Fear of rockets sends Israeli hospital underground

ASHKELON, Israel (AP) — The largest hospital on Israel’s southern coast has gone underground.

Wary of a missile strike against it from the nearby Gaza Strip, Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital has moved its most essential departments into an underground bomb shelter.

The threat is a real one: In February a rocket from Gaza landed adjacent to the hospital’s helicopter pad and in May a rocket crashed into a busy shopping mall in the city, injuring 14 people.

The hospital in this city of 120,000 people about 17 kilometers (11 miles) north of the Gaza border has sent half its patients home to get them out of harm’s way. Those remaining are jammed in rooms previously used for storage.

On Saturday, Berzilai activated a war room, with direct lines to the military, police and paramedics in the field. It relocated the most vulnerable departments and placed its least mobile patients _ such as those in the geriatric, infant and maternity wards _ underground.

On Sunday, two rockets fell in Ashkelon itself and another 22 in the surrounding district and Barzilai’s makeshift, fortified emergency room began receiving its first casualties. Three people were treated for shrapnel wounds and several others for shock.

“This is something that we’ve been preparing for,” said Dr. Ron Lobel, the hospital’s deputy director. “In a city like Ashkelon, one rocket is enough to create a multiple-casualty scenario for us.”

He said that when the hospital itself was in the line of fire as now, Barzilai usually restricted its treatment of patients to emergency care.

The 500-bed hospital, currently has 200 patients.

On Sunday, warning sirens sent doctors, patients and guests rushing for cover several times.

Outside, pedestrians scurried into buildings. After the sound of distant explosions faded away the street once again filled up with people trying to keep up their usual routines.

For some, it wasn’t easy.

Clutching a cigarette in trembling fingers, Tzipi Moshe, 59, said she was afraid to keep walking to her doctor’s appointment.

“When it comes out of nowhere like that, your heart just jumps out,” she said. “What will be the end? I guess we just need to be strong, but it is not that easy.”

In Barzilai’s underground children’s ward, sick Gazans lay alongside sick Israelis as a clown hopped around trying to coax smiles. Lobel said that his facility had close ties with Gaza’s Shifa hospital, and accepted many of its patients who need treatment the Gazan hospital cannot provide. He said it wasn’t uncommon to have a colleague in Gaza call him for assistance even as rockets rained down on Ashkelon.

“It might seem completely absurd,” Lobel said. “But we have the privilege to be doctors. Our medical ethics do not distinguish between patients. We treat whoever needs to be treated.”

A Gaza woman, whose two-month-old granddaughter was being treated for an unidentified ailment, wept when asked how she was coping. She said she was fortunate her granddaughter was getting the best medical treatment but was worried about her daughter and other grandchildren in Gaza City. She said some of their neighbors were among the more than 280 people killed in the Israeli airstrikes.

“I am very sad and hurt,” she said, in Arabic. “We want peace, not war.”

She refused to identify herself or have her picture taken, for fear of retribution if her presence in Israel was discovered in Gaza.

A few doors down in the maternity ward, 23-year-old Israeli Keren Shaltiel was resting after giving birth to her second child to the sounds of sirens and exploding rockets outside.

“Today is a very happy day for me personally,” she said from her underground hospital room. “But today I am also very worried about my town and my country.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.