6pm: When we arrive, there is an air of chaos and anxiety, as the ambulance workers have just finished dealing with the mosque injuries which included children. Explosions are constant and nearby. We understand that these are now coming from tanks shelling the area from the other side of the border, a new development.
7pm: Some semblance of calm has returned to the Centre but not the surroundings. A magnesium rocket (we understand this is designed to set things on fire) lands in the field beside the Centre. The explosions continue through the whole night without pause, rocking the building. We can see many people leaving the area on foot. We hear a water tank is destroyed.
7.30: Ambulances called out. We are unable to pass a huge crater in the road into which a car has already nosedived. Taking the long way round, we collect a man in traditional dress, in his 60s, from what seems to be his family farm. He is bleeding from the face and very frightened. On the way to Karmel Adwan hospital a particularly close explosion rocks the van. I mustn’t have jumped enough, beacuse the driver mimes “did you hear that?” to me. I am beginning to realise Palestinians are fond of rhetorical questions, such as “how do you find Gaza at the moment?”
8pm: We collect a man in his 30s from a family house in a main street. He is continually bleeding from the face near his eye and also has wounds to his hand and upper and lower legs. He has made makeshift bandages for himself. We take him to Al Awda hospital. On the way back we pick up a woman and her daughter who are in danger having gone to collect water.
8.20: Bread and tea at the Centre. Ambulances called out.
8.40: Medic worries “we are taking too long; ten minutes.” However at our dangerous and darkened destination no-one arrives in response to the ambulance loudspeaker, the electricity lines are down, and smoke fills the air. The ambulances retreat, describing it as a no-go area. Immediately beside it, a peasant family of about 10 emerge from the smoke, looking bewildered. Some of the children are crying, everyone is holding tight to each other’s hands. One woman is pregnant. The medics shout at them to leave the area, then decide to evacuate them in the ambulances. We drop them in the nearest town, to go god knows where.
8.55: we hear the Israeli army has crossed the border – in Rafah, in Gaza centre near Bureij camp, and here in Jabalia. We hear Israel has told the Red Cross (the communication medium) that people must evacuate to a distance of 1km in this area. I glimpse a teapot and tea but we are called out again.
9.10: We collect a young woman and an older. I am not sure what the issue is, although the younger woman appears pregnant. We deliver them to Al Awda hospital where we are given tea. H, one of the medics, tells me about his 3 children and his wife, who is very worried about him.
9.30: Back to the Centre for short period of quiet (except for the noise.) Our driver has decided he likes me because my beret reminds him of Che Guevara. He is driving with his arm in plaster.
10pm: Ambulances called out. A family of about 12 was round the fire outside their house, having no other way to cook or get warm. They were hit by a rocket and all are injured. Many ambulances converge at Karmel Adwan to transfer them to Al Shifa in Gaza city which has more resources. The wounded are pushed into one after the other. We have a young man, perhaps a teenager, whose breathing is being done for him by a medic with a handheld pump. I can’t help but wonder if one of the 29 ventilators is free right now. But our driver says afterwards that he probably won’t survive the night.
10.55: We leave Al Shifa to head back to the Jabalia Centre. There is coffee. Mo makes a coffee sandwich, which is just weird. There is a pause in the calls. Hassan asks me about my book, “Nature Cure”; I explain it is about an ecologist’s route out of depression. “People get depressed in the West?” he asks in surprise. Understanding how implausible that must sound right now, I say that many people get caught up in a life that mainly holds work and buying stuff, and without some sort of meaning – religion, or the dream of your land being free, or something like that, people can get very lost.
“Actually Israel is trying to force us into a meaningless life like this,” he says. “Like, sometimes I feel that all that really matters to me right now is a kilo of gas. I built a stove for my family and I feel like I did something amazing.” The discussion becomes animated as all the medics join in, but it’s in Arabic. We have a quiet stretch – again, despite the noise.
