Gaza siege causing major health crisis

Unemployed Palestinians protest to demand jobs in front of the Palestinian parliament building in Gaza, 29 August 2006. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

GAZA CITY - Gaza hospitals are facing a crisis because of a western and Israeli economic boycott, and an Israeli military offensive. The United Nations has warned of an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.

“The siege and closure imposed by Israel have hindered medical aid from Jordan, Qatar, the Red Cross and the EU from reaching us,” said Dr Ma’awiya Hasanein, general manager of the emergency section in the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza is a Palestinian-administered strip of land bordering Isra The el and Egypt. It was fully occupied by Israel from 1967 until mid-2005, when it was handed over to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

The Israeli military re-entered Gaza and began an offensive there soon after Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier at the Karem Shalom crossing, which is Israeli territory, on 25 June.

Efforts by Egyptian mediators to negotiate the soldier’s release have not succeeded. More than 200 Palestinians, many civilians, have been killed in air raids and ground assaults since then.

In contrast to Lebanon, where humanitarian aid needs are generally being met, Gaza has been virtually cut off. With a crippled infrastructure and low and unreliable power and water supplies, its 1.4 million citizens face a daily struggle to survive.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that an increasing number of Palestinians are facing impoverishment.

WFP food assistance is acting as a band aid in an attempt to prevent a further decline of livelihoods and nutrition among the poorest,” said Arnold Vercken, WFP country director in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT). “Any improvement in the current humanitarian situation would only occur if Gaza’s economy were given a firm kick-start.”

The trade embargo followed the democratic election of a Hamas-led Palestinian government in February. Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the European Union and the United States, among others, because it has refused to renounce violence and accept Israel’s right to exist.

While the embargo does not prevent the importing of food or medicines, it has greatly delayed supplies from reaching Gaza as entry points, which are controlled by Israeli authorities, have been tightened or closed.

The major debilitating effect of the embargo, however, is that it is stripping the PNA of much-needed aid and income. The PNA had previously received financial assistance from the European Union and the United States.

In 2005, this amounted to about US $1 billion, but the EU and the US suspended all direct aid on 7 April 2006 after the Hamas victory, according to the EU and the US State Department.

In addition, Israel and the Western countries have blocked millions of dollars-worth of monthly financial aid from Arab donor countries.

Hospitals in Gaza are out of funds because Israel has been withholding about US $50 million a month in tax and customs receipts collected for the PNA.

“The siege has caused a shortage of about 200 drugs and what we had in reserve has all been used to treat the increasing number of injured Palestinians from the continuous Israeli operations in Gaza Strip,” said Dr Hasanein.

Israel’s military offensive in Gaza has prevented patients from receiving treatment outside Gaza and prevented medical samples being sent out.

Dr Hasanein expressed his anxiety about Israel’s action in barring urine and blood samples of patients suffering from epidemic diseases from reaching hospitals outside Gaza. The samples cannot be tested in Gaza’s hospitals because they lack the necessary equipment for conducting the tests.

“There is a shortage of a medicine called Recormon for stimulating the production of red blood cells,” said Ismail Awad Shabat, 52, from Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip. He has been suffering from kidney failure for the past three years.

“Not taking this medicine is bad for my health and requires me to do more dialyses,” he said. “Also power failure during this time puts my life in danger.”

For months now, Gaza’s largest hospital, the Al-Shifaa, has suffered a severe shortage of drugs and disposables, including syringes and tape, according to doctors. In mid-May, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would buy drugs and medical equipment urgently needed by Palestinian hospitals in Gaza. This has yet to materialise.

The Israeli government has said it has been unable to provide 50 million shekels-worth ($11.4 million) of aid to Gaza because of a disagreement with the Palestinians over what form the aid should take.

Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Eddie Shapira told IRIN that Israel had been willing to buy any medical equipment and medicines the Palestinians wanted when Olmert announced the aid offer. However, he said the Palestinians wanted the aid in the form of money, which is unacceptable to Israel, which fears it would be spent on supporting terrorism, Shapira said.

However, Shapira said Israel was committed to solving humanitarian problems arising in Gaza. “For sure the situation is not easy. We are checking the situation there and are ready to work to solve the problems,” he added.

Gaza suffers from power outages, a problem not faced by West Bank cities, after Israel bombed Gaza’s main electricity transformers. Hospitals depend on generators that consume large amounts of fuel, which is also in short supply as a result of the recurrent closure of Gaza’s entry points.

“It is very difficult to conduct operations with an alternative supply of electricity that depends on the availability of fuel. We also face difficulties in buying fuel from Israel due to the Israeli military barriers which delay its arrival for days,” Dr Hasanein said.

Power cuts have forced hospitals to perform critical surgeries only and to postpone minor operations.

“A humanitarian and health catastrophe is inevitable if we don’t get fuel,” Gaza Mayor Majed Abu Ramadan told Reuters on Monday.

This item comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. All IRIN material may be reposted or reprinted free-of-charge; refer to the copyright page for conditions of use. IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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