Gazan evacuees take flight with their shattered dreams: Arab News journalist reflects on the mission she joined

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Three-year-old Karma Al-Khateeb was unable to ignore her pain despite attempts by her mother Douaa Abu Rahma and a cabin crew member to distract her with a coloring book and crayons. (AN Photo: Mohammed Fawzy)
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Sabra Moussa was one of the lucky evacuees arriving at Etihad Airways chartered plane to receive treatment in the UAE. (AN Photo: Mohammed Fawzy)
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Updated 05 December 2023
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Gazan evacuees take flight with their shattered dreams: Arab News journalist reflects on the mission she joined

  • Arab News boarded fourth UAE mission that left Abu Dhabi to airlift 120 injured Palestinian children and cancer patients from Egypt after they crossed Rafah
  • Renewed airstrikes near Rafah border allowed only a few lucky Palestinian patients to leave

ABU DHABI: “This is my first time on a plane. I have only traveled in my dreams. In Gaza, we can’t dream. We build our homes before they are destroyed all over again. Our dreams are always shattered.”

Abdelrahman Hussam Zyada, 31, was aboard a flight that has become a “flying hospital” for war-stricken Palestinians after once carrying passengers to new destinations or home to see their families.

The comfortable padded seats of Etihad Airways’ Boeing 777 serve as beds for vulnerable elderly cancer patients who have been evacuated from an “apocalyptic” Gaza, via Rafah border, for treatment in the UAE. His mother was among them.

I was part of the Arab News team aboard the fourth UAE mission that left Abu Dhabi on Friday afternoon to airlift 120 injured Palestinian children and cancer patients, along with their companions, from Egypt’s Al-Arish International Airport in a challenging journey that took 14 hours.

My seat in economy class was next to a stretcher installed above a group of folded seats that medics were setting up to provide urgent medical care for the seriously wounded.

Gaza was under intense bombing that day shortly after the truce ended, with airstrikes hitting near the Rafah border where only a few evacuees were lucky to leave.

Our take-off from Abu Dhabi was delayed by almost two hours as UAE officials and medics adjusted their plans based on information they received from Egyptian authorities on the ground.  

Landing in Al-Arish at dusk, we left the plane two hours later to welcome patients after officials had back-and-forth negotiations with the Egyptian authorities on the right movement around the highly secured airbase.

The stillness and eerie silence in the vast, dark desert of Al-Arish stood in sharp contrast with the intense bombardment behind Rafah crossing, which was only 55 km away, about a 45-minute trip.

The impact of the brutal war on Gaza unfolded before our eyes as patients began to arrive in Egyptian ambulances.

The passengers shared common features: Eyes framed with intense black circles, thin and exhausted figures, a small plastic bag carrying a few possessions, and a gaze that simultaneously captured a mix of emotions — relief, guilt and hope.

On the tarmac, UAE medics and doctors received the first patient; a seriously injured man, tightly strapped on a stretcher and appearing to be in immense pain, who was transported onto the aircraft via a hydraulic lift after his condition was assessed.

It was a sight that countless hours following the war daily could not have prepared me for.

Soon after, dozens of dazed and weak elderly cancer patients followed on wheelchairs for their turn to board the aircraft.

Receiving them with reassuring smiles and gentle pats on the shoulder, doctors and staff from the Abu Dhabi Department of Health later told us that these patients had had no access to painkillers, proper food or water since the war started on Oct. 7.

“The first thing we do with some cases is give them hydration and painkillers to immediately comfort the pain. We receive many patients who have lived in pain for long weeks,” Jordanian nursing manager, Sabreen Tawalbeh, told me.

This flight received only a few war-related trauma wounds as majority of the adult and young cancer patients boarded the flight unassisted, occasionally smiling in relief and thanking us as they passed through the aisles.

“As much as I am relieved to leave the horror I can’t describe in Gaza, I can’t imagine eating, drinking or sleeping without thinking of my family back home,” said Zyada.

