This story contains graphic descriptions and images
The walls of Gaza’s first and only children’s cancer ward could collapse at any moment.
The medical facility called Dr. The Musa and Suhaila Nasir Pediatric Cancer Unit operates at Al-Rantisi Hospital in Gaza City, in the northern part of the Palestinian enclave.
On October 13, the Israeli government ordered all civilians in the northern region of the besieged enclave to evacuate south amid ongoing airstrikes on Gaza, whose northern half is home to a million residents and 22 hospitals. The evacuation was “impossible” to carry out without “devastating humanitarian consequences,” a United Nations spokesman said of Israel’s order at the time.
“This is an impossible situation for the patients at the children’s cancer ward in al-Rantisi,” said Dr. Zeena Salman, an American pediatric oncologist who volunteered at the facility for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, the U.S. charity that founded the cancer ward in 2019.
“There are a number of patients who are not stable enough to be transferred to another hospital,” Salman told The Daily Beast, adding that at least 10 hospitalized children were being treated in the department. “And there may not be enough resources in the hospital.”
Since Israel began its relentless airstrikes on Gaza in response to attacks by the militant group Hamas on October 7, the children’s cancer ward in al-Rantisi has become a makeshift shelter for patients and their families, many of whom have already been affected have lost their homes due to air raids. The entire hospital houses around 1,000 civilians, including the cancer ward.
“And so these children and their families stay because they have no other choice. Some of them require regular blood or platelet transfusions,” Salman said. “In addition, there are nurses, social workers and others who have evacuated their homes,” she added.
The hospital staff of the pediatric cancer department of Dr. Musa and Suhaila Nasir sent videos from the station to The Daily Beast showing the children and their families being treated at the facility. Due to telephone disruptions in Gaza, The Daily Beast was unable to interview patients and families directly.
In one of the clips shared with The Daily Beast by a hospital employee, a woman with an infant on her lap sits next to her young daughter, who appears to be about 10 years old. “We have no winter clothes, no milk, no diapers,” she said, speaking to the employee, who said in the video that the family home was destroyed by an airstrike.
In another clip, a young bald boy named Adam – described by the staff member as a leukemia patient – lies on the bed while his brother hovers over him. The employee asks the brother how he is and whether he is afraid. He shakes his head and mutters “No” in Arabic.
“This is a place where cancer patients are healed, and this is the suffering we go through,” the staff member said during a video tour of the ward. “It’s a tragic situation.”
The head of PCRR, the charity that funded and made the opening of the cancer unit possible, is Steve Sosebee, Salman’s husband. Sosebee is an American citizen who has been traveling back and forth between the United States and the Palestinian territories for approximately 30 years.
“We have never seen such absolute inhumanity and complete disregard for human life. And the continued use of high-powered weapons against innocent civilians is beyond the bounds of humanity,” Sosebee said in an interview with The Daily Beast last week, referring to civilian casualties from Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza. “And there are simply no words to express this type of crime and murder of innocent women, children and civilians. And I don’t know what else to say except: We are all broken and in shock.”
More than 5,000 Gazans have been killed in Israeli airstrikes since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which Hamas militants killed about 1,400 Israeli citizens and took about 200 others hostage. Now, a looming ground offensive in Gaza is certain to increase the death toll.
“They hope for a situation where there is still so much trauma. ”
For Sosebee, the horrors of war go beyond the threat of a missile hitting the hospital.
“These children’s homes have been destroyed, their family members have been killed and they themselves may be slowly dying because their medicines have been cut off,” citing problems caused by Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. This ward lacks clean drinking water for patients on a daily basis, which is the bare minimum of food. They are unable to get food regularly.”
Even the “norm” in Gaza – when the enclave is not bombarded by air strikes – is difficult to endure, Salman emphasized.
She recalled the case of a cancer patient she helped treat on one of her trips to the Palestinian territories: a three-year-old boy from Gaza who had to be transferred to another PCRF cancer ward in the West Bank. His mother couldn’t follow him, she said, because she didn’t have the proper permission to leave the enclave.
“He was in the hospital for a month. He didn’t smile once for 30 days. And I remember that after the 30 days were up, his mother miraculously got approval. And I will never forget the moment he saw his mother. I’m in tears right now thinking about it. The smile that finally appeared on this beautiful little boy’s face would break your heart into a thousand pieces,” she said.
For the people of Gaza, such difficulties continue “even without there being an active war or bombing at any time,” Salman added. “You’re hoping for a situation where there’s still so much trauma. That’s their norm, and that norm is traumatic, painful and horrible to watch.”