Israel is decimating Gaza’s health infrastructure as disease threatens the majority of its population

The public health situation among people displaced by Israeli attacks worsens by the day, as targeting of health workers and infrastructure continues

January 05, 2024 by Ana Vračar
Healthcare workers at Al-Awda hospital. Photo: Al-Awda

The number of people infected with contagious diseases in Gaza continues to rise. The latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that 180,000 people are currently suffering from respiratory infections. Additionally, the UN’s health agency reports that 55,000 people have lice and scabies, 42,000 are experiencing various forms of skin rashes, and 136,000, half of whom are children under 5 years old, have contracted diarrhea.

While these diseases would not be deadly under conditions with a functioning health system and adequate living conditions, in the current situation, they could be life-threatening. “Unless something changes, the world faces the prospect of almost a quarter of Gaza’s 2 million population – close to half a million human beings – dying within a year. These would be largely deaths from preventable health causes and the collapse of the health system,” estimated Devi Sridhar, Chair in Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, at the end of 2023.

If a permanent ceasefire does not take immediate effect, though, things are unlikely to change, as reiterated by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement. WHO teams, now participating in fairly regular missions on the ground, are sending reports about overcrowding in Gaza’s hospitals and shelters. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, on January 4, only 9 out of 36 hospitals were partially functioning in the Strip, resulting in an average bed occupancy of 351% and 261% occupancy in intensive care units.

Israel’s attacks on healthcare in Palestine are affecting everyone, especially the most vulnerable. Cancer and dialysis patients cannot access the specific care they need, and most have not yet been transferred to hospitals abroad as announced. The Ministry of Health estimates that 5,300 patients need to be transferred abroad for treatment, but until January 5, less than 1,000 were moved. This number includes 571 people injured in the attacks and 401 patients who required distinct forms of care, including cancer patients.

Children and pregnant women are also groups most at risk from the attacks and their consequences. Over 5,000 babies were born in Gaza just last month, all requiring adequate care and nutrition. With mothers and families going hungry, it is evident that some of them are also lacking proper food. Among the newborns are about 130 premature babies dependent on incubators, yet most incubators are located in northern Gaza, which, in terms used by the WHO, has become a medical disaster zone.

In addition to going hungry and sleeping in overcrowded tents, newborns and children are also not getting vaccinated. Recounting the experience of a woman who recently gave birth, Nareman, who was “taken from her tent in a temporary camp by horse-drawn carriage to a hospital to give birth to her daughter, before returning to her makeshift home straight after,” the WHO warned that the health system in Gaza is struggling to ensure standard immunization routines. Nareman’s baby is among those who are yet to receive planned vaccines, and she is staying with her sisters and brothers at the camp, who are reportedly in ill health themselves.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has managed to deliver 600,000 key vaccines into Gaza in the period between December 25-29, 2023, and is planning to deliver some 960,000 more together with WHO and UNICEF. Yet, this is no easy feat as Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) continue to target health infrastructure and health workers. Since the beginning of the attacks on October 7, 326 health workers in Palestine were killed by Israeli attacks, 764 were injured, and 65 were arrested, according to Ministry of Health data.

Many more experienced violence and intimidation by the IOF, including ambulances and partners of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS). On January 4, Israeli soldiers attacked a PRCS ambulance. Not long before that, the organization reported attacks targeting the house of Anwar Abu Holi, Director of the Central Gaza Ambulance Center, as well as multiple attacks on the Al-Amal Hospital in Khan Younis.

As shelling in the proximity of the hospital began, Al-Amal offered shelter to approximately 14,000 forcibly displaced people. The attacks, said the PRCS, endangered the lives of thousands. “The displaced persons are living in an atmosphere of horror and panic.”

The attacks that have taken place since the beginning of January killed 7 people, including a days-old baby, injured 11 more, and were reported by the PRCS to be ongoing on January 5, without a meaningful indication they would stop anytime soon.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here.