeli fire, but it has not offered supporting evidence.
In a response Thursday, the military did not refer to its previous challenge of the figures of wounded Palestinians. It said it "contends with terrorist organizations that are trying to turn the area between Israel and the Gaza Strip into a combat zone, above and below ground," near Israeli communities.
The casualty figures are at the heart of an intensifying debate over the military's open-fire orders, branded as unlawful by rights groups because soldiers are permitted to use potentially lethal force against unarmed Palestinians approaching the border fence.
Israel has accused Gaza's Hamas rulers of using the protests as a cover for carrying out attacks, including a possible mass breach of the border fence, and says it has a right to defend its sovereign border. It said Thursday that "the tools used by the Israeli military include warnings, riot control measures, and as a last resort, live fire in a precise and measured manner."
The protests were organized by Hamas but have also been fueled by widespread despair among the territory's 2 million people. Gaza has endured more than a decade of border closures imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militant group seized the territory in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliament elections.
More bloodshed on the border is likely, with organizers calling for protests to continue until mid-May and Israel saying it won't change its rules of engagement.
Already, the recent surge of patients with gunshot wounds has severely taxed Gaza's clinics and hospitals.
Gaza's health system has been buckling under years of shortages of essential medicines and equipment caused by the blockade and Hamas' power struggle with the rival Palestinian Authority, doctors say. The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority accuses Hamas of selling medicines it sends, while Hamas accuses it of delaying medicine shipments.
The violence comes at a time when 40 percent of basic medicines are no longer in stock in Gaza hospitals, according to the World Health Organization. Equipment is also in short supply. At Gaza's main hospital, Shifa, half of 200 available fixators had been used up for bones broken by bullets, officials said.
Doctors carefully manage scarce resources, said Ayman Sahbani, the spokesman and emergency room director at the Shifa Hospital. Those with relatively simple soft-tissue gunshot wounds are treated and sent home the same day to make room for the most serious cases and new arrivals, he said.
Earlier this week, 64 patients with complications from gunshot wounds -- mainly suffered during large protests on two consecutive Fridays -- were still hospitalized, filling up orthopedic and surgery wards.
A majority suffered either open, compound or multiple fractures, or damage to blood vessels, said Sahbani, adding that there is concern about permanent disability in some cases.
One former patient, Raed Jadallah, suffered a gunshot wound from Israeli fire that fractured his femur. Now, he's immobile, a metal fixation device clamped to his left leg.
The 25-year-old plasterer from a seaside refugee camp said he doesn't know when he'll be able to walk again, let alone surf the Mediterranean, a favorite pastime.
"Sea and surfing are everything to me," he said Wednesday, a day after being discharged from the hospital, his lower body covered by a blanket as he rested on a sofa at his home.
Jadallah was among those shot last Friday. He said he had been throwing stones about 15 yards from the fence and was just leaving when he was shot.
He said he had been drawn to the protests by the organizers' slogan of a "Great March of Return" to destroyed Palestinian communities in what is now Israel.
Two-thirds of Gaza residents, including Jadallah, are descendants of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes in the 1948 war over Israel's creation.
"We want to return to our land," Jadallah said.
A Section on 04/13/2018
Print Headline: Injured take toll on Gaza clinics