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MSF workers demonstrate in Beirut, Lebanon calling for an end to attacks on healthcare workers in Gaza. Alamy Stock Photo

Five-year-old girl dies after suspected Israeli tank shell struck NGO shelter in Gaza

The girl’s father is a member of the MSF staff working in Palestine.

ON MONDAY MORNING in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, a tank shell struck a building being used by Doctors Without Borders as a shelter for its staff and their families. The shell blew a hole in the walls and wounded four people, one of them the five-year-old daughter of an MSF worker.

Yesterday the little girl, Malak Abu Saada, died of her wounds as doctors tried in vain to save her. Her father, Rafiq, has been a driver with the medical NGO since 2009. 

Although Israel is the only side in the conflict with tanks in its arsenal, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have yet to take responsibility for the shelling.

In a statement posted on X (formerly Twitter) yesterday, MSF condemned the strike on the shelter in “the strongest possible terms”.

“While MSF is not able to confirm the origin of the shell, it appears to be similar to those used by Israeli tanks. MSF has contacted Israeli authorities and is seeking further explanation,” it added. 

The Journal spoke to MSF’s medical coordinator for Palestine, Guillemette Thomas, about the attack, its aftermath and how humanitarian workers have been surviving without the protections normally afforded them during war. 

When asked to describe the mood and reaction of MSF staff upon hearing the news of the Malak’s death, Thomas replied:

“It’s terrible. You cannot imagine. I mean, all of our staff, they lost family members, some of them lost kids. But she was in an MSF shelter so it’s a bit different.”

While this is a particularly tragic incident, it is not the first time during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza that MSF staff have come under attack, despite frequently notifying the IDF of their shelter locations and complying with evacuation orders, Thomas explained. 

“Since the beginning of the war our staff, most of them, have lost their house and home and all others had to escape because of the evacuation orders. We (MSF) were trying to help them and we have different shelters, mainly Rafah and Khan Younis, that we were renting, places just to shelter our staff and family.

“Each time we’re doing that we’re notifying the place to the IDF, to the Israelis, saying that this is an MSF shelter so don’t attack this place, please.

“In the past we had to evacuate some shelters because they were in evacuation order blocks so, okay, we were very careful with that. Each time the shelter is in a block that has been asked to evacuate, we evacuated our staff but this block was not in an evacuation order area. 

“And so we were sheltering 120 of our staff and family, so children, many, many children and what happened is that after a night of heavy shelling, in the morning about 8:30, something like that, probably a tank shot the wall of the of the facility.

“The shell broke the window and two walls and arrived in a room where there were kids and family. So in total we had four of our staff that have been injured and this little girl with a critical injury.

“So she went first to An-Najah hospital, they were not able to treat her, and then she went to European Gaza hospital where one of our surgeons, a very, very good surgeon, he did an amazing job but unfortunately it was not enough. 

“He started to operate on her but unfortunately she had huge bleeding and so he started to try to save her again and she died. 

There is clear evidence, according to Thomas, that the shell came from an Israeli tank. 

“So yes, that’s the direct targeting of the building. Is it intentional or not? I cannot say, but everything that we have, all the evidence that we have, are saying that it’s coming from the IDF. 

Hamas do not have tanks, she points out, adding that “to be really transparent, it’s written in Hebrew on the shell so this is coming from the IDF”. 

Asked if MSF had been contacted by the IDF regarding the strike on the shelter, Thomas said it had not. 

“They didn’t say anything so far. We’re waiting for them to give us an explanation and we won’t give up. This is really a shame and it’s a tragedy.

“The place has been notified (to the IDF) many, many times, so they did know that we were here,” she said. 

“We are asking them for an explanation. We have a couple of meetings with them. So we are waiting for an answer.”

The possibility of accountability seems remote, in Thomas’ opinion, but MSF still wants answers. 

“Which kind of accountability can we ask to those guys? I don’t know to be honest, but at least they have to recognise that they shot the facility, the place and the house. So that’s something that we want them to do.

“It’s difficult to make you understand what’s happening there, but the humanitarians in this war, I would not say they’re targeted, but at least they are not at all protected by their status, as the journalists, as everybody who’s working in Gaza,” she said.

Since the beginning of the conflict, four MSF staff members have been killed, as have numerous family members. 

“So it’s a war against the civilians, against the humanitarians, against journalists, against all the people that are normally protected in a war. 

Asked if this conflict is unique in that sense, she said, “Yes, unique in the horror”. 

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