The humanitarian disaster in Gaza continues

Health sector on the brink of collapse

Ramallah, 07/01/09: The Israeli military operation in Gaza has entered its twelfth day. Attacks from the air, the sea and the land continuously claim more and more Palestinian lives, including many innocent civilians among which women and children.

As of today, the death toll has risen to a total number of at least 763 (including more than 219 children and 89 women). More than 3,100 have sustained heavy injuries (including more than 650 children and 270 women). At least 20 families were reportedly struck, leaving mothers in misery as they lost two, three, four children, leaving children without parents, brothers and sisters. One family lost up to 13 members at once, resulting in unbearable pain for those still alive. These numbers are of course primary estimations that are likely to increase within the next hours and days as attacks are likely to continue, more buildings to collapse, more casualties to be uncovered from the rubble and more people to die in the hospitals from previous attacks.

As the death toll is rising at high speed, Gaza is incapable of adequately responding to humanitarian disaster it faces. The already exhausted medical system in the Gaza Strip, resulting from nearly two years of siege, is incapable of coping with the overflow of death and destruction it faces today. The whole health sector in Gaza is currently in a state of collapse, with public hospitals full to overflowing; hospital hallways are overrun by hundreds of dead and thousands of dying. There is so much death and destruction that doctors can not even begin to cope. They have to choose who will be saved and who will die; who will be given a short time under their healing hands and who will be left screaming and bleeding on the floor. The Gaza Strip is now physically divided into 3 independent parts by the IOF forces. As these parts are not connected anymore, doctors are unable to coordinate their work, resulting in the establishment of three different health sectors.

Today, there is a serious shortage of medical supplies. Severely injured patients cannot leave the Strip due to prolonged border closures. Moreover, basic medical supplies that are urgently needed such as sterilization equipment, needles, anaesthetics, catheters, gases, oxygen or monitors cannot reach the Gazans. Additionally, there is a lack of food, electricity, fuel, clean drinking water, or means to treat human and other waste. For the fifth consecutive day, hospitals continue to run on back-up generators. As long as Israel keeps its borders closed for adequate humanitarian aid, this situation will worsen every hour and cost more human lives.

According to the 55th Article of the Fourth Geneva Convention, "to the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical sources and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate."

Moreover, the Convention states in Article 10 that: "the provisions of the present Convention constitute no obstacle to the humanitarian activities which the International Committee of the Red Cross or any other impartial humanitarian organization may, subject to the consent of the Parties to the conflict concerned, undertake for the protection of civilian persons and for their relief."

However, in blunt violation of the Convention, doctors, ambulances and hospitals have become targets of Israeli fire. Twelve medical staff have been killed and thirty injured, whilst eleven ambulances have been hit. Additionally, hospitals were bombarded, along with medicine stocks and mobile clinics, thereby ruining the possibility of emergency aid.

The impact of the violence on Gazan population will be long-lasting. Not only did many people lose relatives and close friends, all 1,5 million inhabitants have been witness of horrific war-scenes. Magdi Hatib, 48, reportedly witnessed his brother, Akran Hatib, 35, torn apart by a burning shrapnel from an Israeli missile. "He was bleeding on the ground for 15 minutes till we could approach him, fearing a second explosion," said Magdi. "There were no ambulances, so we took him to Al-Shifa hospital by taxi." As morgues are overloaded, people are not able to accommodate the death, or to bury their loved ones. Fathers carry their death children home in carton boxes, and death and mutilated bodies lie in the hospitals corridors. In this situation, normal health needs cannot be met ether; pregnant women cannot deliver in hospitals due to a lack of beds, and in the morning of January 4th the daughter of one of Gaza's doctors of Shifa hospital died because of an asthma attack which couldn’t be treated in a timely manner.

Israeli strikes prevent humanitarian aid efforts, target thousands of civilians, thereby violating international law on a huge scale. It is a humanitarian disaster and a human tragedy that should be stopped right now and Israel should be forced to comply with the Geneva Conventions governing the conduct of war.

Palestinian Medical Relief Society