Sniper bullets
Sniper bullets

COMMENT

One year after the  Great March of Return protests began, health workers in Gaza are facing an unprecedented challenge: salvaging the limbs of protestors that Israeli forces have targeted.

These injuries are inflicted on protestors in response to their weekly protests calling for a return to their land and an end to the siege on Gaza that has lasted for more than a decade.

The United Nations reports that more than 29 000 people have been injured, with over 7 000 of the injured shot using military ammunition, many by army snipers. Around 90% of those shot were injured in the lower limbs, Gaza’s health ministry has reported.

Sniper bullets, designed to kill at distances of 1000m, are being fired at targets from a much shorter range. The devastating injuries that this causes means that on average each patient needs between five and nine surgeries before their wounds can heal. This treatment journey will last for a minimum of two years.

There is something distinctly cynical about targeting people’s limbs as a response to them walking to the fence of their prison to protest.

Last week, Doctors without Borders (MSF) held a meeting of medical experts in Brussels to discuss the challenge of providing reconstructive surgery to these patients.

Between 800 and 1 200 young Palestinians are still awaiting reconstructive surgeries for their legs, according to data provided by Palestinian surgeons and international organisations working in Gaza. Palestinian surgeons from Gaza’s largest health facility, Shifa Hospital, described how the majority of those shot in the lower limbs were targeted in the lower thigh and back of knee where a single bullet can find its way to nerves, arteries and the knee joint all at once.

The devastating nature of the injuries means that around 20 to 40% of patients will sustain bacterial bone infections, further complicating the clinical management of their wounds and burdening an already struggling health system. 

The presence of multidrug-resistant bacteria makes treating these infections both difficult and costly. If not promptly treated, patients with these infections risk joining the 124 Palestinians who have already had a limb removed in what can be described as an epidemic of amputations. Almost 1 000 more people have already suffered permanent nerve injury leading to more disability.

The people of Gaza are being debilitated for their demonstrations against the siege and for the right of return. 

This is the epitome of disproportionality. 

The act of salvaging those limbs targeted by Israeli forces is a medical act of humanitarian defiance.

In response to the need for specialised limb reconstruction surgery, MSF has tripled its capacity to provide medical activities in the Gaza strip. One project is partnering with the  Union of Health Work Committees to set up a specialist limb salvage unit at Al-Awdah Hospital in Jabalya Camp in the northern Gaza Strip. Palestinian and international health professionals of all specialities and disciplines work together in providing complex medical care that aims to reduce the disabling effect of these injuries on such a large number of previously able young people.

These activities occur within a health system already under strain. Electricity and medical supply shortages, severe overcrowding, vast infrastructural damage and unemployment are all force multipliers of the Israeli occupation. These conditions make the bullet wounds far more dangerous.

For the abandoned people of Gaza, there is no such thing as an ‘international community’ that will address this crisis. There are a collection of political interests, with the most powerful of them entirely backing the occupation. 

Bilateral aid is channelled at an unprecedented level to Israel, while Gaza is entirely cut off from the humanitarian mechanisms needed to deal with the consequences of never-ending occupation and siege.

What health professionals can do is to defy these policies by continuing to save lives and alleviate suffering. In the case of Gaza, that means salvaging the arms and legs that are being targeted with the intention to debilitate.

Jonathan Whittall is the director of MSF’s analysis department. Follow him on Twitter @ @offyourrecord. Ghassan Abu-Sitta is the co-director of the conflict medicine program at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Follow him on twitter @GhassanAbuSitt1.