A Palestinian family with a premature newborn decides to stay in Gaza

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JERUSALEM – Even in the midst of a war of brutality, the images shared around the world were striking: babies in a hospital in Gaza City being taken out of the incubator they have, tiny arms straining and pounding on tiny chests.

But less than 15 miles away, little Anas Esbeita’s parents didn’t see them. Communication was too daunting for the widely circulated press photos to reach. From their corner of a packed makeshift shelter, they thought their newborn, like the others in Gaza’s largest hospital, was dead.

The news that a team from the United Nations had evacuated more than two dozen children from al-Shifa Hospital reached them through a friend. He told Ali Esbeita, the 35-year-old father of the child, to go straight to the Emirati Maternity Hospital in Rafah. Ali scanned the list and saw Anas’ name.

His happiness, he said, was “amazing.”

The child is now sleeping peacefully, photos shared with the family show. But the dilemma before his parents includes the impossible choices Gazans face every day during this month and a half war.

As the World Health Organization carried at least 26 of the evacuated babies into Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances on Monday to proceed to Egypt and receive medical care outside the war zone, Anas stayed and his family behind.

“If his mother comes with him, who will take care of his seven brothers?” Ali asked in a phone interview. “If I travel with him, who will take care of my wife and children?”

“No one refuses to let his son be healthy. But if he travels, what if he survives only to find that his family has been killed? “

Hamas fighters entered Israel early on October 7, killing about 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals, and brought more than 240 back to Gaza as hosts. Israel has responded with a military campaign to end Hamas rule in Gaza.

That campaign has destroyed the enclave’s health care system. The World Health Organization has recorded 164 attacks on healthcare-related facilities since the beginning of the conflict. By the time Israeli soldiers laid siege last week to the al-Shifa compound, which military officials claim houses several Hamas command and control centers, the hospital had been reduced to its most basic functions.

Medical staff at al-Shifa have denied that the militant group used their hospital as a command and control center. Israeli investigators have been investigating the facility but have provided little evidence to support their claims.

Without fuel to generate the electricity to power the hatches, medical workers wrapped the babies in blankets and medical scrubs and watched as they grew sicker by the day. When WHO officials arrived on Saturday, at least 32 of the babies were in critical condition inside the facility. They described it as a “death zone.”

With fighting still raging outside the hospital, the UN health agency could only stay an hour, the agency said, as its officials evacuated the facility ahead of the first emptying the next day. Two of the babies did not survive the night.

Ali had seen al-Shifa, but only in better times. By October 7, it was Gaza’s most advanced and best transplant facility. Anas was born prematurely there on August 16; the doctors said his organs were underdeveloped. He had been lying in the incubator since then, his mother, Warda, pumping milk for him at home and his father delivering him to the hospital almost every day. Their last visit was on October 4.

Three days later, Hamas terrorists overran Israeli border communities, sending raw shock through Israel and leaving Palestinians across Gaza fighting for the war they knew would continue.

Warplanes were bombing northern Gaza; Esbeita’s family fled almost immediately. As the airstrikes intensified, Ali and Warda shepherded Anas’ seven siblings through two different temporary shelters and finally to the southern city of Khan Younis.

But they were wracked with guilt. All they had of Anas were the pictures they had kept on their mobile phones. “We were blaming each other for leaving her, for abandoning her,” said Anas. “The feeling of helplessness was killing me.”

Cell phone communication in Gaza often goes down for hours. When the news reached the family that last week Israeli soldiers had stormed al-Shifa, they despaired. They believed that Anas was dead.

Thousands of civilians were still taking shelter inside the hospital. Most of them left on Saturday, many walking 15 miles to Khan Younis, bringing with them horror stories of the dire conditions they escaped.

When the WHO team arrived, they found that none of the babies there had mothers. Palestinian officials had little information about their location. Some were believed to be dead.

In a picture shared by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of WHO, a member of the UN team in a blue helmet and flake jacket gently scoops a small baby from a hospital bed. The protective gear, essential for the team’s “high-risk” mission through a war zone, emphasized just how miraculous infant survival was.

The doctors who looked after them, said Ghebreyesus, had shown “amazing bravery”.

Gaza’s Ministry of Health urged parents who thought their children might be among the remaining babies to collect them at another hospital in the southern city of Rafah. The ministry said they could sign up to travel in an ambulance convoy out of Gaza and towards a hospital far from the bombs and the fear.

At the Emirati hospital, newly arrived babies were fighting serious diseases due to the lack of medical supplies and other problems during al-Shifa’s last days. Most were suffering from severe hypoglycemia – low blood sugar, a potentially fatal condition – because they were unable to drink enough milk, said Ahmed al-Shaer, deputy head of the nursing department. .

Only six mothers had arrived, al-Shaer said. He didn’t know what happened to the others.

“We expect that they were killed during the war, or displaced and we do not know that their children were taken to an Emirati hospital,” he said.

As at least 26 of al-Shifa’s remaining babies were taken to Egypt, Anas stayed behind. In pictures taken by his parents, he finally looked at peace. He and others were lying close to each other in their incubator, with new diapers and blankets. In one image, Ali and Warda watch over them, their expressions tender but worried. They said that a doctor had suggested that Anas could be ready for release soon.

“I know he won’t be in ideal conditions if we’re all living in a shelter, but at least he’ll be in my hands,” Ali said.

The babies who were evacuated to Egypt were received on Monday by a fleet of doctors. Ali and Warda said they stood by the rejection, but were afraid of the future. The Israeli army said at the weekend that it was now pivoting its ground offensive towards Hamas operations in the south.

“With each passing day there are fewer places for Hamas terrorists to roam,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Friday. The people of southern Gaza would soon see the same “deadly force, ” he said, as Israeli forces appeared in the north.

It is in the south that the Esbeita family takes refuge. They will stay together now, Ali said, no matter what.

“Do you know what it means to leave your child alone and weak for 45 days, until he becomes a prey to war, hunger, cold and occupation? ” he asked. “That’s why I refuse to let him go. My family and I believe that we must live together or die together. The only solution is to stop this senseless war.”

Harb reported from London.

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