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At Cairo Hospital, Injured Palestinians Increasingly Voice Support for Hamas

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

CAIRO -- At Nasser hospital here in the Egyptian capital, the sound of Palestinian Arabic spills out from rooms and floats through the corridors of the fourth floor. "God is great, God is great," Ahmed Hussein, 25, said to a weeping Egyptian woman, one of a stream of visitors coming to pay their respects to those injured by Israeli airstrikes.

"May God make you be victorious," she said. "I cannot stand what is happening to your people."

Neither, apparently, can Hussein, a Palestinian policeman whose right arm was broken when Israeli missiles hit his police academy Dec. 27. Hussein voted for Hamas in the last election but said he never joined their militia. That's about to change.

"I want to go back and fight with Hamas," he said.

A cornerstone of Israel's strategy in Gaza is to crush Hamas's will to fight, especially its determination to fire rockets into southern Israel. But in interviews here with wounded supporters of the Islamist militia, Israel's assaults appear to be breeding more recruits and more popular support for Hamas.

Men who say they have never fought before or were not Hamas loyalists now vow to join the struggle against Israel when they return to Gaza. They include policemen and other professionals who form part of the backbone of Gazan society.

"I supported neither Hamas nor Fatah," said Anwar el-Sahabani, 35, a carpenter with a casts on his right leg and left arm, the result of an airstrike. He was referring to Hamas's rival party. "Today, after all that has happened, I have to support Hamas."

The wounded are among 260 Palestinians, including women and children, who are being treated in Egyptian hospitals. Many expressed guilt for receiving treatment and being safe while their families are trapped in the conflict's epicenter.

Many Egyptians treat them as heroes. For the past two weeks, hundreds of visitors have flowed to the Nasser hospital's fourth floor, bringing bouquets, food and drinks, toys, cellphones and envelopes stuffed with cash. The support is another indicator of the sharp disconnect between many Egyptians and their government, which is wary of Hamas's Islamist ideology and has faced intense criticism for not doing enough to help Palestinians.

Like all the wounded, Hussein listens to the radio for the latest news on Gaza. He knows the Israelis are near Gaza City, close to his family. It makes him more determined.

"That's how the Palestinian people are," he said. "The more we get hit, the more we become persistent."

'We Have No Place'

Two doors down, Ramadan Khalid, 40, nursed a broken arm and leg. Israeli missiles had struck a mosque where he was praying two weeks ago. "It felt like a force was pushing me down to the ground. Then I flew through the air," recalled Khalid, a farmer. Unconscious, he was taken to Gaza's Shifa Hospital, where he was dumped on the floor of the morgue, next to dozens of bloodied corpses. "They thought I was a martyr," he said. "I felt like I had gone mad. I started screaming for help."

By Tuesday, the Palestinian death toll had reached 960, with more than 3,000 wounded, health officials in Gaza said. According to Israel's military, 13 Israelis -- three civilians and 10 soldiers -- have been killed since Israel began its offensive Dec. 27 in an effort to stop Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, from shooting rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilians.

There are 34 injured Palestinians at Nasser hospital, all men save for a woman and a 9-year-old girl suffering from head injuries, said Ayman al-Sabour, a physician. He said none of the wounded had been engaged in combat.

Saleh Abdul Latif, a pharmacist, was seated next to his brother, Sami, who was sleeping in the bed next to Khalid's. Latif described how he searched for his brother, inspecting bodies in the same morgue. Sami, also a policeman, was injured in an airstrike on his police station.

"It was a black night," Abdul Latif recalled. "I still can't sleep."

Israeli officials say the police stations, mosques and universities that have been targeted are used by Hamas to plan and stage attacks against Israel. But six wounded police officers interviewed here said they were not members of Hamas, although all supported it. "The police is not just Hamas," said Iyad Jabberm, 32, a policeman since 1994 who was also injured by an Israeli airstrike on his station.

"They think everything is related to Hamas. They think if they destroy the buildings, they will bring Hamas down," Abdul Latif said. "But Hamas is not a building, or a mosque, or a school, or a police station. Hamas is people. Each and every house has Hamas people."