The war, which he calls “hell from a horror film,” has already killed 50 members of his family and levelled the area where they lived to the ground. He has no clue if he will ever see his nine siblings, their children, and his remaining relatives.

After miraculously leaving Gaza, Zyada said he cannot believe he made it out alive.

Amna Hashem Saeed, an elderly Pancreas cancer patient, broke down as she recounted the final moments with her only daughter who could not accompany her after she was denied entry through the Rafah border.

“I am left here to die, mom,” Saeed repeated her daughter’s sentence as the city behind them was collapsing. Saeed’s husband suffered a stroke a few weeks ago and lies without treatment.

“I do not know if I will ever see them again.”

Traumatized and in shock, teenagers who either accompanioned sick elderly family members or were seeking treatment themselves walked down the aisles of the aircraft as if they carried the weight of the world on their shoulders.

A couple of children, too young to comprehend the situation, either played in joy or squirmed in pain.

Sitting in the front row of the plane, three-year-old Karma Al-Khateeb was unable to ignore her pain despite the attempts by her mother Douaa Abu Rahma and a cabin crew member to distract her with a coloring book and crayons. The young leukemia patient had a fever that affected a nerve on her face after her case could not be attended to due to the collapse of hospitals in Gaza.

It took about six hours to carefully get all patients on board and ensure their needs were met before a final headcount was made and the plane left for Abu Dhabi.

“If the evacuation had taken longer and we crossed the maximum number of hours allowed for the cabin crew per shift, we would have had to go to Cairo and change the crew before flying back to Abu Dhabi,” Joe Coughlan, flight medical commander, told me.

Silence quickly took over during the flight to Abu Dhabi after passengers had their first proper meal and rest in nearly two months.

With dreamy eyes and an innocent smile, two-year-old Mohammed, who had no family except his ailing grandmother on the flight, climbed on my lap and played on the plane’s small screen for hours before peacefully falling asleep in my arms.

It was difficult to comprehend that thousands of children like him will go to bed with the possibility that they will not see the next day.

Along with my media colleagues, I left the aircraft, which landed in Abu Dhabi at 5 a.m. the next morning, knowing that the televised images of the war will now strike much deeper.


Israeli military official says four Israeli soldiers wounded in blast inside Lebanon

Updated 15 April 2024
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Israeli military official says four Israeli soldiers wounded in blast inside Lebanon

  • Injuries as a result of an explosion of an unknown source during activity along the northern border

JERUSALEM: Four Israeli soldiers were wounded in an explosion hundreds of meters inside Lebanese territory, an Israeli military official said on Monday.
Earlier, the military said four soldiers were injured overnight, one severely, as a result of an explosion of an unknown source during activity along the northern border and that the incident was under review.


US CENTCOM forces intercept four Houthi UAVs, statement says

Updated 15 April 2024
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US CENTCOM forces intercept four Houthi UAVs, statement says

  • Houthi militants launched an anti-ship ballistic missile with no injuries or damage reported by US, coalition, or commercial ships

DUBAI: The US Central Command (CENTCOM) said on Monday its forces destroyed four uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen on April 14, acting in self-defense.
CENTCOM added in a Red Sea update that Houthi militants launched an anti-ship ballistic missile toward the Gulf of Aden from a Houthi controlled area in Yemen on Saturday and that there were no injuries or damage reported by US, coalition, or commercial ships.


Iran says MSC Aries vessel seized for ‘violating maritime laws’

Updated 15 April 2024
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Iran says MSC Aries vessel seized for ‘violating maritime laws’

  • MSC leases ship from Gortal Shipping, affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer

