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First Person: Israel’s health system responds to October attacks

Dr. Thieren spent almost two weeks travelling across the country to meet with survivors, authorities and families of more than 200 hostages held captive in Gaza.

WHO offered humanitarian support to Israel’s health response immediately after the attacks. At the time, Israel’s Health Ministry replied that the system was coping, but that it would not hesitate to ask if assistance was needed. To date, WHO’s surveillance system of attacks on healthcare recorded eight attacks on Israeli medical facilities that killed seven people.

In visits to destroyed and deserted towns, from a hospital in Ashkelon to military bases where victims’ remains are stored pending their identification, Dr. Thieren spoke with survivors, health workers and authorities. 

He also met with relatives of hostages taken by Hamas, amid continuing repeated calls by WHO and UN partners for their immediate and unconditional release.

As the Israel-Palestine conflict escalates, Dr. Thieren shared an account of what he saw and heard:

Dr. Michel Thieren (right) talks to medical staff on his visit to the Barzilai Medical Centre in Ashkelon.
WHO

Dr. Michel Thieren (right) talks to medical staff on his visit to the Barzilai Medical Centre in Ashkelon.

“What is so striking is that almost all the people I spoke to, the vast majority of them with severe injuries from gun shots, shrapnel and burns, did not want to talk about themselves at all but about the people they had seen die in front of them.

Almost every one of those survivors had seen someone else die before they themselves were injured. They are absolutely haunted by this. It is dominant in their thoughts.

So many need urgent mental health support.

Emergency workers in Israel respond to missile attacks.
© Magen David Adom Israel

Emergency workers in Israel respond to missile attacks.

‘Rapidly spreading’ mental health problems

The fact that so many Israelis are still being held hostage by Hamas means that there is no chance for the wider public to begin the healing process.

It is on their minds 24 hours a day. It has added to the collective psychological burden witnessed nationwide, triggering an acute need for mental health services.

From what I am seeing, mental health problems appear to be rapidly spreading among the country’s population. The human suffering is immense.

People just don’t feel safe anymore, and this is a complete change in their recent history.

Only half of 1,400 victims identified

Doctors and forensic experts are still working to identify the bodies. They are all wrapped in plastic bags. There are obviously adult bodies and children’s bodies, but the vast majority of bags are misshapen.

Despite Israel having some of the best forensic doctors in the world, only 700 – barely half of the 1,400 victims – have been positively identified so far.

This, of course, is incredibly impactful on those that are doing this necessary work.

Emergency workers in Israel are called to assist a 10-year-old boy who was hit by shrapnel.
© Magen David Adom Israel

Emergency workers in Israel are called to assist a 10-year-old boy who was hit by shrapnel.

‘Ghost towns’

I have visited ghost towns in the south whose populations have been evacuated. There is still the terrible stench of death. I have listened to so many people telling their stories.

Survivors, the injured, psychiatrists, doctors, first responders and soldiers – all their accounts are horrific.

The shadow of national shock and grief has plunged this country into night.”

Learn more from WHO’s fact sheet on mental health in emergencies here.

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