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From the occupied West Bank, an emergency hotline assists rescue efforts in Gaza

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's head overseas now. Gaza's health system is collapsing under the weight of nearly four months of war. Paramedics are struggling to reach survivors. Hospitals are under attack. But as NPR's Aya Batrawy reports, emergency responders in the occupied West Bank are assisting rescue efforts in Gaza. And a caution, this story contains scenes of fighting in Gaza which some may find upsetting.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: In the Palestinian Red Crescent's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah...

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(SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLING RADIO TRANSMISSIONS)

BATRAWY: ...You can hear the voices of Gaza's first responders more than 60 miles away, crackling over radio waves in real time as they speak to one another.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLING RADIO TRANSMISSION)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: "I'm in Deir al-Balah on Salah al-Din Road," the man says. "I'm trying to reach the car that was hit," he says, before his voice cuts.

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(SOUNDBITE OF STATIC)

BATRAWY: The calls for help are heard in a spacious office in Ramallah, where emergency dispatchers wearing the Red Crescents' signature red uniform answer 101 calls, the equivalent of 911. Gaza's 911 system is down, but sometimes they reach dispatchers here in Ramallah, like this call on December 23.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: The woman on the line is in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza. She's with another woman in active labor with no way of reaching a hospital.

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: Hello? Hold on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: The Ramallah dispatcher connects the caller with a Palestinian doctor in the West Bank city of Hebron, or Khalil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: The doctor says, dry the baby. It doesn't matter what the cloth is. Dry him with that cloth and then wrap him in another. Try to keep him warm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR: Hello? Can you hear me?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: The doctor checks, can you hear me? The caller responds, yes. And the doctor continues. Keep patting him until he coughs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: The Red Crescent shared this recording with NPR - a call that overcame physical Israeli security barriers and the territory that separates the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. Nebal Farsakh is the spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent. She spends her days trying to reach colleagues in Gaza, where phone lines and internet are often down.

NEBAL FARSAKH: It is extremely hard because it makes me feel constant fear and panic. Like, I'm not sure regarding their safety, if something bad happened to them.

BATRAWY: During our conversation, her phone rings. It's Amr Ali, a colleague and media officer in Gaza she hasn't heard from in days.

FARSAKH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He tells her he's still in Khan Younis, the site of intense fighting now between Israeli forces and Hamas. Ali tells her it's been difficult to reach the Red Crescent's al-Amal Hospital in the city, where thousands of people are sheltering and hundreds of patients are inside.

FARSAKH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: She hands me the phone to speak with him.

FARSAKH: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: (Non-English language spoken).

I ask him about the situation in Khan Younis. Israeli troops have encircled the city. Israel suspects hostages taken in the October 7 Hamas attacks might be held in tunnels there.

AMR ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Ali uses this moment with a foreign reporter to talk about the struggle to survive. He says there's no electricity, and his apartment has no running water. There are no safe routes out of Khan Younis, he says.

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He tells me two of his cousins and their 85-year-old grandfather were killed days earlier from an Israeli airstrike on their building in Khan Younis. They had no connection to any militants, Ali says. He also wants me to know that he has seen children, babies, who've had their legs amputated because of airstrikes. In Ramallah, Farsakh collects these firsthand accounts to share with the world.

FARSAKH: Since the beginning of the war on Gaza, our teams have been working on the ground tirelessly, trying to save people's life. They evacuate the wounded and those who have been killed by the continuous bombardments.

BATRAWY: Farsakh says several people, including a newborn baby, have been killed in recent days at the al-Amal Hospital complex. And 11 Red Crescent workers have been killed in Gaza throughout the war.

FARSAKH: Eleven in total. Eight of them were on duty, were working as paramedics trying to save people's lives at the moment where they were targeted, although our ambulances have very clearly the Red Crescent emblem.

BATRAWY: Israel says Hamas militants have used hospitals and ambulances as cover. The Red Crescent's two hospitals in Gaza are no longer functioning, like most of Gaza's hospitals. But the aid group continues to respond to emergencies in Gaza, like this call the Red Crescent shared online.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: A 15-year-old girl pleads for help. She can see tanks. Shots are fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Screaming).

(SOUNDBITE GUNFIRE)

BATRAWY: The Red Crescent says she's killed along with three other children and two adults in the car. But there was one survivor, a 6-year-old girl. Dispatchers in Ramallah stayed on the line with her for hours, connecting her with a specialist in psychological support. An ambulance was sent to rescue the girl. The outcome of that rescue effort in Gaza City isn't known, but Palestinian Red Crescent staff in the West Bank ensure her story is.

Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.