Home News In northern Israel, conflict with Hezbollah drives hospitals underground

In northern Israel, conflict with Hezbollah drives hospitals underground

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The entrance hall to the Galilee Medical Center in northern Israel is mostly empty and quiet. In this large hospital closest to the Lebanese border, the roar of warplanes and the intermittent roar of artillery fire replaced the voices of doctors, orderlies and patients.

Nearly all of the hospital’s staff and patients went underground.

Today, reaching the hospital’s nerve center requires passing through 15-foot-tall concrete barricades and multiple blast doors, then descending several floors into a maze of underground complexes.

Thousands of patients and hospital staff have been stuck in Lebanon over the past six months as strikes between the Israeli army and Hezbollah intensified. Hezbollah is a powerful Iran-backed militia in Lebanon, just six miles to the north.

The underground operation at the Nahariya Galilee Medical Center is one of the most high-profile examples of how life has changed in northern Israel since Hezbollah began launching near-daily attacks on Israeli forces in October in solidarity with Hamas. Led an attack on southern Israel that month.

Cross-border fires have killed tens of thousands Israelis evacuate towns and villages and schools, and forced factories and businesses to close. On the Lebanese side of the border, Tens of thousands more have fled their homes.

The hospital has been preparing for this scenario for years due to its proximity to one of the region’s most volatile borders.

“We knew this moment was coming, we just didn’t know when,” hospital director Dr. Massad Barhoum said in an interview last week.

Hours after the Hamas-led attack on October 7, staff at a Galilee medical center feared that Hezbollah might launch a similar attack. Even before the government issued an evacuation order, hospital executives decided to relocate much of the sprawling complex to a backup underground annex. They reduced the 775-bed hospital’s capacity to 30% in case it suddenly needed to accommodate waves of new trauma patients.

“It’s our responsibility to protect the people here,” Dr. Barhom said. “This is what I’ve been preparing for my whole life.”

The hospital’s towering medical wards are now empty, and the wide, neon-lit corridors are silent. In the ward’s current underground location, the whir of hospital machinery blends with the beeping of golf carts ferrying supplies through narrow tunnels that lead to the hospital’s parking lot and provide the only sunlight.

In a maze of halls, patients lie on beds separated by moving curtain frames. Visitors sat on plastic chairs in a makeshift clinic room because the space was too crowded for everyone to visit at the bedside. Pipes and wires running through the ceiling give the space an engine room feel.

In the neonatal intensive care unit, new parents wearing protective suits huddled in a dimly lit room and bottle-fed their babies. The doctor was operating on another young patient a few feet away.

The neonatal unit became the first to be moved underground on October 7, said Dr. Vered Fleisher Sheffer, director of the neonatal unit.

“While everyone feels safer here,” she said, “it’s challenging because we’re humans and now we have to stay underground.”

Her unit also went underground in 2006, during Israel’s last all-out war with Hezbollah: Dr. Fleisher Sheffer recalls walking along deserted roads to the hospital as air-raid sirens sounded . One day, a rocket hit the eye ward, but patients had been moved, hospital officials said.

That war lasted just over a month, and the threat from Hezbollah gradually diminished over the next few years. October 7th changed that.

The day before a New York Times reporter visited the hospital, Hezbollah attacks nearby Bedouin village, causing injuries to 17 soldiers and 2 civilians. The injured were taken to the hospital’s intensive care unit, where one of the soldiers died on Sunday.

“These are our neighbors,” Dr. Fleisher-Shafer said, referring to the Hezbollah militants. “They’re not going anywhere and neither are we.”

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