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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Haifa hospital in the firing line
By Raffi Berg
BBC News, Haifa

The growing number of Israeli casualties - both military and civilian - is stretching Haifa's emergency services to their limit as the conflict with Hezbollah continues to rage across the Israel-Lebanon border.

Professor Best
Professor Lael-Anson Best fears a rocket will hit the hospital

Nowhere is this felt more acutely than at the city's Rambam Medical Centre, where victims of missile attacks and wounded soldiers are beginning to populate the wards.

Since the clashes began, the hospital has also had to adjust to being in the firing line itself, a unique experience in its 98-year history.

"It's very difficult psychologically," said Professor Lael-Anson Best, the Indian-born head of thoracic surgery.

"It's the first time the home front has been attacked. Even during the [1973] Yom Kippur War, Haifa was safe. But now we can be hit at the same rate as everyone else."

Firing line

The hospital came close to disaster on Monday when a missile struck an apartment block just 500 metres away, and every new attack brings with it the threat of a direct hit.

"Even if Hezbollah say they're not deliberately targeting the hospital, they don't know where a rocket is going to land," said Prof Best. "There's no ethics of war out here."

Building police
Haifa Police Chief Cmdr Nir Mariash inspects damage near the hospital

The danger has intensified the daily stress under which the hospital's medical staff have to function.

Surgeons are conducting operations with sirens sounding every few minutes, sometimes followed by a dull or heavy thud, depending on how close a missile lands.

Patients recovering from surgery or those on ventilators cannot be moved to the hospital's bomb shelters quickly enough, and medics invariably have to stay with them.

Attack preparations

Resources have also been set aside in case of mass casualties - some 20 trolleys are permanently stationed outside the main entrance where ambulances have been arriving in quick succession.

"We have had to deal with large-scale incidents in the past, such as suicide attacks which have caused 100 casualties," said Professor Raphael Beyar, the centre's director, "but the victims have been spread between hospitals.

There's no ethics of war out here
Professor Lael-Anson Best

"What is different about this war is that now they come here from all over the area and we have to think about our own security.

"The hospital is continually under threat but patients still need treatment."

Just 35km(20 miles) south of the Lebanese border, the centre has historically treated troops injured in combat.

On Wednesday, a soldier injured in the first ground battle with Hezbollah was airlifted from the field and rushed to the hospital.

But for the first time the hospital is receiving civilians with war injuries too.

War wounded

Of the 700 patients being treated at Rambam, about 63 have been hurt in rocket attacks.

Many of the casualties have been wounded by some 14kg of ball-bearings packed into the missile warheads, designed to cause maximum damage.

Ramdam medical centre
Trolleys are on stand-by in case of mass casualties

Among those in the hospital recovering from such injuries are survivors of the deadliest missile strike on Israel so far.

From his bed on the ninth floor, Yossi Heder, 39, recalled how he and his workmates were cut down by the ball-bearings, which "went through the bodies like cheese".

The missile slammed through the roof of the railway depot in Haifa last Sunday, killing eight of Mr Heder's colleagues and injuring some 14 more.

It was, for those who died, a "very fast death", he said.

Lucky escape

In the next bed lay Sami Raz, 39, who nearly lost his life in the attack.

Initially, he was believed to have been only superficially wounded, but when Mr Raz was brought to Rambam, Prof Best found his heart had been punctured by a ball-bearing.

Mr Raz underwent emergency surgery, without which he would have died within minutes.

Sami Raz
Sami Raz survived a missile packed with ball bearings

As we spoke, a siren warning of an imminent missile strike started up outside, but the patients in this ward could not be moved.

"Don't worry," said Mr Heder, a religious Jew.

"The attack at the railway only strengthened my faith.

"If God wants us to stay alive he'll save us. If not, then that's also his will. Everyone's going to get his day, and with [Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah, it's only a matter of time."


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Aerial footage released by Israel of Hezbollah targets





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