Initially, Egyptian authorities would not let Palestinian ambulances cross into Egypt. After a day of negotiations, they were allowed in, Khalid said. Today, he worries about his wife and children. "They can't leave the house to buy food. There are too many bombings," he said.

Two Egyptian visitors entered. One tucked a thick envelope containing money under Khalid's blanket. The other gave a similar envelope to Abdul Latif. "May you return victorious," one said to Khalid.

"Day and night, you feel the people here really know what the Palestinians are going through," Abdul Latif said, opening the envelope to find a wad of Egyptian pounds. "They want to share our tragedy."

Moments later, Khalid began to cry. "We have no place for us in Gaza," he said. "Gaza has been destroyed."

"I did not support Hamas before," he added. "Now, I do. The whole world is conspiring against Hamas. And the number one conspirer is the United States."

Ready to Fight

A young Egyptian woman wearing an Islamic head scarf entered a room and placed a red rose on the chest of Ashraf Muhammed Herez, a Hamas loyalist.

"God bless you," she said, before drifting out the door.

Herez, 37, flashed a feeble smile and placed the rose on his pillow, next to his head. His spine is broken. So is his right leg, framed in a metal brace. He's been given antibiotics and painkillers. An operation is next on the list.

"This is God's destiny," he said. "That is why I am here."

On Dec. 27, Herez was working in a Hamas security building. A missile struck the building, killing more than 15 "brethren," he said. He was buried under the rubble. Before he blacked out, he could hear rescuers searching for survivors. When he woke up, he was at Shifa Hospital, the largest medical facility in Gaza. But they had neither the medicines nor the expertise to help him. So they put him in an ambulance and drove him eight hours to Egypt.

"Now I am away from my wife and children," Herez said. "I am concerned and upset, but there's nothing I can do."

A radio crackled next to his bed, tuned to the news. Before the offensive, he said, he was "ready and waiting" to fight the Israelis. "If I were not here, I would be fighting them, God willing."

When he returns, he will do exactly that, he said, even if he can no longer carry a weapon. "I will send food to the jihadists. But of course, God will praise you more if you can carry a weapon."

'I Will Carry a Weapon Again'

As his father watched, Alaa Mustafa Saad hobbled to his bed. His kneecaps were bandaged. The 13-year-old had been near a police station when it was struck by an Israeli missile, spitting shrapnel into his legs.

Soon, his 7-year-old brother, Dhia, will join him: Three days ago, Dhia was playing on the roof when a tank shell hit it, killing his cousin and injuring him, explained the boys' father, Mustafa.

Mustafa said he was glad his sons were here. "Here, it is far away from the rockets. Here, it is easy for him to be a child. Back in Gaza, he can't do this."

Near Alaa's pillow sat a pink stuffed rabbit, a gift from an Egyptian visitor. Alaa has named it Yasser after the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But the gifts have done little to soothe his anger.

When he returns to Gaza, he said, he wants to fight and "liberate Jerusalem."

His father smiled.

"Yes, I would like to see him go and fight. The Jews are the killers of prophets," Mustafa said. "At the end of the day, Israel does not differentiate between fighters of Hamas and an innocent child."

Yet Mustafa partly blames Hamas for his sons' injuries. He said Hamas lacked the tactical ability to take on Israel and to protect Gazans. "But blaming Hamas does not mean I am against Hamas," he said.

Hanni Mohammed, 38, spoke up from the next bed. "Why don't you blame the Americans?" he demanded. "Why is America not stopping the war?"

He had fought in the previous Palestinian intifidas, or uprisings, but had stayed on the sidelines in the current conflict, Mohammed said. No longer.

Mohammed's wife and six children are locked in their house. "My family is over there being killed, slaughtered," he said, clutching a transistor radio that blared the news. "There's no water, no electricity. There's nothing I can do. All I can tell them is not to leave the house."

When he goes back, he said, he plans to fire rockets at Israel.

"After everything I have seen, I will carry a weapon again," Mohammed said. "I went to fight before, and now I will fight harder."

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