Israel closes in on Gaza hospital during Blinken visit

A Palestinian child injured during an Israeli airstrike is treated at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, on 7 January.

Ali Hamad APA images

Israel claims that it has entered a third and “more targeted” phase of its military campaign in Gaza. But so far that has yielded little change for Palestinians after more than three months of relentless bombardment and repeated displacement.

As the US secretary of state met with Washington’s allies in the region, Israel increased its attacks around hospitals in central and southern Gaza.

The Palestinian health ministry said early Tuesday that 126 people had been killed over the past 24 hours, with 57 bodies and 65 injured people brought to Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, where Israel has been intensifying its operations after laying waste to the north.

More than 23,210 people have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, the Palestinian government media office in the territory said on Tuesday.

Among those killed are more than 10,000 children and 7,000 women, as well as 326 medical workers, 45 members of the Palestinian Civil Defense and 112 journalists, according to the media office.

More than 7,000 others are reported missing under the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Some 2 million Palestinians have been internally displaced within Gaza.

Nine Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza on Monday, the Israeli military announced on Tuesday. The military has reported the deaths of 183 soldiers in Gaza since the beginning of its ground operations in late October.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Tuesday that Palestinian armed groups in Gaza continue to fire rockets toward Israel and that “ground operations and fighting between Israeli forces” and Palestinian groups were reported across much of Gaza, particularly around Deir al-Balah and Khan Younis.

OCHA said that “the offensive in these areas results in the killing and injury of many people and [is] having devastating consequences for tens of thousands of civilians, many of whom had already fled for safety from Gaza City and the north to central and southern Gaza.”

Hospitals at risk of closure

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital is the only functioning hospital in central Gaza and is struggling to cope with the high number of casualties from Israeli strikes by air, land and sea.

Both the areas of Al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah and the Gaza European Hospital in Khan Younis were repeatedly attacked on Sunday and Monday.

Intensified hostilities and mounting Israeli evacuation orders in the area have forced many health workers and patients to leave Al-Aqsa hospital, leaving only five doctors to tend to hundreds of urgent cases, according to an official from the World Health Organization.

The health workers who remain at Al-Aqsa hospital have no food, according to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of WHO. He said the agency’s representatives who visited the facility on Sunday were told by staff that their greatest need was for the hospital “to be protected from strikes and hostilities.”

Ghebreyesus added that the UN health agency’s staff “saw sickening scenes of people of all ages being treated on blood-streaked floors and in chaotic corridors. “

He said that “an unidentified child [lay] dead, partially covered by a sheet, on a bed” while health staff and the families of patients stepped over injured people who “were prostrate on the floor.”

An emergency medical team belonging to Medical Aid for Palestinians and the International Rescue Committee were forced to quit Al-Aqsa hospital after the Israeli military dropped leaflets in the area declaring it a combat zone.

One of the emergency team’s doctors said that “there are patients clearly dying in the [Al-Aqsa hospital] emergency department who could be saved if there were enough staff.”

The Nasser Medical Complex and the Gaza European Hospital in the Khan Younis area of southern Gaza are “at risk of closure due to the issuance of evacuation orders in nearby areas and the ongoing conduct of hostilities nearby,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Monday.

Only 15 out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are partially functional, according to the World Health Organization.

The six hospitals still operating in the north are “offering maternity, trauma and emergency care services” but are short on staff and medical supplies “and have an urgent need for fuel, food and drinking water,” according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The nine hospitals still functioning in the southern half of Gaza “are operating at three times their capacity, while facing critical shortages of basic supplies and fuel,” OCHA added.

A 5-year-old girl died from her injuries on Tuesday after a shell hit a Doctors Without Borders shelter near the Gaza European Hospital one day earlier.

“The shell did not detonate on impact, otherwise many more of our staff and their families would have most likely been killed,” Thomas Lauvin, the international charity’s coordinator in Gaza, said.

The shell that hit the facility “appears to be similar to those used by Israeli tanks,” Doctors Without Borders added.

Israel has meanwhile repeatedly denied coordinated movement requests for the urgent delivery of medical supplies in Gaza City and to Al-Awda Hospital in Jabaliya, northern Gaza.

Israel also denied coordinated movement requests for the delivery of fuel to water and sanitation facilities in Gaza City and the north.

The Israeli denials leave “five hospitals in northern Gaza without access to life-saving medical supplies and equipment,” OCHA said.

Tens of thousands of people lack access to clean water and the risk of sewage overflows heightens “the risk of the spread of communicable diseases,” OCHA added.

“High risk of severe malnutrition”

The UN warned that all children in Gaza under the age of 5 “are at high risk of severe malnutrition and preventable death as the risk of famine conditions continues to increase.”

“To get children the life-saving support they desperately need, we need a humanitarian ceasefire,” the UN children’s fund UNICEF said.

Experts say that the risk of famine increases each day of intense hostilities and restricted humanitarian access, according to the UN.

