This story contains graphic descriptions and images
The walls of the first and only pediatric cancer ward in Gaza could come caving in at any moment.
The medical facility—called the Dr. Musa and Suhaila Nasir Pediatric Cancer Department—operates in Gaza City’s al-Rantisi hospital, in the northern part of the Palestinian enclave.
On Oct. 13, the Israeli government ordered all civilians in the northern region of the besieged enclave to evacuate south during its ongoing aerial bombardment of Gaza, the northern half of which is home to a million residents and 22 hospitals. The evacuation is “impossible” to carry out without “devastating humanitarian consequences,” a United Nations spokesperson said of Israel’s order at the time.
For the patients in al-Rantisi pediatric cancer ward, “It’s an impossible situation,” said Dr. Zeena Salman, an American pediatric oncologist who has volunteered at the facility with the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, the U.S. charity that founded the cancer ward in 2019.
“There’s a number of patients who are not stable enough to transfer to another hospital,” Salman told The Daily Beast, adding that there are at least 10 in-patient children being treated in the department. “And there may not be enough resources in the hospital.”
Ever since Israel began its relentless airstrike campaign on Gaza, in response to the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel by the Hamas militant group, the pediatric cancer unit at al-Rantisi has become a makeshift shelter for patients and their families, many of whom have lost their homes in airstrikes. The hospital as a whole is sheltering some 1,000 civilians, including the cancer department.
“And so those children remain and their families remain because they have no other options. Some of them require blood transfusions or platelet transfusions on a regular basis,” Salman said. “In addition to that, there are nurses, social workers, and others who have evacuated their homes,” she added.
Hospital staff at the Dr. Musa and Suhaila Nasir Pediatric Cancer Department sent videos to The Daily Beast from the ward, showing the children being treated at the facility and their families. The Daily Beast was not able to interview the patients and families directly, due to phone service interruptions in Gaza.
In one of the clips, shared with The Daily Beast by a hospital staffer, a woman with an infant on her lap sits nearby her young daughter, who looks to be about 10 years old. “We have no winter clothes, no milk, no diapers,” she said, speaking to the staffer, who said in the video that the family’s home was destroyed by an airstrike.
In another clip, a young boy with a bald head named Adam—described as a leukemia patient by the staffer—is laying on the bed, with his brother hovering over him. The staffer asks the brother how he is feeling, and whether he is scared. He shakes his head, mumbling “no” in Arabic.
“This is a place to heal cancer patients, and this is the suffering we are going through” the staffer said while giving a video tour of the ward. “It’s a tragic situation.”
The head of the PCRR, the charity that funded and facilitated the opening of the cancer unit, is Steve Sosebee, Salman’s husband. Sosebee is an American citizen who has been back and forth between the U.S. and the Palestinian territories for some 30 years.
“We’ve never seen this kind of absolute inhumanity and complete disregard for human life. And the use of high-ordnance weapons on innocent civilians, over and over nonstop, is beyond the pale of humanity,” Sosebee told The Daily Beast in an interview last week, referring to civilian casualties from the Israeli airstrikes pummeling Gaza. “And there’s just simply no words to express this kind of crime and murder of innocent women and children and civilians. And I don’t know what else to say about that, other than: We’re all brokenhearted, and in shock.”
More than 5,000 Gaza residents have been killed in Israeli airstrikes since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which Hamas militants killed some 1,400 Israeli citizens and took roughly 200 others hostage. Now, a looming ground invasion of Gaza is all but certain to add to the death count.
They’re hoping for a situation in which there’s still so much trauma.
For Sosebee, the horrors of the war go beyond the threat of a missile hitting the hospital.
“These kids have had their homes destroyed, their family members killed and could slowly die themselves because their medication has been cut off,” citing issues caused by Israel’s blockade on Gaza. That department every day has a shortage of clean water for those patients to drink, which is the bare minimum of nutrition. They’re not able to get food on a regular basis.”
Even the “norm” in Gaza—when the enclave isn’t being pounded by airstrikes—is difficult to bear, Salman emphasized.
She recalled the case of one cancer patient who she had helped treat on one of her trips to the Palestinian territories: a 3-year-old boy from Gaza who had to be transferred to another PCRF cancer ward in the West Bank. His mother couldn’t join him, she said, because she didn’t have the right permit to leave the enclave.
“For a month, he was in the hospital. He didn’t smile, not one time for 30 days. And I remember that at the end of the 30 days, by some miracle, his mother obtained a permit. And I will never, ever forget that moment when he saw his mother, I’m tearing up right now thinking about it. The smile that finally appeared on this beautiful little boy’s face would just break your heart into a million pieces,” she said.
For people in Gaza, those kinds of difficulties persist “even without active war or bombing taking place at any moment,” Salman added. “They’re hoping for a situation in which there’s still so much trauma. That is their norm and that norm is traumatic and painful and horrific to watch.”