Gaza hospitals in need of care

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza, 11 June (IPS) - In the brightly painted new intensive care unit wing of al-Awda, northern Gaza’s only emergency medical facility in the massive Jabaliya refugee camp, doctors, nurses, aides and administrators are ready to provide emergency surgery services for the area’s 300,000 people.

But the metal bed frames remain empty of patients — and of mattresses, and IV bags, and heart monitors, and other basic supplies needed at any medical facility. The equipment has been purchased, but remains in the occupied West Bank city Ramallah, prevented by Israel from being taken into Gaza.

“In the last year, the service burden on al-Awda was tripled. We had difficulty especially after the Fatah-Hamas fighting, and through the closures beginning last year,” Nehal Mehanna, program officer at al-Awda tells IPS as she walks around the empty rooms.

“Israel is not letting certain medication and supplies into Gaza, through any checkpoint. For example, we have been waiting for seven months to have the operation tables to be shipped and enter Gaza through the Erez checkpoint — the equipment is only one hour away by car, but we’ve been waiting for seven months. Sometimes we can get supplies through the Red Cross, but they’re helping many organizations at the same time. They have limited supplies. It’s a long, complicated procedure, and it all has to be approved by the Israeli authorities.”

According to doctors in Gaza, over 180 patients have died as a result of lack of essential supplies since the Israeli blockade began in June 2007. Palestinians seeking medical treatment for cancer, heart disease, and kidney failure, among other illnesses, cannot access the services they need — as Israel has prevented chemotherapy, heart and dialysis medications from entering Gaza. They have to look for treatment abroad, either in Egypt or in Israel. But since the blockade, even with written permission and international coordination, Israel has shut the borders to Palestinian patients coming from Gaza, resulting in many preventable deaths.

“We try to provide the best services we can,” Mehanna tells IPS. “We have a colleague here, a nurse at the hospital, who has kidney failure. She has received written permission four times to leave and get treatment in Egypt, but the Israelis have prevented her from leaving. We hope she can get out and get treatment. She’s our friend. It’s a difficult situation.”

Al-Awda hospital staff say they are quickly running out of anesthesia. The hospital’s pharmacist, Dr. Akram Naffar, shows IPS his small cache of anesthetic medications, small boxes stacked on a spare white shelf at the back of the storage room. “We only have enough left for two, maybe three weeks,” Naffar says. “I don’t know what will happen at the end of the month. We can only live day by day.”

Naffar tells IPS that if another massive Israeli attack comes soon, people may not get even present levels of treatment.

“When other hospitals around Gaza have medicine we need for an operation, or for emergency services, we trade with them,” Naffar tells IPS. He says this is both a dangerous and a demoralizing system, but there is no alternative until the Israeli blockade is lifted.

Mehanna tells IPS that the medical staff at al-Awda is under extreme stress. “We try to provide as much care as we can,” she says. “We have a procedure for receiving medicines and supplies. We make a list every six months and update it, but lately we’ve needed more and more emergency medications. We have an obstetrics department, and we need labor and delivery medication. Also for emergency needs — we anticipate more Israeli incursions and attacks, so we need to be ready.”

Riyad al-Adassi of the Union of Health Work Committees in Gaza City expects the situation to get much worse. “A hundred and eighty patients died in 12 months, and this number is expected to increase day by day. In the past, 300-400 patients a day used to travel abroad to get treatment. Now, we can hardly get 30 people to travel out of Gaza. They’re prevented from leaving. There are many waiting lists to get special permission from the Israeli side.”

IPS asked al-Adassi to define the effects of Israel’s policies towards Gaza from the health workers’ perspective. “Palestinians are dehumanized. In the past, we used to have a concept of freedom, having a state, fighting for our rights. Now, it’s shifted to providing for our families and surviving. We live in a jungle — and the concept of living in a jungle is to try and adapt to survive. All of us are frustrated and suppressed. This is not healthy at all, even for Israel itself. At a certain point, it will explode. And who will take responsibility? Those with the keys to the occupation.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.