Gaza’s first maritime emergency service attends to protesters

The Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip launched the first maritime emergency service in Gaza in order to provide medical assistance to demonstrators injured by Israeli fire while protesting at sea.

al-monitor Palestinians sail toward the maritime border with Israel as smoke rises from a burning tire during a protest calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza, in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the northern Gaza Strip, Sept. 10, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Oct 19, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip launched Oct. 8 the first maritime emergency service in Gaza in order to provide medical assistance to demonstrators who are fired at by the Israeli army in anti-siege protests at sea.

The Palestinians launched naval protests May 29 to draw attention to their suffering under the Israeli land and sea blockade for the past 12 years. Dozens of boats with peaceful protesters are participating in the action that Israeli soldiers and military boats are targeting with live bullets and tear gas bombs.

The maritime emergency service employs 35 staff including nurses, doctors and EMTs who work in three different units: the emergency boat service, the ambulance located on the beach and the first aid post set up on the shore of the northern Gaza Strip.

Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for the Ministry of Health in Gaza, told Al-Monitor that the idea of establishing a maritime emergency service came in response to the difficulty of transferring those shot by the Israeli army at sea and wasting the first minutes after an attack, which are crucial to save the lives of the wounded.

He said it only took the maritime emergency service three minutes to bring wounded protesters to the shore on Oct. 8. He explained that demonstrators used to help each other get to the shore, but they lack the medical experience to deal with wounds and regular boats are too slow.

Qudra noted that the internationally prohibited weapons used by the Israeli army against peaceful demonstrators in land and sea protests, such as explosive bullets and unidentified gases, have led to severe injuries. Many demonstrators have lost their limbs as a result, while others lost their lives.

Qudra added that the Israeli army fired at the maritime emergency service Oct. 8, without causing injuries among the medical staff.

Ever since the Great March of Return protests began in March, 205 people were killed, including three paramedics, up until Oct. 12. More than 22,000 people were wounded, 51.5% of whom received hospital treatment, while 48.5% received treatment on the ground. Sixty-seven cases of limb amputation were recorded.

According to Qudra, the maritime emergency service uses equipment made available by the Ministry of Health, which supervises and funds the service. However, more equipment is needed to provide lifesaving services.

The emergency service is available also around the clock on a daily basis to accompany Palestinian fishermen, who are constantly attacked by the Israeli army at sea. Most recently, on Oct. 14, fishermen's boats were fired at in the northern Gaza Strip, but no injuries were reported. On Oct. 17, Israel reduced the fishing zone for Gazans from 6 nautical miles to 3 miles after a rocket was fired from Gaza toward the Israeli city of Beersheba.

The spokesman of the National Committee to Break the Siege, Adham Abu Salmiya, told Al-Monitor that the attacks peaceful demonstrators are subject to during the maritime protests resulted in the Ministry of Health to develop the maritime emergency service. Since its launch Oct. 8, the service has provided lifesaving treatment to 29 people, including several with gunshot wounds and others suffering from the effects of tear gas.

Abu Salmiya said that the most important objectives of the maritime protest movement are to assert the Palestinian right to break the Israeli blockade and establish a waterway from Gaza to other countries, and to diversify the weekly marches of the return movement on the eastern border of the Gaza Strip.

He noted that the Higher National Commission of Great March of Return and Breaking of Siege decided Oct. 9 that the sea protests would take place twice a month going forward. The first one was organized on May 29, the second on July 9 and the third on Aug. 13; then they took place every week.

Approximately 50 small boats take part in the sea protests, all of which sail toward the Israeli maritime border with the Gaza Strip. Israeli boats fire at these vessels before they reach the border, while thousands of Palestinians gather on the seashore in northern Gaza in support of the protests.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health set up five first aid posts along the eastern border of the Gaza Strip to attend to the wounded. The maritime emergency service was classified as a sixth medical point with basic medical facilities, due to the acute shortage of medical supplies in Gaza.

Salah Abdel Ati, member of the commission's International Legal and Communication Committee, told Al-Monitor that the maritime emergency service and other actions by Gazans, such as the lighting of tires to block the sight of Israeli snipers firing at demonstrators, are means to confront the bloody repression by the Israeli army against peaceful demonstrators on the land and sea borders.

He said that the Israeli army action is as serious as a war crime, and explained that the demonstrators are peaceful and pose no danger to Israeli soldiers or their military bases.

They demonstrate in a small area of less than 1 nautical mile in order to convey their message and demand the end of the siege, Abdel Ati noted, calling on the international community to force Israel to abide by international conventions on human rights.

Palestinians hope that their peaceful demonstrations would succeed in breaking the Israeli siege. This is particularly true in the context of regional and international efforts to implement the truce signed by Israel and the Palestinian factions at the end of the 2014 war and ease the Israeli siege gradually, which began last week when fuel trucks bought by Qatar arrived in Gaza to operate the only power plant. In addition, Palestinian hopes are rising amid talks about setting up projects funded by Qatar and the World Bank worth hundreds of millions of dollars and providing job opportunities for the unemployed.

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