1am: This is a call to a woman in labour. V has a similar call. What a night to give birth. The stress is bringing on labour early for many women. Hassan says he should have documents for her to hand in at Al Awda, but they’ve not been allowed through from the West Bank for some time.
At this point I lose track of the time for a while and also get a couple of hours sleep. When I wake I find that A has come back from a grim call. The ambulances were called to the Beit Lahia Salatin area, outside the Mu’a’ia School to assist the Atar family. However the IOF forced them to turn back by dropping a bomb in front of the ambulances and shooting in front of them, so they were not able to access the wounded.
However, as they turned back, a donkey cart pulled in front of A’s ambulance. On it were an older man and woman, probably the parents of the three teenage boys on the cart. One of the teenagers was attempting to shield the other two with a blanket. One of these two had a serious head wound and his eye was detached. The other had an open chest wound, and his arm was partially detached. Despite this he was conscious and shouting. A could see his lungs, one appeared punctured, and the clearly disturbed mother was patting his wounds. Back at the Jabalia Centre, A quietly described how he had assisted the medics to lift this boy off the donkey cart, and in doing so, found his hand inside the boy’s body.
6am: My ambulance goes to three women, waiting in the dark street. They are young and quietly weeping. One carries a boy of about 4 years old wrapped in a blanket. His head flops back and his eyes are half open. I find myself hoping maybe he has just fainted from fright. Eventually I understand, perhaps from the weight of grief on their faces, that he is dead. We deliver them to the hospital.
6.30: several of the ambulances leave again to try again to reach the Atar family. Mine only gets a short way before rubble bursts the tire. This appears to happen nightly. While the medics try to fix it, we see a rocket strike very close to the Ambulance Centre. By the time we get back from getting spare tires, we have been told not to return to the Centre as the shooting is now right near it.
8.15: We return to evacuate the Centre as the army is now very close. People on the streets are running away. We move our base to someone’s shop in a Jabalia main street. No more tea kettle or generator.
9.30: 3 ambulances attempt to reach wounded. We wait to have access co-ordinated with Israel by the Red Cross. Israel refuses.
9.45: Israel broadcasts the message all over the Gaza strip: “for your own safety, leave your homes immediately and head towards the city centre.” Mamy people have been on the streets this past night, carrying children and bundles, and now the number increases. But there are also many people simply waiting at home, without any belief in a safe place. A rocket hits near us while the ambulances are all off. The injured man is pushed into a car, which rushes off.
10.50: We collect an old women from a farming area. She is very distressed and has a bullet wound to her upper shoulder. The medic inserts a cannula into her arm despite the bumpy road.
11.30: We go straight from the hospital to another call. As with many of our calls, locals line the way, pointing the ambulance to the correct turn. A house has just been bombed. Neighbours are frantically dragging out the wounded and the medics cram four people into our ambulance, which is meant for one.
The stretcher place is taken by the dead body, covered in dust, of a man in his 30s. His abdomen is ruptured and damaged organs visible. His legs look as if they no longer contain bones and are twisted implausibly. One foot detaches as he is put in the ambulance. Another man, maybe older, looks to have internal injuries and might also have had injured legs, but the chaos is such that I can’t clearly identify his injuries, neither can I with the man in his sixties, who is shoved into the remaining space. He is in shock, sweat covering his grey face. I helplessly stroke his cheek, wondering if he is about to stop breathing. Halfway through the journey, his eyes focus slightly. I hope not enough to realise he is crushed against a corpse. The injured boy of about 3 is held in the front seat by his father.
At Karmel Adwan hospital, a wail of grief goes up from all waiting there at this scene of disaster. They haul out the living, and we are left with the dead man. We move the ambulance away from the delivery area. Our medic strokes the man’s face. “Actually, he was my friend.” he tells me. “His name was Bilal Rabell.”
We are told that since last night 47 people are dead, 12 of them children, and more than 130 injured. These numbers are increasing as more people are found and as more die from their injuries.