‘Things can be replaced, but lives cannot’

(CNN) — Weam Elastal was bonding with her dad over a broken television set the night an Israeli military plane bombed their family home in 2014, her father says.

The house, in Gaza’s southern city of Khan Yunis, immediately crumbled, raining heavy stone and concrete blocks over their heads. Weam, only 9 at the time, was knocked unconscious.

When she awoke, Weam found herself in a hospital with needles in her arm and beeping machines surrounding her bed. She almost went into shock when she learned that after three failed surgeries, her left leg had to be amputated, her father said.

“At the beginning of Weam’s injury, she wasn’t sure she could ever live a normal life again, or be like other children,” Mohammed Elastal, her father, told CNN. “It was difficult for her to go to school in a wheelchair and she couldn’t play with other kids.”

In 2015, one year after the attack, Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) heard Weam’s story and stepped in to help.

The US-based non-profit organization sent Weam to a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she was outfitted with her first prosthetic leg. Two years later, after she outgrew it, PCRF sent her to Atlanta, where she lived with an American host family while receiving treatment and a new prosthesis.

Weam says PCRF changed her life. “Now I can do everything with my new leg,” she said in a 2018 video made by PCRF. “I can climb up and down stairs. … I walk and I run. I also use my new leg to go to school.”

Weam is just one of nearly 86,000 Palestinian children that PCRF has provided with free medical care since its founding in 1992. Among its many services, the group provides medicines, surgeries and cancer treatment, as well as mental and physical therapy.

The group also sponsors volunteer medical teams to treat sick and injured Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza, and has built two pediatric cancer facilities in the Palestinian territories.

But all the progress PCRF has made in Gaza was nearly lost last week when its office there was destroyed in a nearby Israeli airstrike.

“The bombing of our office in Gaza makes it much more difficult for our team to provide direct aid to sick and injured kids, for mothers to bring their needy children to our attention, for us to organize and implement direct humanitarian relief at a time when Gaza children need it most,” PCRF founder and president Steve Sosebee told CNN from the group’s main office in Kent, Ohio.

‘We will never stop — with or without an office’

PCRF’s office is located on the third floor of Ghazi Shawa, a commercial building on Al-Wehda Street in the Al-Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City.

The area is a hub for medical care. Directly across the street is Al-Rimal Clinic, one of the only facilities in the territory that can process coronavirus tests, and the Ministry of Health, which, like other administrative entities in Gaza, is run by Hamas.

Offices for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Qatar Red Crescent Society and other international aid groups are nearby.

But May 17, in the latest round of fighting in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the area was struck with Israeli fire.

A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces told CNN at the time that it had targeted the main operations center for Hamas’ internal security forces in the same neighborhood, and that the target building was close to the medical clinics and aid offices.

The airstrike damaged Al-Rimal Clinic and the Ministry of Health’s administrative building, the Ministry of Health said. Qatar Red Crescent Society was also damaged in the blast, according to Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which reported deaths and injuries, but did not elaborate.

PCRF’s office was destroyed, but no employees were injured, Sosebee told CNN.

In a statement on Facebook, the Ministry of Health said the airstrike effectively stopped the direct treatment of 103 patients, one of whom had a head wound.

“This is a war crime, and the entire world, people of conscience, need to stand against it,” Dr. Yousef Abu Al-Rish, a senior health official with the Ministry of Health, said in a news conference held amid the rubble.

That Israeli airstrike was one of many during 11 days of renewed violence in the area.

Between May 10 and 20, Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire killed at least 248 people in Gaza, including 66 children, according to the health ministry there. Twelve people in Israel, including two children, died as a result of Palestinian militant fire from Gaza, according to the Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s emergency service. At least 29 health facilities in Gaza have been damaged since May 10, according to UNICEF.

Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire that began on May 21.

“It’s a very frustrating situation,” Sosebee said. “An office can be rebuilt, you can buy another computer and get another desk, material things can be replaced, but lives cannot.”

Sosebee said the bombing was a significant setback for PCRF, but he pledged to carry on.

“It will not stop us from our 30-year mission of helping the most vulnerable and neglected kids in the world, the children of Gaza. We will never stop — with or without an office,” Sosebee said.

‘As adults, it’s our responsibility’

News of the airstrike quickly spread among PCRF’s dedicated supporters and volunteers, many of whom expressed concern on social media or donated to the group’s fundraising campaign to support victims of the conflict.

Rania Jubran, a former volunteer with the organization, says PCRF and other aid groups deserve to be respected, especially during times of war, when their services are most vital.

In their San Diego home, Jubran’s family has hosted six children whom PCRF brought to the United States for medical treatment. Among them was Farah, a 3-year-old girl from Beit Lahya in northern Gaza.

In 2009, Farah’s home was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike that killed several family members, including her mother, Jubran said. The Israeli military’s use of munitions containing white phosphorus left Farah with third-degree burns all over her body, she added.

The Jubran family cared for Farah as she underwent nine months of skin-graft treatment.

“She was heavily traumatized. It took her a very long time to even hear her speak,” Jubran said. “At the time I was wrapping up my master’s degree in clinical psychology with a focus on children, and so it was very dear to my heart seeing PTSD full-blown in front of me. It was really hard.”

Following her treatment, Farah returned to be with her family in Gaza.

“We watched her grow from being traumatized to becoming somewhat of a normal kid here,” Jubran said. “Sending her back was heartbreaking.”

Witnessing the impact of PCRF’s work firsthand made news of the airstrike incredibly hard to bear, she said.

“They are helping improve the quality of life of children, parents and families,” Jubran said. “It’s a golden thing. It should be common sense how wrong this is and the world should be watching.”

For Sosebee, the airstrike has only strengthened his resolve to help children in need.

Since the bombing, PCRF has provided urgent medical supplies to hospitals and clinics throughout Gaza, and raised funds to provide even more. Sosebee says he also plans to rebuild.

“If airstrikes can hit our building, how about apartment buildings? How about schools? How about hospitals? They can and have been hit and the casualties and innocent lives lost is unjustifiable,” Sosebee said. “Children will continue to bear the brunt of this conflict, and as adults it’s our responsibility … to do the hard work of finding a solution.”

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