Early Wednesday morning, Israel launched what it described as a targeted operation at Gaza’s besieged Shifa hospital – which the World Health Organization immediately declared unacceptable and against international law – regardless of whether Hamas was using the facility for military purposes.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, an Israeli delegation visiting Geneva on behalf of the estimated 229 people held hostage by Hamas met with WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, as well as the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, pleading with them to intervene more forcefully to free the prisoners. , including 30 children, a pregnant woman and 20 elderly people, with a number of injuries and chronic health conditions.
“Hospitals are not a battlefield” – DG WHO
In statements early Wednesday morning, an Israeli army spokesman said elite troops entered the hospital, allegedly to root out Hamas operatives, weapons and gain access to an extensive underground tunnel system – which may have been used to hide and transport some of the 240 Israeli hostages to other parts of Gaza.
Speaking at a press briefing on Wednesday afternoon, Tedros condemned the entry, saying:
The Israeli military incursion into Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City is completely unacceptable. Hospitals are not battlefields. We are extremely concerned about the safety of staff and patients.
WHO has lost contact with health workers at Shifa Hospital. But one thing is clear – according to international humanitarian law, health facilities, health workers, ambulances and patients must be protected and protected from all acts of war.
Not only that, but they must be actively protected during military planning.
Even if health facilities are used for military purposes, the principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality always apply, Tedros added. The safety of patients and staff, as well as the integrity of the health care system in the wider community, are of utmost concern, he added.
The Israeli army said the troop entry was accompanied by Arabic-speaking doctors, incubators and other supplies to deal with the plight of 36 premature babies teetering between life and death.
Painful help is needed everywhere in Gaza
For the first time since the start of the conflict, fuel has begun moving into Gaza via Egypt’s Rafah crossing. A truck carrying 23,000 liters of fuel was allowed to cross to replenish depleted reserves of the UN refugee agency, which shelters hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by fighting in tent camps and other temporary sites in the south of the small enclave – whose largest northern city now lies in ruins.
Representative based in Jerusalem WHO Office for the West Bank and GazaRichard Peeperkorn described the fuel entry, which Israel had previously opposed, as a promising step.
But the supplies, which have only been authorized to resupply UNRVA installations, are nowhere near enough to meet the wider needs of Gazans, Piperkorn and the WHO director-general said.
At least 120,000 liters per day are needed to operate hospital generators, ambulances, desalination plants, waste water treatment plans and telecommunications, Tedros pointed out.
The problem can be easily solved, electricity supply must be restored and enough fuel allowed in to start vital infrastructure and distribute life-saving aid, he added.
Infectious diseases are on the rise
What is critical is water and sanitation, Piperkorn said, saying that about 4,000 tons of trash a day are piling up in overcrowded camps in southern Gaza where solid waste removal services stopped working yesterday due to a lack of fuel.
Sewage pumping stations, wells and Gaza’s two main water desalination plants in Rafah and central Gaza were also out of action due to fuel shortages, Piperkorn noted.
In addition, Tedros said, heavy rains flooded makeshift camps, further worsening conditions for the displaced.
We see the real problem is that surveillance of the disease has stopped, Pepperkorn added, noting that there have been no official reports of deaths and injuries in the past three days.
But despite limited reporting capacity, the WHO is seeing a sharp increase in acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, as well as skin diseases, scabies and hepatitis A, he said.
And I really want to be clear that in the last three days until today, we have not received an update on injuries and deaths due to the intensification of hostilities and the level of connectivity, so that makes it much more difficult to assess,” he said.
The latest reports put 11,078 Palestinian casualties since Hamas’s initial October 7 incursion into Israel, which killed around 1,200 Israelis and foreigners, mostly civilians. Since then, Israel has conducted one of the most intense aerial bombardment campaigns in modern history, destroying large parts of Gaza City. Hamas has fired over 9,500 missiles at Israel, including a direct hit on the coastal city of Ashkelon on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, only about 10 hospitals are still operating in this lane out of the original 36, Tedros said, with about 1,400 beds available out of the original 3,500.
And the movement of critically ill patients for treatment across the border in Egypt remains challenging, Piperkorn said.
We must establish a mechanism that a medevac becomes operational within the next three months, Piperkorn said, referring to the timely and efficient evacuation of critically ill patients. On Wednesday, about 30-50 critically ill patients were evacuated to Egypt, he said. But thousands more will need medical transport in the next few months.
WHO and ICRC meetings with the Israeli delegation of hostage families
On Tuesday, the four families of the hostages, accompanied by Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Health, were in Geneva to plead with Tedros of the WHO and Mirjana Spolijaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, for stronger international intervention in the fate of the captives.
It was the first high-level meeting between Israeli ministers, the ICRC and WHO leadership on the issue since the conflict began.
Špoljarić stated in the statement that the ICRC is doing everything in its power to access the hostages, but that it cannot forcefully enter where the hostages are being held and can only visit them when there are agreements, including safe access.
Today I met the families of the hostages and the Israeli ministers of foreign affairs and health. The pain of the families is simply heartbreaking.
— Mirjana Špoljarić (@ICRCPresident) November 14, 2023
Tedros, in his comments at the meeting, stated: “I heard and felt their pain and heartache. The WHO continues to call for the hostages to be released unharmed, without any conditions. We are deeply concerned about their health and well-being, just because we are concerned about the health and well-being of the people of Gaza, who are becoming more insecure by the hour.”
At a UN press briefing in Geneva, the families appealed to the UN and the international community to do more to free their family members, starting with even a sign of life.
Ilan Regev Gerbi, the father of two children in their 20s who were kidnapped together from the festival at the weekend, choked back tears as he replayed with his hysterical children a recording of his latest phone conversion as Hamas forces entered the festival grounds on October 7.
Idit Ohel, the mother of 22-year-old Alon Ohel, described learning of her sons’ fate from a Hamas video posted on social media. A video broadcast at the briefing showed him and two other friends being taken away by Hamas forces in a truck from the same outdoor festival, holding a tourniquet on his lower arm, which had been blown off by a grenade thrown into his hideout, according to one witness who survived.
I am asking the UN for security, freedom and humanity, said Ofri Bibas Levy, whose brother, sister-in-law and their two children, aged four and 10 months, were kidnapped from their home in a community near Gaza on October 7. Where is the humanity of two boys who are kept underground for 40 days?
There have been reports of progress in a deal to release 50 hostages, mostly women and children, held by Hamas, brokered by Qatar, in exchange for the release of Palestinian women prisoners and a three-day truce – something that could unlock a humanitarian break. – fire that allows more medical and humanitarian aid to reach the besieged zone.
A breakthrough has so far remained elusive as Israel calls for the simultaneous release of all hostages, while Hamas is apparently interested in a staged prisoner release, in an attempt to slow and ultimately halt the Israeli military advance it aims to overthrow.
Even so, US President Joe Biden sounded upbeat Tuesday night at a press briefing in Washington, where he sent a message to the families of the hostages, saying: “Hang in there, we’re coming.”
Image credits: WHO/EMRO, WHO/EMRO, E. Fletcher/Health Policy Watch.
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