Gaza faces existential threats

Alaa Al-Mashharawi, Tuesday 7 Nov 2023

The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is already dire, with the coming days likely to bring further frightening challenges, reports Alaa Al-Mashharawi

Gaza faces existential threats


Gazans are grappling with what may be the most severe humanitarian crisis in contemporary history.

It has been a month since Israel launched its brutal aggression against the Strip, which can be described as genocide. It has enforced a blockade on the 2.3 million people living in the Gaza Strip and has carried out aerial bombardments and indiscriminate artillery shelling from tanks and naval vessels against them.

The population has been terrorised, leading to the displacement of families from the northern to the southern regions of the Strip. This is taking place amid the absence of humanitarian aid, food and fuel shortages, a lack of drinking water, a scarcity of medicine, and the disruption of electricity and communications.

These grim conditions have been verified by UN agencies and international human rights and humanitarian organisations.

According to a report by the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Israeli bombardments perpetrated against Gazan hospitals, schools sheltering displaced people, markets, and houses have thus far killed 10,000 people, including 4,008 children, 2,550 girls and women, and 596 elderly people.

Some 25,000 people have been injured, while 2,300 more remain missing, either trapped beneath the rubble or on the streets. This includes 1,250 children who rescue teams have been unable to transport to hospital.

The report says that Israeli forces have killed 175 medical personnel and destroyed 57 ambulances. Some 115 health clinics have been damaged and 16 hospitals and 32 health centres made non-operational. Forty six journalists have been killed and their houses shelled over the heads of residents.

Spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Health Ashraf Al-Qudra told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the Children’s Cancer Hospital and the entrance to the Al-Nasr Children’s Hospital were bombed. The Indonesian Hospital had to cease operations, and one of the generators at the Al-Shifa Hospital is about to run out of fuel.”

“Urgent measures are being taken to ensure the availability of fuel and electricity for critical departments such as surgery, intensive care, ambulance and emergency services, kidney units, nurseries, and laboratories.”

Al-Qudra said that wounded people are lying on hospital floors and enduring surgical operations without anesthesia due to the shortages of medical supplies and the unavailability of beds after the hospitals had reached maximum capacity.

This situation foreshadows an even greater humanitarian and health crisis. There are bodies buried under the rubble of houses destroyed by Israeli bombing, and these pose health risks, endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Salama Maarouf, head of the Palestinian Government’s Media Office, told the Weekly that Israeli forces have targeted 12,000 locations in Gaza since the start of the attacks. All the targets were civilian areas, including homes, public facilities, and hospitals.

Maarouf added that the Israeli forces have dropped 25,000 tons of explosives on Gaza, twice the capacity of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb estimated at 12,000 tons of conventional explosives. They have deliberately targeted densely populated residential areas, including refugee camps such as Jabalia, Bureij, and Al-Shati.

According to government figures in Gaza, over 220,000 housing units have been damaged, and 35,000 housing units have been completely demolished. Eighty five government buildings and numerous public facilities, including the Orthodox Cultural Centre and the Porphyrius Church, the third-oldest church in the world, have been destroyed.

Documented reports reveal that the Israeli forces have targeted 214 schools, causing various levels of damage, with 45 of them rendered inoperable. Hundred and sixty four mosques have been impacted by the aggression, with 54 being completely and 110 partially demolished.

Maarouf said that civil defence, ambulance, and emergency teams cannot evacuate the wounded nor reach the dozens of people killed on roads that the Israeli forces claim are safe.

On the Israeli army accusations that Gaza hospitals are being used as headquarters for the resistance and missile launches, Maarouf said that “the alleged tunnels in the Hamad Hospital were for fuel storage, as confirmed by the engineering firm overseeing the project. We refute Israeli claims, as the hospitals solely provide medical services. We are prepared to host a UN committee to verify this.”

Maarouf called upon the UN Secretary-General, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Red Cross to safeguard Gazan hospitals against the Israeli raids. “We place the responsibility for protecting hospitals, especially Al-Shifa, in the hands of international organisations, including the UN,” he said.

The Israeli army has been publishing fabricated images designed to advance its unfounded claims against the Gaza hospitals, he added. It is propagating falsehoods and blaming the Palestinian health system or alleging that the resistance uses civilians as human shields, Maarouf said.

The dire humanitarian situation in Gaza has prompted five UN agencies to issue a declaration describing the humanitarian conditions in the Strip as “catastrophic.” They said that hospitals could no longer provide treatment to the injured and appealed to the international community to intensify efforts to assist Gaza Strip residents.

These five agencies, the WHO, the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and the UN Population Fund, stated in a joint declaration that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was already grim before the current attacks and has now escalated to a catastrophic level.

They said that children are dying at an alarming rate and are being deprived of their basic rights to protection, sustenance, clean water, and medical care. Gaza’s hospitals are overwhelmed with the wounded, and civilians are encountering substantial difficulties in accessing food supplies.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that 1.4 million Gazans have been displaced from their homes as a result of the Israeli bombardments, relocating from the north to the south of the Strip. About 700,000 of these have sought refuge in schools and centres operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

The displacement came in response to Israel’s call for civilians in the northern Gaza Strip to relocate to the south for their safety. Nevertheless, the southern region has also been bombarded by Israel.

Yehia Al-Sarraj, head of the Union of Municipalities in the Gaza Strip, told the Weekly that “fuel reserves that power water and sewage facilities are depleting, which could lead to the discontinuation of essential services and pose a significant health and environmental threat.”

He added that the union has conveyed a message to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, lauding Egypt’s supportive stance. It appealed for the reopening of the Rafah Crossing to facilitate the import of fuel.

“The Gaza Strip municipalities strive to continue providing essential services to citizens, such as water supply, waste collection, and wastewater management,” Al-Sarraj said.

“They have been operating under severe limitations and significant risks. The relentless Israeli aggression has caused extensive damage to infrastructure and services, leading to prolonged power outages and water shortages, as well as to a scarcity of fuel. All of this has had a detrimental and substantial impact on the services offered by municipalities in the region.”

Gaza City residents and the population of the north of the Strip are in particularly dire straits, Al-Sarraj added, explaining that the fuel shortages pose a looming health and environmental threat, as 20 sewage and seawater desalination plants have been forced to halt operations.

The municipalities require a daily supply of 2,000 tons of fuel to manage waste effectively. The daily release of untreated wastewater into the sea, caused by power outages and the lack of fuel to operate sewage facilities, will exacerbate the health and environmental crisis in Gaza, he said.

The union has called upon international and human rights organisations to intervene to support the restoration of the water supply, the resumption of electricity provision, and the provision of essential fuel for basic infrastructure operations.

The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is now dire, with the coming days looking to bring more frightening challenges for a population living in a confined geographical area of just 360 square km, half of which has already become uninhabitable.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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