Israeli diplomat sees possible foreign hospital ships for Gaza wounded

An Egyptian ambulance carrying critically injured Palestinians arrives at Al-Arish hospital through the Rafah border crossing

By Dan Williams, Sabine Siebold and John Irish

JERUSALEM/BERLIN/PARIS (Reuters) -Israel has asked foreign countries to send hospital ships to help treat wounded Palestinians who are allowed to leave the war-ravaged Gaza Strip for neighbouring Egypt, the Israeli ambassador to Germany said on Thursday.

France said last week it was sending the naval vessel Tonnerre to the eastern Mediterranean on what it described as a mission to support Gaza hospitals. Egypt this week began admitting limited numbers of wounded across its Gaza border.

In an Israeli public broadcast interview on Kan radio, Israel's ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor, was asked whether Israel had asked France and other European countries to send hospital ships for receiving Gazan wounded at Al-Arish, an Egyptian port close to the Palestinian enclave.

Prosor described this scenario as correct, saying he had submitted such a request to Berlin.

"I don't know yet if it is happening," said Prosor, a former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry. "We asked for this. I suppose it is being discussed. There is a leaning, here in Europe, to help in humanitarian matters in any way possible."

A spokesperson for the German defense ministry said Berlin was in close contact with its Israeli partners and each request would be thoroughly looked into. He declined, however, to comment on the specific request for a hospital ship.

“I ask for your understanding that I cannot comment on the content and details of confidential conversations,” he said. With that, he appeared to refer to a meeting between German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius and Prosor on Tuesday.

A French military source said the Tonnerre, which has about 60 beds and two operating blocs, could only be used temporarily and as back-up for a larger hospital on land.

"The medical support capacities of the ship make it possible to provide a rapid response but only temporary and only complementary to heavier hospital installations capable of treating significant flows of injured people effectively and over time.”

The source said that at this stage the Tonnerre remained off the coast of Cyprus and no decision had been made on where it could dock and how it would be used. The immediate priority for France was to provide humanitarian aid through air lifts via Egypt.

Speaking to France Info radio, Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu said Paris had decided to send a second helicopter carrier, the Dixmude, to the region and it was being transformed into a hospital vessel.

When asked how practical it would be to bring people from land to sea, Lecornu said things were still in the planning stages and discussions were ongoing with Egyptian and Israeli authorities.

"The idea is to tell all the actors in this conflict that we cannot leave civilian populations exposed to danger and, above all, without a healthcare solution on a humanitarian level," Lecornu said.

He said he hoped that France's decision to send ships would encourage others to follow their lead.

A French diplomatic source said it was unlikely that the Tonnerre would be used as an offshore field hospital for Palestinians or foreigners from Gaza.

The source said the idea was to see how the ship, along with other vessels in the region, could eventually be used to help establish a field hospital in southern Gaza, although all that would depend on the situation on the ground and discussions with regional authorities.

Prosor said Israel also asked Italy to send a hospital ship but has yet to hear back.

(Reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Sabine Siebold in Berlin and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Gareth Jones and Diane Craft)