Investigating Indy claim that 511 Gazans died ‘after their ambulances were obstructed’

Dr Ghassan Abu Sittah is the Chief of Division of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery at American University of Beirut Medical Centre. He’s also an anti-Israel activist. Abu Sittah recently wrote an op-ed for The Independent based on his experiences as part of a surgical mission in Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital for the NGO Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).

The July 2nd op-ed included the following headline.


Abu Sittah’s claim that “511 Palestinians died after their ambulances were obstructed” is of course quite dramatic, and the op-ed began by recounting one alleged incident involving a 7-year-old boy.

In July last year, Anas ‘Bader’ Hatem Qdeih, a seven-year-old boy already experiencing the fourth major conflict of his short life, was separated from his family as they fled with thousands of others from Israel’s bombardment of Khuza’a in northern Gaza. His mother and sisters managed to find shelter in a nearby kindergarten, but Bader was still running in the street when an artillery shell exploded nearby and his abdomen was cut open by shrapnel.

It took nearly four hours for an ambulance from the International Committee of the Red Cross to be permitted by the Israeli military into Khuza’a. They found Bader lying in the road, bleeding heavily from his injuries. On the way to hospital, the ambulance was stopped by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint. They ordered everyone out, including Bader, who was placed on a stretcher on the ground while the vehicle was searched. After waiting for 27 minutes, they were permitted to leave for the hospital. Approximately four and a half hours after being struck down, Bader died in the back of the ambulance without ever reaching a hospital.

Interestingly, Palestinian Center for Human Rights tells a different story about the death of Anas ‘Bader’ Hatem Qdeih. They make no claim that the boy died as a result of the ambulance obstruction or that he died “in the back of an ambulance”, only that he was killed by Israeli shelling in Khuza’a village, and that his body was “brought to the European Gaza Hospital in Khan Yunis”.

Moreover even this one highly disputed example serves to illustrate a larger point in the op-ed: that 511 Palestinians died after their ambulances were obstructed.

Bader’s case is tragic but, sadly, not unique. During last summer’s assault on Gaza, more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed. International law is very clear on the need to ensure access to remove and treat the wounded in times of conflict, and yet in Gaza last summer this was often prevented or delayed. New data has revealed that of these, 511 – including 67 children – never received medical assistance before their deaths due to obstructions to ambulance access.

We followed the link provided by Abu Sittah, which led to a report titled ‘No More Impunity: Gaza’s Health Sector Under Attack‘, jointly produced by MAP, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights.

Here are the relevant passages in the report.

Of the 2,217 Palestinians who were killed as a result of the Israeli military operation, 511 died whilst waiting for an ambulance to reach them or shortly after whilst in transit to hospital. Bader Qdeih’s story, covered in this report, demonstrates the consequences of delaying access to medical care in emergencies. The obstruction of medical personnel and medical treatment as a result of military checkpoints and refused coordination may have led to additional civilian deaths and must be investigated further.

Of the 511 who died for whom ambulance access was obstructed, some may have survived if paramedics had been more able to reach them more easily or quickly.

A footnote at the end of these passages claimed that this 511 figure was derived from Al Mezan’s own databases. But, it didn’t provide a link to the data.

So, we emailed MAP to ask them to answer a couple of questions, including how precisely they came to the 511 figure, and received a prompt reply from a MAP spokesperson who noted that he cc’d his colleague from Al Mezan “who is better placed to discuss their methods of data collection”.  A couple of days later, we received a reply from an International Advocacy Officer at Al Mezan, who asked us to clarify what we were asking. After providing more detailed questions, we received another reply from an Al Mezan spokesperson named Mahmoud AbuRahma.

We asked the following question:

Is it your group’s contention that all of these Palestinians would have survived if not for the ambulance obstruction?

Here’s AbuRahma’s reply to this specific question:

We did not define any death as a result of ambulance obstruction. What we are saying is that out of the total casualties, we documented 511 cases where ambulance access was obstructed for varying times. This is not the same as saying a person died because of the obstruction; although swift ambulance access could have saved lives. We are simply stating facts we documented, which does point to a serious challenge facing people and medics in times of conflict in Gaza.

No, we do not claim that all, or even any, would have survived should ambulances were able to access them. I am not sure if anyone can make such an assertion at all. Whether they would have had a chance to survive should ambulances accessed them swiftly; however, is a valid question to answer. Experienced medics in Gaza asserted that in many cases minutes make a difference.

So, it clearly seems, based on this statement by an official spokesperson for the NGO who compiled the statistics, that, contrary to claims made in The Independent by Dr. Ghassan Abu Sittah, the case of seven-year old boy cited (even if accurate) is likely quite unique. Further, contrary to the clear suggestion of the headline and text in the op-ed, there is no evidence whatsoever that any Palestinian died as the result of ambulance obstructions by the IDF.

Finally, we asked if we could have access to the data purportedly showing that 511 Gazans who died in the fighting experienced some sort of ambulance obstruction so we could verify the veracity of even this narrow claim.

The Al Mezan spokesperson told us they would consider our request. 

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