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‘We Just Want to Live’: The British Medics Trapped in Rafah

Mohamed Tayseer

As Israel intensifies its bombardment of Rafah, Palestinians are eating animal feed just to survive. A doctor at the European hospital, one of several British citizens trapped in Gaza, speaks to Tribune about the horrors he is witnessing.

A young Palestinian injured in Israeli air strikes arrives for treatment at Kuwait Hospital in Rafah, Gaza. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

Interview by
Taj Ali

It’s been eight months since Israel began its latest offensive in Gaza. Around 35,000 Palestinians have been killed. Despite an International Court of Justice ruling on plausible genocide, the UN Security Council adopting a resolution calling for a ceasefire, Israel continues to pound Gaza.

It has intensified its bombardment of Rafah in Southern Gaza, the largest refugee camp on earth, housing 1.4 million Palestinians, including 600,000 children — many of whom were told to evacuate from the north. The IDF intends to launch a ground offensive a move that will lead to the collapse of the principal remaining hub for humanitarian operations in Gaza and countless deaths.

Gaza’s already struggling healthcare system has gone from bad to worse as Israel continues to target critical medical infrastructure. Of Gaza’s 36 hospitals, just 10 remain partially functioning and all of them are struggling to cope. Gaza’s medical workers have spoken to Tribune about their colleagues being tortured and executed by the IDF, operations without anaesthetic and patients dying from starvation.

On Tuesday, Israeli forces closed Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt – the only escape for Palestinians. Now British citizens, who arrived in Gaza to volunteer in its hospitals, are trapped. Severely injured children cleared for evacuation to hospitals in Europe remain in Gaza and are at risk of imminent death.

British Palestinian doctor Mohamed Tayseer spoke to Tribune about the reality on the ground at the European hospital in Southern Gaza.


Can you tell me a bit about yourself, where you are based at the moment and how long you have been in Gaza?


I am a British citizen. I originally come from Khan Yunis in Gaza. History is repeating itself. My parents were displaced from Gaza in the 1967 war, so they went to Kuwait. We were born there. I then moved to the UK and became a doctor.

I am actually at the European hospital at the moment. It’s very frightening what’s been going on, especially in the last few hours. There’s fear everywhere. I’m a father of three. I have participated previously in medical missions in 2014. I joined the medical missions just three weeks before Ramadan. I’m working with an organisation called Save a Child with Sally Becker. She’s nothing but an amazing amazing woman. The work that she does from the UK, and the support she has been providing us is simply amazing. As a British citizen and as a Gazan, I’m really appreciative for all her efforts.


We have been told British citizens – medical workers – are currently trapped in Gaza and are being denied exit by Israel. Can you explain what is happening?


Yes, they are. In fact, it’s not only them but everyone else. The Israelis occupied the crossing border in Rafah, so no one can go there at all. I’m actually with British doctors, American doctors, Jordanian doctors. I’ve personally decided to stay for longer, but they were supposed to leave on Monday, but now they are completely trapped and we don’t know what is going to happen. Most of these doctors have used up their annual leave of two weeks.


I also understand critically injured children who were cleared for evacuation are being denied exit too.


It’s heart-melting. We have a child called Karim. We have done everything that we can to evacuate him. We managed to get him an acceptance to Germany. His amputated leg is infected. But the border was closed days ago. He was supposed to leave. This child is going to die. The patients we are referring are only the ones that need plastic surgery and bone grafts. We are only taking the severely injured children. But there are so many heart-breaking ones. The child with a brain tumour should go, but he isn’t able to. He’s going to die. The child with a heart problem, he’s going to die as well. I came across a kid who has a rare condition. The treatment is there, but it’s not here in Gaza. Again, he’s going to die.

It’s inevitable. We see it every single day. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. You operate on a child in the morning, in the evening they get infected, the next day they get sepsis. It’s terrible. I’m trying to avoid getting emotional. We are trying our best. We never give up. We are going to continue trying.


What’s the current situation like at the European hospital?


The hospitals are full. When you walk in the corridors of the hospital, you have people sleeping on your right and on your left. The European hospital has around 25,000 refugees. You get a patient in, and their home has been bombed. You do what you can to help them and then you say you want to discharge them. Then they look at you and say, ‘Where do you want us to go?’ And you can’t answer the question. So they end up staying at the hospital. You don’t know what to do as a doctor. You can’t tell them to leave. Where do you want them to leave to?