DUBAI: A Portuguese-flagged container ship, the MSC Aries, was seized by Iran on April 13 for “violating maritime laws,” Iran’s foreign ministry said on Monday, adding that there was no doubt the vessel was linked to Israel.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized the cargo vessel in the Strait of Hormuz days after Tehran vowed to retaliate for a suspected Israeli strike on its consulate in Damascus on April 1. Iran had said it could close the crucial shipping route.
“The vessel was diverted into Iran’s territorial waters as a result of violating maritime laws and not answering calls made by Iranian authorities,” spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said.
Iran launched a barrage of missiles and explosive drones on Saturday in its first direct attack on Israeli territory, a strike that Tehran said was self-defense after the bombing of the consulate.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported that a Guards helicopter had boarded the MSC Aries and taken it into Iranian waters.
MSC, which operates the Aries, confirmed Iran had seized the ship and said it was working “with the relevant authorities” for its safe return and the wellbeing of its 25 crew.
MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, Zodiac said in a statement, adding that MSC is responsible for all the vessel’s activities. Zodiac is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.
Tensions have soared across the Middle East since the start of Israel’s campaign in Gaza in October, with Israel or its ally the United States clashing repeatedly with Iranian-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
In response to reports of the seizure, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz accused Iran of piracy.
Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the leading seafarers’ union, said that “innocent seafarers must be protected from escalating conflicts they have no role in instigating, nor power to resolve.”
The International Chamber of Shipping called the seizure a “flagrant breach of international law and an assault on freedom of navigation.”
Recent attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis have also affected the global maritime transport chain, as well as trade and port activities in and around the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
Patrick Verhoeven, managing director of the International Association of Ports and Harbors, said the seizure of the MSC Aries “has the potential to further disrupt cargo transits in and out of the region, which will impact all of our member ports, one way or another.”


Israeli authorities release 150 Palestinians detained from across Gaza

Updated 15 April 2024
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Israeli authorities release 150 Palestinians detained from across Gaza

  • Palestinian detainees were delivered to Kerem Shalom border crossing into Rafah in southern Gaza Strip

GAZA: Israeli authorities released on Monday morning 150 Palestinian detainees who had been arrested in different parts of the Gaza Strip.

The detainees were delivered to Kerem Shalom, a crossing on the border of Egypt, Israel and Gaza, into Rafah in southern Gaza, according to an Arab News reporter in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Among the released detainees is Sufian Abu Salah, who told local reporters he was arrested “perfectly healthy” and “walking on both legs” but has had his left leg amputated in detention due to torture and neglect.

A video circulated on social media showed Abu Salah skipping on one leg with the support of a wooden stick he used as a crutch.

He told local journalists that while in detention, his foot became infected but Israeli soldiers refused to send him to a hospital. Within seven days, the infection had spread, and he had his leg amputated.

Abu Salah lost his leg due to torture followed by medical neglect in detention. (Supplied)

An internal UN report compiled last month by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees described widespread abuses of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons.

Methods of abuse include “physical beatings, forced stress positions for extended periods of time, threats of harm to detainees and their families, attacks by dogs, insults to personal dignity and humiliation such as being made to act like animals or getting urinated on, use of loud music and noises, deprivation of water, food, sleep and toilets, denial of the right to practice their religion (to pray) and prolonged use of tightly locked handcuffs causing open wounds and friction injuries,” according to the UNRWA report.  

“The beatings included blunt force trauma to the head, shoulders, kidneys, neck, back and legs with metal bars and the butts of guns and boots, in some cases resulting in broken ribs, separated shoulders and lasting injuries.”

The prisoners released on Monday also include a child and a doctor. 

According to UN figures, Israeli authorities have arrested at least 4,000 Palestinians, including women and children, since the onset of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza on October 7, which was triggered by a surprise Hamas attack on southern Israel.


Kuwaiti ruler names Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister

Updated 15 April 2024
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Kuwaiti ruler names Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister

  • Kuwaiti Emir also tasks the new prime minister to form a government

DUBAI: Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah has appointed Ahmad Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as prime minister, state news agency KUNA reported on Monday.

The Kuwaiti ruler also tasked the new prime minister to form a government.

The Kuwaiti ruler last week accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, after elections were held to choose new members of the National Assembly.

He also instructed the cabinet to act as caretakers until the formation of a new government.