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UN chief ‘horrified’ by strike on Gaza hospital, as warring sides blame each other

Missile attacks on Gaza are continuing. (file)
© UNICEF/Eyad El Baba
Missile attacks on Gaza are continuing. (file)

UN chief ‘horrified’ by strike on Gaza hospital, as warring sides blame each other

Peace and Security

The UN Secretary-General said he was horrified by the killing of hundreds of civilians following a strike on a hospital in Gaza on Tuesday. In a tweet, António Guterres strongly condemned the strike, adding that his heart is with the families of those who died.

Both sides are blaming each other. The Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled enclave blames the Israeli military for an airstrike which hit al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. 

The Israeli Defense Forces tweeted that according to their intelligence information, rockets fired by Islamic Jihad militants towards Israel were responsible, having deviated off course.

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Mr. Guterres stressed in his message on X that hospitals and all medical personnel are protected under international law.

He condemned the strike and an attack earlier on Tuesday on a school run by the UN agency that assists Palestine refugees, UNRWA, which killed at least six people, his spokesperson said in a statement.

The UN human rights chief described the strike on the hospital as "totally unacceptable".

"We don't yet know the full scale of this carnage but what is clear is that the violence and killings must stop at once," said High Commissioner Volker Türk in a statement.

Displaced civilians were reportedly seeking shelter at the hospital, following Israel’s order to evacuate to the south in advance of what is expected to be a ground assault.

WHO strongly condemns the attack,” agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote in a post on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter. 

“We call for the immediate protection of civilians and healthcare, and for the evacuation orders to be reversed,” he added. 

Human rights chief Türk said hospitals are sacrosanct and must be protected at all cost, adding that "those found responsible must be held to account.”

On Tuesday night in New York, the United Arab Emirates said they along with Russia have called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Palestine, including the strike on the hospital in Gaza City. 

Evacuation order 'impossible to carry out'

Al-Ahli Arab Hospital was operational, with patients, health and caregivers, and internally displaced people sheltering there, WHO said in a statement.

It was one of 20 hospitals in the north of the Gaza Strip facing evacuation orders from the Israeli military.

"The order for evacuation has been impossible to carry out given the current insecurity, critical condition of many patients, and lack of ambulances, staff, health system bed capacity, and alternative shelter for those displaced," WHO said.

The UN agency appealed for the immediate active protection of civilians and healthcare. "Evacuation orders must be reversed. International humanitarian law must be abided by, which means health care must be actively protected and never targeted."

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) also took to social media to condemn the strike.

"Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure must cease, and healthcare facilities must never be a target," the UN's reproductive and sexual health agency posted on X.

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Healthcare in the crosshairs

During a virtual press conference held later on Tuesday, senior officials underlined WHO’s condemnation over the strike on the hospital.

There have been over 115 attacks on healthcare across the Occupied Palestinian Territory since the start of the conflict on 7 October, sparked by Hamas’s bloody incursion into southern Israel.  

Of this number, 51 occurred in the Gaza Strip, with 15 healthcare workers killed and 27 injured, said Hyo-Jeong Kim, Lead of WHO’s Attacks on Health Care Initiative.  The remaining incidents took place in the West Bank.

Not even hospitals are safe

Gaza has a population of more than two million and the crisis has displaced some 600,000 people.  Many have sought safety in hospitals which are already overwhelmed with rising casualties and deaths, and as fuel and medical supplies dwindle.

Dr. Richard Peeperkorn, WHO Representative in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, highlighted the dilemma facing people on the run.

“They go to these hospitals because they expect they are safe places. Now, even a hospital is not a safe place anymore, what is?” he wondered.

Running on empty

Food, water and critical medicines and health supplies are running out in Gaza. Out of 35 hospitals there, four are not functioning due to severe damage and targeting, he said. Additionally, only eight of the 22 UNRWA primary healthcare centres were partially functional.

Dr. Peeperkorn reported that all hospitals, especially the largest ones, are running short on essential supplies and medicines, including for treating non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.  Blood banks only have a week of supply left.

“Besides the whole essential medicines, we also have to think about simple things - cleaning materials, hygiene materials - to avoid infections,” he added.  “Already now in the hospitals, in the key hospitals, they see a lot of infections, infected patients, because of that.”

Aid at the border

Meanwhile, trucks carrying lifesaving aid remain lined up at the Rafah crossing, the sole border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Dr Richard Brennan, Regional Emergency Director for WHO in the Eastern Mediterranean, described the situation as “extremely frustrating”.

“There are a lot of different dynamics going on, we understand.  There is a lot of, frankly, finger-pointing on this, and we also know that there's a lot of diplomacy,” he said.

“Senior UN officials are arriving tonight in Cairo and tomorrow, and I hope that they will be able to negotiate with all the relevant parties to get the opening going as soon as possible.”

Stop the violence

A journalist asked if aid could be airlifted into Gaza, but that option was ruled out by Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO Director of Emergencies and a veteran of Ebola, polio and, most recently, COVID-19 response.

He explained that the volume of aid that can be airdropped is so much lower than what can be delivered overland, particularly as some two million people in Gaza are in need. 

Dr. Ryan said the Rafah crossing is the simplest, safest and most effective way to get aid into Gaza.  

“And it’s not just the Rafah crossing: it’s what happens on the far side of that crossing,” he added, highlighting the need for safe access to hospitals and people.

“It's not just an issue of opening or closing the gate at the border. It's going to require very, very high-level diplomacy between multiple countries," he said.

"The violence has to stop, the bombing has to stop, and we have got to get assistance to the people of Gaza. And that needs to happen now, that needs to happen tonight, that needs to happen tomorrow morning. This cannot wait. It simply cannot wait.”