There is no dictionary that has the words to explain what is happening, and I do mean that. You can go anywhere in the hospital, especially the ICU unit. You can look at the situation and you can’t speak. You feel lots of emotions inside you. You feel your heart is melting. You feel your heart is being squeezed. The infection rate at the hospital is unbelievable. If a child goes through a difficult operation, his big challenge is how they will survive.

Imagine you are working with a doctor whose family are in a tent with no food. How do you expect these doctors to be productive? How do you expect them to operate?

There are patients with epileptic fits. They are having fits every day. Diabetic patients are going into emergency situations on a daily basis because there’s no insulin. The wounds get infected. When you change the dressing, you see worms. I have never seen anything like it in my life.

I’ll tell you about one of the most difficult cases I have seen in my life, I will never forget it. I’ve never felt more helpless and useless as a doctor. There was a woman asking for help. She said her brother had a rash. So I looked at the rash and told her it was a very typical allergic reaction. She said, ‘Yes, since we started eating animal feed,  he started getting the rash.’ I said, ‘Just ask him not to eat it.’ Then the question was, ‘What should we eat?’ I felt hopeless. As a doctor, I didn’t know what to say, as a human, I didn’t know what to say. There are no words to describe what is going on.


What’s been the impact of the intensifying siege?


The impact of the siege in Gaza is heartbreaking. They are killing the meaning of life here. Even with this aid coming through, I’ve seen these trucks. You’re getting two or three trucks of winter clothes when it’s really hot. Today, people were collapsing in the tents. These tents are made of plastic. I’ve been in one of these tents. The humidity inside is unbelievable. I could not breathe inside.  I think people have adapted to the situation. I don’t think animals can live in these conditions.

Having diarrhoea is a normal thing here. I’ve tried these food cans. I don’t think animals can eat them. Much of the food they are getting is out of date. The food has been in the sun on the Rafah border sometimes for 5 or 6 months. It is rotten.

I have been in the market. If you want to buy tomatoes, you get a price for the rotten ones and a price for the good ones. This is how bad things are. The only things you find are tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, and that’s it. Everything else is cans from the aid trucks. There’s nothing else in the market.

Honestly, these people, despite what I have told you, they are not like us. You go to people in their homes and you see the misery that they’re living in. You ask them how they are doing. They say ‘alhumdulillah’ [All praise to God] The bombs are dropping throughout the hours and people are living. They don’t even turn their heads. They say to me, ‘Doc, as long as you hear the air strikes, as long as you hear the bombs, you are safe because, if you don’t hear it, you are dead.’ These people are going back to live in the destroyed houses. The biggest challenge they have is they need generators to get the water from the ground to be able to live.

The siege is not just the borders being closed. There’s no money. You can’t reach the banks. The only place you can get money out is the money exchange offices. They take 20 percent of the money transfer. They force you on a rate. There’s nothing. We just want to live.


The UK has called for an immediate pause in fighting, and then progress towards a sustainable ceasefire. What do you think of that position? What should the UK Government be doing?


I’m very disappointed in the British government’s approach to the whole situation. It’s a disgrace. Absolute disgrace. We are writing history. What the British government did with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, they are doing it again, they are part of the genocide. They should call for an immediate ceasefire full stop.


There are calls for a Ukraine-style visa scheme for Palestinians in Gaza with family in the UK. MPs are set to debate this in Parliament after a petition reached 100,000 signatures.


I have seen this petition. Unfortunately and sadly, we haven’t been able to refer any patient to the UK. I don’t know why. We have not given up. We are trying everywhere. We’re referring patients to Italy, Germany, and Egypt, and this is all done by British volunteers with the support of Save a Child, in particular Sally Becker. Last week, we evacuated 9 children. They went with their mothers to Italy.

The Gazans do not want to leave home, but many have been suffering for a long time and have been displaced probably 5 or 6 times so far. They live in a tent with nothing. Absolutely nothing. A humanitarian visa scheme would make a difference. Many people are elderly with chronic diseases, women, children, they haven’t been to school for seven months now. There are no medications. Medical facilities almost don’t exist. The infection rate is enormous. It’s scary.

MPs must support such a scheme. This scheme will save lives and rejoin families. Above all, it has a huge humanitarian value. We want to stay in our ancestral land. Palestinians don’t want to leave home. We just want to survive.