Half a million people in Gaza are estimated to be facing “catastrophic conditions” of food insecurity, with many people “regularly going up to three days without eating,” the UK publication The Telegraph reported.

The publication added that “experts fear an entire generation is at risk” of stunting – a condition that occurs when a child receives an insufficient supply of energy in the first 1,000 days of life, “causing irreversible physical and cognitive damage.”

Nasser Bulbul, the head of the neonatal intensive care unit at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, now currently working at the Gaza European Hospital, said that cases of severe child malnutrition are increasing daily, and that boys and girls “are turning into skeletons.”

Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN special rapporteur on the right to health, pointed to a policy of “deliberate starvation not famine” in Gaza, adding that “we need an immediate ceasefire.”

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem similarly said that the acute food crisis in Gaza “is not a byproduct of war, but a direct result of Israel’s declared policy.”

The group added that Palestinians in the territory “now depend entirely on food supplies from outside Gaza, as they can no longer produce almost any food themselves.”

Despite this, Israel is only allowing in a fraction of the food needed to meet the needs of the population in Gaza.

“The little food that does get in is very difficult to distribute due to the constant bombings, destroyed roads, frequent communication blackouts and shelters overflowing with hundreds of thousands of [internally displaced persons] crowding into smaller and smaller areas,” B’Tselem said.

Blinken visit aimed at prolonging war

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, made his fourth trip to the Middle East since 7 October in recent days.

He claimed to have “stressed the importance of avoiding civilian harm, protecting civilian infrastructure and ensuring the distribution of humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza” during his meeting with the Israeli prime minister on Tuesday.

The Biden administration, which remains opposed to a ceasefire and supports Israel’s stated objective of incapacitating Hamas, has pressed for a lower intensity phase of fighting with more focused operations.

Israel’s defense minister told Blinken that its military operations in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, will “intensify and continue” until it reaches Hamas’ leadership “and Israeli hostages return home safely,” the ministry stated.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that “Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesman for the Israeli military, said the new phase of the campaign involved fewer troops and airstrikes,” and would be focused on southern and central Gaza.

“US officials said they expected the transition to rely more on surgical missions by smaller groups of elite Israeli forces that would move in and out of population centers in the Gaza Strip to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels,” the paper added.

Ahead of his visit to Israel, Blinken met with officials in Jordan, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to plan for the post-war administration of Gaza and stymie further regional escalations after a Hamas leader was assassinated in Lebanon last week.

Blinken sought to assure Jordan’s King Abdullah that the US opposes the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank.

“Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow. They cannot, they must not, be pressed to leave Gaza,” Blinken said after meeting with Qatari officials in Doha.

Those pledges may not convince many in the region so long as the US continues to provide Israel with the arms and diplomatic cover to continue waging the violence that has displaced most of Gaza’s population from their homes, many of which are now destroyed.

Mohammed Al-Bukaiti, a member of the politburo of Yemen’s Ansarullah, said that Blinken’s visit was aimed at prolonging the war and thus create “the conditions for Israel to commit more crimes” in Gaza.

Al-Bukaiti added that the current situation requires a ceasefire and a lifting of the siege on Gaza. Instead, Blinken came to make plans “for a coming stage that assumes Israel’s victory,” he said.

Israel escalation in Lebanon

Israel’s defense minister once again warned Hizballah that it would repeat in Lebanon the destruction it has wrought in Gaza.

Hizballah fired a barrage of rockets toward Israel’s Mount Meron military base on Saturday in what it said was a “preliminary response” to the assassination of Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy director of Hamas’ politburo, in Beirut last week.

That assassination was condemned by UN human rights experts on Tuesday. They said that “killings in foreign territory are arbitrary when they are not authorized under international law.”

Ben Saul and Morris Tidball-Binz added that “Israel was not exercising self-defense because it presented no evidence that the victims were committing an armed attack on Israel from Lebanese territory.”

The experts added that there is “no legal basis for geographically unlimited attacks against members of an armed group wherever they are.”

Israel killed Hizballah commander Wissam Tawil in southern Lebanon on Monday.

Amal Saad, an expert on the Lebanese resistance organization, said that the targeting of Tawil, the most senior Hizballah commander killed since 8 October, “can be seen as another face-saving attempt by Israel to restore its image after Hizballah’s retaliatory strike on the strategic Meron air intelligence base.”

Saad said that “the strike was qualitatively different and caused ‘extensive damage’ by Israel’s own admission.”

She added that “Israel’s ‘Phase 3’ strategy of targeted assassinations” – including senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officer Reza Mousavi, who was killed in Syria, as well as al-Arouri and Tawil – “is shaping up to be Israel’s chosen method to spark a wider conflict that could draw the US in.”

Hizballah attacked an Israeli army base in Safed with explosive drones on Tuesday, “hitting the position for the first time,” Reuters reported.

Naim Qassem, the deputy leader of Hizballah, said in a televised speech that the Lebanese resistance group does not seek an escalation “but if Israel expands [hostilities], the response is inevitable to the maximum extent required to deter Israel.”


Add new comment

Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.