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As Israel airlifts wounded soldiers out of Gaza, Palestinians have nowhere to go

The Palmachim airbase about an hour away from Jerusalem has become a critical operations centre in Israel’s war against Hamas. While injured Israeli soldiers are airlifted from the battlefield in Gaza, there’s no escape from the war for Palestinian civilians.

'You have to be deaf not to understand that civilians are suffering. But I ask myself why?' says Israeli medic

Israeli soldiers evacuate a wounded colleague into a military helicopter.

The Palmachim airbase about an hour away from Jerusalem has become a critical operations centre in Israel's war against Hamas.

A drone flew overhead as we arrived. Black Hawk helicopters were positioned across the tarmac — ready to be deployed at a moment's notice.

In the hangar, two Israel Defence Forces soldiers who serve in medical evacuation units were waiting to speak with us.

We're one of just a few media outlets to get access to the base — and we're told our time is limited. The helicopter serving as a backdrop for our interview may be called to the front.

The base represents Israel's airpower and its technological superiority over Hamas — giving it the ability to ferry wounded soldiers out of the war zone. But there's no escape from the war for the civilians of Gaza.

CBC News has agreed to a request from the Israeli military not to reveal the soldiers' identities for their security. One of them is Master-Sergeant S, a reservist from Toronto who now lives in New Jersey where he's in medical school.

His team goes into Gaza's combat zones to rescue wounded soldiers, performing emergency medical treatment while rushing them to waiting helicopters used to fly the soldiers to hospitals across Israel.

A soldier stands in front of a military helicopter.

"I say a prayer every time we go in — a prayer for safe travels," Master-Sergeant S said. "War is something that no one wants to see. It's something that shouldn't be part of the human experience."

Gaza's suffering deepens

In Gaza, the humanitarian crisis verges on unimaginable.

More than 12,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. It says more than 7,000 of them were women and children. So many have died that mass graves are reportedly being dug.

Hundreds of thousands more have been forced from their homes by the fighting, fleeing with whatever possessions they could carry to southern Gaza, where Israel said it would be safer for them. But deadly airstrikes have continued there, too.

A man in a white shirt carries an injured child in his arms.

Hospitals aren't functioning — and those that still operate are overrun with the sick and injured, including children bloodied in Israeli airstrikes.

Barely any aid is getting in, and United Nations agencies are warning of a growing risk of starvation and a rapid spread of disease among those now huddling together in overcrowded shelters and tent cities.

For weeks, Israel has been under intensifying pressure from the international community for a humanitarian ceasefire as civilians' suffering mounts. But the country's leaders have so far refused.

Master-Sergeant S said he does worry about the losses on the other side.

"For sure," he said. "I have no doubt that 99 per cent of people on the other side of the border want to live as peaceful, happy lives as people on our side of the border."

Israeli military spokespeople said they could not respond when asked whether their teams had evacuated injured Palestinian civilians.

'This is very personal'

On Oct. 7, Hamas attackers stormed into southern Israel from Gaza, ravaging communities along the border. About 1,200 Israelis and foreign citizens were killed and roughly 240 others were taken hostage. Most are still being held by Hamas.

The brutality of the attacks — some victims burned alive, investigators say — has made it impossible to so far identify all the victims. Hundreds of remains are still being examined.

WATCH | Israel warns people in southern Gaza to evacuate:

Israel warns people in southern Gaza to evacuate

1 day ago

Duration 3:13

Featured VideoAs Israel releases more images of Hamas weapons and a tunnel shaft beneath a children's hospital, it has told people in three towns who have already evacuated from the north that they must do so again. Fuel has run out, communications with doctors inside hospitals have been cut off and the UN says it will have to halt operations if more fuel isn't delivered soon.

Master-Sergeant S started scrambling for a flight to Israel as soon as he heard what was happening.

"On Oct. 6, my biggest problem was finding a quiet spot in the library," he said. "Oct. 7 I was trying to get on the quickest flight to go into war."

Israel has called up 360,000 reservists in the aftermath of the attacks, the largest compulsory mobilization since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Many, like Master-Sergeant S, flew in from abroad.

"We just feel like what happened on Oct. 7 isn't something that we can live with," he added.

A soldier in a helmet with stands inside a military transport vehicle.

He works alongside Major N, a reservist from Tel Aviv, who flies the helicopters airlifting wounded soldiers.

In the aftermath of Oct. 7, Major N flew those injured in the attacks to whatever hospital had room to treat them.

"This is very personal," he said of the mood in Israel. "Everyone knows someone who got killed. And everyone knows someone who is actively fighting."

Opinion polling suggests a majority of Israelis support continuing the war against Hamas — even as Israel faces growing condemnation for the scope of civilian losses in Gaza.

"You have to be deaf not to understand that civilians are suffering. But I ask myself why?" said Major N.

"[Hamas] knew that we were going to retaliate and they knew that this retaliation would involve many of their own civilians suffering.

"And yet, they decided to go on with it," he said. "They don't care."

War crimes accusations

But Israel has also been accused of not showing enough care.

The UN's human rights chief, Volker Turk, said Israel and Hamas have committed war crimes during the conflict.

"The atrocities perpetrated by Palestinian armed groups on Oct. 7 were heinous, brutal and shocking. They were war crimes," Turk said.

"The collective punishment by Israel of Palestinian civilians amounts also to a war crime, as does the unlawful forcible evacuation of civilians."

Major N balks at those accusations.

"Unfortunately, yes, there are casualties. I can tell you that Israel is trying its best to minimize it."

As we finished our interviews, the military's media team hurried us off the base, a siren sounding moments later. We were told the helicopter was needed somewhere else.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ellen Mauro is a senior reporter based in Toronto, covering stories in Canada and beyond, including recent deployments to Haiti and Afghanistan. She was formerly posted in Washington, D.C. where she covered the Trump White House for CBC News. Previously, she worked at CBC's London, U.K. bureau where she covered major international news stories across Europe and Africa.

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