Weeks of intense fighting has left medical services and facilities in the Gaza Strip “on the verge of collapse,” according to senior United Nations officials in the region who today warned that a health disaster of widespread proportions is rapidly unfolding as the conflict grinds on.
“We are now looking at a health and humanitarian disaster”, warned James W. Rawley, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territory, adding: “The fighting must stop immediately.”
This latest warning comes in the wake of the collapse yesterday of a humanitarian ceasefire brokered by the United Nations and the United States, which led a “profoundly shocked and disappointed” Secretary-General Ban Ki moon to state that: “Instead of giving both sides, especially Gazan civilians, a much needed reprieve to let them attend to their injured, bury their dead and repair vital infrastructure, this breach of the ceasefire is now leading to a renewed escalation.”
Joining Mr. Rawley in sounding the alarm today about the looming health catastrophe as a result of the ongoing violence are Robert Turner, Director of Operations in the Gaza Strip for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and Dr. Ambrogio Manenti, acting Head of Office of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In a joint press release, the officials also expressed grave concern regarding the lack of protection for medical staff and facilities, and the deteriorating access to emergency health services for the 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
After more than three weeks of intense conflict, Gaza's medical services and facilities are on the verge of collapse. One third of hospitals, 14 primary healthcare clinics and 29 Palestinian Red Crescent and Ministry of Health ambulances have been damaged in the fighting.
According to the United Nations, at least five medical staff have been killed in the line of duty and tens of others have been injured. At least 40 per cent of medical staff are unable to get to their places of work such as clinics and hospitals due to widespread violence and at least half of all public health primary care clinics are closed.
In addition, in the last 24 hours, anonymous calls were made to staff at both the Najjar Hospital in Rafah and Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City warning of imminent attacks, causing major panic and chaos among patients and staff. Najjar Hospital was evacuated and remains closed due to fighting nearby.
The hospitals and clinics that are still functioning are overwhelmed: since 7 July, more that 8,000 people have reportedly been injured, many seriously. Critical supplies of medicines and disposables are almost depleted and damage and destruction of power supplies has left hospitals dependent on unreliable back-up generators, says the press release.
Al Shifa, the main referral hospital in the Gaza Strip, is inundated with casualties and people seeking safety in its grounds. “The ability to provide necessary healthcare is being severely compromised. This puts the lives of thousands of Palestinians in needless danger”, said Dr. Manenti.
Compounding this already-grave situation, an estimated 460,000 people have been displaced and are now living in overcrowded conditions in schools, with relatives or in makeshift shelters. This, coupled with lack of inadequate water and sanitation, poses serious risks of outbreak of water-borne and communicable diseases. “Hundreds of thousands of people are sheltering in terrible conditions, pushing UNRWA's coping capacity to the edge”, said Mr. Turner.
Mr. Rawley stressed that “international law sets out clear obligations on the parties to the conflict to respect the status of hospitals and medical facilities as protected objects, to respect the status of and ensure the protection of medical personnel, to ensure the protection of civilians and to respect the fundamental human right to health."
The three officials also paid tribute to Gaza's medical staff for working tirelessly in dangerous and difficult conditions to continue to provide urgently needed healthcare.
Yesterday, Mr. Rawley, along with the Minister of Social Affairs and Agriculture of the State of Palestine, Shawqi Issa, appealed for $369 million to meet urgent needs in Gaza.