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Targeting Rafah could lead to slaughter, warns UN aid agency

Young children stand outside their temporary shelter in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. (file)
Young children stand outside their temporary shelter in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. (file)

Targeting Rafah could lead to slaughter, warns UN aid agency

Peace and Security

An Israeli military operation in Rafah “could lead to a slaughter” and cripple lifesaving humanitarian work throughout Gaza, the UN aid coordination office, OCHA, said on Friday.

“Any ground operation would mean more suffering and death” for the 1.2 million displaced Palestinians sheltering in and around the Strip’s southernmost city, OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke told journalists in Geneva.

Echoing those concerns, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said that “Band-Aid” contingency plans have been made in case a full-scale military incursion does indeed happen, but they will not be enough to prevent Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe from getting worse.

Band-Aid plans

“This contingency plan is Band-Aids. It will absolutely not prevent the expected substantial additional mortality and morbidity caused by a military operation,” said Dr. Rik Peeperkorn, WHO Representative in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Speaking via videolink from Jerusalem, the WHO medic warned that a military operation would spark a new wave of displacement, more overcrowding, less access to essential food, water and sanitation “and definitely more outbreaks (of disease)”.

“The ailing health system will not be able to withstand the potential scale of devastation that the incursion will cause,” Dr. Peeperkorn said.

The worsening security situation could also severely impede the movement of food, water and medical supplies into and across Gaza via the border points, the WHO official noted.

After nearly seven months of heavy Israeli bombardment sparked by Hamas-led terror attacks on southern Israel on 7 October, only 12 out of 36 hospitals in Gaza and 22 of the enclave’s 88 primary health care facilities are “partially functional” today, according to the UN health agency.

Dialysis under threat

These include Najjar Hospital in Rafah, which offers dialysis treatment to hundreds of people, explained Dr. Ahmed Dahir, WHO team leader in Gaza.

“The health system is barely surviving…if any (Israeli) operation will happen, which means the population and patients will not be able to access these hospitals, what is going to happen to these patients, ultimately that would be a catastrophe.”

Despite “a slight improvement” in the availability and diversity of food in Gaza in recent weeks, Dr. Peeperkorn rejected any suggestion that the looming threat of acute malnutrition had receded for the enclave’s most vulnerable.

“We will see the effects for years to come,” the WHO official continued, noting that 30 children have now reportedly died because of illnesses linked to malnutrition.

Deaths linked to the kind of food insecurity that Gazans have endured should have been completely preventable, Dr. Peeperkorn said, pointing to the widespread destruction of poultry farming and fishing production along with vegetable and fruit growing, which are “not there anymore."

"We should never have any level of malnutrition in this place,” he insisted.

As part of UN contingency efforts, WHO and partners are setting up a new field hospital in Al Mawasi in Rafah. 

Supply lines

A large warehouse has also been created in the central city of Deir Al-Balah from where WHO has moved supplies to Khan Younis, the Middle Area and northern Gaza. 

Further supplies have also been prepositioned at Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah and the European Gaza Hospital near Khan Younis in the south. 

Also in Khan Younis, Nasser Medical Complex is being refurbished to provide “a basic package of health services”, now that cleaning and inspection of essential equipment have been completed. 

Nine out of 10 operating theatres are operational and emergency medical teams are preparing to work there alongside national staff, WHO said. 

Prepositioning key

WHO and partners are also establishing additional primary health centres and medical points in Khan Younis and the Middle Area as well as prepositioning medical supplies to enable these facilities to detect and treat communicable and non-communicable diseases and manage wounds.

In the north, the UN health agency is helping to increase services at Al-Ahli, Kamal Adwan and Al-Awda hospitals with emergency medical teams and by prepositioning supplies. 

“Plans are also being developed to support the restoration of the Patients’ Friendly Hospital, focusing on paediatric services, and expansion of primary health care centres and medical points,” WHO reported.