For a few injured Gazans, a harrowing lifeline to Jordan


Gaza resident Hala Ghaben, 27, lies in a hospital bed at the King Hussein Medical Center in Amman, Jordan as her aunt Naimeh looks on. Ghaben is one of 19 injured Gazans to have been evacuated to Jordan since the outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip earlier this month, the only civilians allowed by Israeli authorities to leave the coastal enclave. (Taylor Luck/for The Washington Post)
July 26

Hala Ghaben is one of just a handful of injured civilians to have escaped the Gaza Strip since Israel launched its military incursion into the enclave more than two weeks ago. But she doesn’t count herself “lucky.”

“I do not feel I have been saved,” the 27-year-old mother of four said Wednesday from her hospital bed in Amman, Jordan’s capital. “I feel I have been wronged.”

Nineteen badly wounded Gazans have left the coastal strip for treatment, according to Jordan’s armed forces, and all have been taken to Jordan, the only state authorized by Israel to send aid teams into Gaza and to conduct medical evacuations.

But even for those few who have managed to reach Amman’s sprawling King Hussein Medical Center, the journey has been grueling, as the World Health Organization indicated Friday in calling for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to ensure safe passage for Gaza’s critically wounded and for lifesaving drugs. Some evacuations have taken a week or more, and all have been shadowed by diplomatic wrangling and the constant threat of rocket fire.

At least 4,500 people have been injured in the current conflict in Gaza, most of them civilians, according to U.N. figures.

Israel ends Gaza truce extension rejected by Hamas and resumes shelling. It’s accusing Palestinian militants for violating the truce and incessant rocket fire throughout the cease-fire. (Reuters)

At 2 a.m. on July 8, the first night of the Israeli offensive, Ghaben, who was five months pregnant, was asleep in her family’s house in the Gazan town of Beit Lahiya when a missile struck. Shards of aluminum siding and chunks of concrete pinned her to the floor, and she suffered deep cuts to her neck, back and ankles.

As relatives worked for half an hour to remove the rubble, she caressed her stomach in an attempt to prevent a miscarriage.

Ghaben’s move to a hospital was delayed nearly an hour as the air raid continued and ambulance drivers refused to enter Beit Lahiya for fear of being caught in cross-fire. After one arrived, the trip to al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the largest functioning medical center in the strip, took nearly another hour as the vehicle swerved around debris and burned-out cars.

With the offensive barely underway, staff at al-Shifa were already giving priority to treatable cases, Ghaben recalled. After an initial assessment, they dismissed her as a “lost cause.”

“They didn’t think I would survive the night,” she said.

Undeterred, Ghaben’s family set off for Kamal Adwan Hospital back in Beit Lahiya, Gaza’s second-largest medical facility, darting through back alleys for an hour to avoid the ongoing barrage.

Before her husband could get out of their car, they were turned away for a second time. The hospital had already run out of its limited blood supplies, and Ghaben was sent back to al-Shifa, this time with a doctor’s referral.

But her family’s relief at her admission was short-lived. Her X-rays showed that she needed extensive surgery to remove shrapnel embedded near her vertebrae and reset several broken ribs — high-risk procedures that no hospital in resource-thin Gaza could perform.

Unless operated on, neither Ghaben nor her baby would survive, doctors said. Staff at al-Shifa placed her on a list of cases for evacuation to Jordan, but with the list growing daily and slots limited, her chances diminished each day as the strikes continued.

“We were waiting for either a blessing from God or death,” she said.

After 10 days, word finally came that Jordanian medical officials had approved her evacuation.

During one of the rare humanitarian cease-fires in the intensifying fighting, al-Shifa personnel rushed Ghaben to the Jordanian field hospital on the outskirts of Gaza City, an army-staffed facility established in late 2008 during an earlier war between Israel and Hamas.

The next day, Israeli authorities cleared her to leave Gaza — accompanied, according to regulations, by a single chaperon: her aunt, Naimeh Ghaben. After an hours-long ambulance ride through the West Bank and over the Jordan River via the Allenby Bridge crossing, she arrived in Amman.

Five days and two surgeries later, Ghaben was out of intensive care, able to talk and move her arms for the first time since her injury. Her unborn baby was safe.

Some Gazans cleared to evacuate to Jordan endure even more harrowing experiences.

Once they reach the Jordanian field hospital, patients face an uncertain passage to Jordan. Families have spent days cycling through names of potential chaperons who lack a prior security record with Israeli authorities, with some forced to opt for neighbors or distant relatives to accompany their injured loved ones.

Convoys of Jordanian ambulances awaiting Israeli approval sit in the sun for hours at the Erez crossing into Israel, a half-mile-long concrete strip that lies a few miles from Gaza City and within range of rocket fire. The average wait is three hours. Sometimes, security delays stretch the 90-mile journey to Amman into a 22-hour trip, Jordanian military officials say.

Nearby rocket fire rattles the ambulances, whose medical personnel have little more than basic emergency equipment to treat complicated injuries.

“According to any guidelines, these patients are in no condition to be transported or be submitted to this amount of stress,” said a Jordanian military doctor who arrived with a group of five patients late Wednesday. “But with the situation in Gaza, it is better to risk it all for a chance at life than to leave them for certain death.”

Despite receiving prior clearance, not all ambulances are allowed to leave the strip. According to the Jordanian military and Gazan evacuees, Israeli authorities turned back a patient Wednesday, citing “security concerns.”

“The wait was the hardest part,” said Ibrahim Ahmed, who spent three hours at the crossing last week, cradling his injured 4-year-old daughter, Miriam, as missiles fell nearby. “I never thought we would make it to Amman alive until we arrived at the hospital.”

The road to Jordan poses risks for others besides patients, Jordanian officials and Gazans say.

After safely delivering Sami Abdulah Judeh, a severely burned 17-year-old, to the Jordanian field hospital on July 15, the vehicle carrying his family members was reportedly struck by a missile as they returned to their home in Gaza City.

It was only after Judeh reached Amman that Jordanian authorities learned that his mother and brothers had been killed in the strike. Judeh died of his injuries a few days later.

“We are operating in a state of war,” said Maj. Gen. Khalaf al-Jader, a physician and director of the Jordanian Royal Medical Services, which oversees the evacuation and treatment of wounded Gazans. “Every single movement, every aid delivery or evacuation, puts many people at risk.”

Despite the risks, Jordan’s Gaza evacuations continue, and the country has dispatched more than 1,000 units of blood, X-ray machines and specialized medical teams to the strip to improve first-response health services in Gaza.

After recuperating, Ghaben and many of her compatriots will eventually return to Gaza.

That is one journey the evacuees say they are ready for.

“The doctors tell me my child is a survivor,” Ghaben said. “I told them he will be more than that — he will be a Gazan.”

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