Medics and patients, including babies, stranded as battles rage around Gaza hospitals

AP , Tuesday 14 Nov 2023

Israel attacks around hospitals forced thousands of Palestinians to flee from some of the last perceived safe places in northern Gaza, stranding critically wounded patients, newborns, and their caregivers with dwindling supplies and no electricity, health officials said late Monday.

Men check the bodies of people killed in a bombardment that hit a school housing displaced Palestini
Men check the bodies of people killed in a bombardment that hit a school housing displaced Palestinians, as they lie on the ground in the yard of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on November 10, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. AFP


With Israeli occupation forces attacking the center of Gaza City, facing fierce resistance as both sides have seized on the plight of hospitals as a symbol of the larger war, now in its sixth week. 

Gunfire and explosions raged Monday around Shifa, which has been encircled by Israeli troops for days. Tens of thousands of people have fled the hospital in the past few days and headed to the southern Gaza Strip, including large numbers of forcibly displaced people who had taken shelter there, as well as patients who could move.

Shifa and the other hospitals in the combat zone evoke the suffering of civilians. U.N. monitors said Tuesday that only one hospital in northern Gaza is still operating, with the others forced to shut down because of nearby fighting and the lack of fuel, power, water and medicine.

For weeks, Shifa staff members running low on supplies have performed surgery on war-wounded patients, including children, without anesthesia. After the weekend's mass exodus, about 650 patients and 500 staff remain in the hospital, which can no longer function, along with around 2,500 displaced Palestinians sheltering inside with little food or water.

After power for Shifa’s incubators went out days ago, the Health Ministry in Gaza on Monday released a photo it says shows about a dozen premature babies wrapped in blankets together on a bed to keep them at a proper temperature. Otherwise, “they immediately die,” said the Health Ministry’s director general, Medhat Abbas, who added that four of the babies had been delivered by cesarean section after their mothers died.

Israel accuses Hamas of using hospitals as cover for its fighters, alleging that Hamas has set up its main command center in and beneath Gaza's largest hospital, Shifa. However, Israel has been unable to provide any evidence for such claims. Both Hamas and Shifa Hospital staff denied the Israeli allegations and asked for International teams to protect the medical facility.

International law gives hospitals special protections during war. 

Still, there must be plenty of warning to allow evacuation of staff and patients, and if harm to civilians from an attack is disproportionate to the military objective, it is illegal under international law.

In an editorial published Friday in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan said the attacker must meet a high burden of proof to show that a hospital has lost its protections.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday that Shifa “must be protected.”

“It is my hope and expectation that there will be less intrusive action,” Biden said in the Oval Office.

Early Tuesday, the Israeli occupation army said in a statement that it had started an effort to transfer incubators from Israel to Shifa. It wasn't clear if the incubators had been delivered or how they will be powered.

The Red Cross was attempting Monday to evacuate some 6,000 patients, staff and displaced people from another hospital, Al-Quds, after it shut down for lack of fuel, but the Red Cross said its convoy had to turn back because of shelling and fighting.

At Shifa Hospital, the Health Ministry said 32 patients, including three babies, have died since its emergency generator ran out of fuel Saturday. It said 36 babies, as well as other patients, are at risk of dying because life-saving equipment cannot function.

Goudat Samy al-Madhoun, a health care worker, said he was among around 50 patients, staff and displaced people who made it out of Shifa and to the south Monday, including a woman who had been receiving kidney dialysis. He said those remaining in the hospital were mainly eating dates.

Al-Madhoun said Israeli forces fired on the group several times, wounding one man who had to be left behind. The dialysis patient's son was detained at an Israeli checkpoint on the road south, he said.

The occupation army said it placed 300 liters (79 gallons) of fuel several blocks from Shifa, but Hamas militants prevented staff from reaching it. The Health Ministry disputed that, saying Israel refused its request that the Red Crescent bring them the fuel rather than staff venturing out for it. The fuel would have provided less than an hour of electricity, it said.

The U.S. has pushed for temporary pauses to allow wider distribution of badly needed aid but Israel has agreed only to daily windows during which civilians can flee northern Gaza on foot along two main roads. U.N. monitors said that about 200,000 people were forcibly displaced south along the two routes since Nov. 5. 

More than two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes.

Those who make it south face a host of other difficulties. The Israeli airstrikes continue to targed sites in the south while the U.N.-run shelters are overflowing, and the lack of fuel has paralyzed water treatment systems, leaving taps dry and sending sewage into the streets. Israel has barred the import of fuel for generators.

As of last Friday, more than 11,100 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and children, have been killed since the war began. About 2,700 people have been reported missing under the rubbles.

Health officials have not updated the toll in three days now, citing the difficulty of collecting information as communications are cut with hospitals.


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