Israel’s attacks continue to decimate ambulance and maternity services in southern Gaza

Israeli attacks on healthcare in the Gaza Strip continue, with violence increasing against health workers and patients in West Bank

February 02, 2024 by Ana Vračar
PRCS teams burying the bodies of three martyrs among the displaced in the besieged courtyard of Al-Amal Hospital in Khan Younis. Photo: PRCS

Yousef Zaind and Ahmad Al-Madhoun, two staff members of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), went missing after being sent to rescue a 6-year-old trapped in a car. The girl spent hours talking to PRCS’ dispatcher, surrounded by the bodies of family members killed in an Israeli attack. After the ambulance reached the car’s location, all contact was lost, and the whereabouts of the child and PRCS workers remain unknown, as reported by the organization.

PRCS is a central figure in the unfolding healthcare crisis in South Gaza. As expected, Israeli forces are destroying health infrastructure through relentless bombardments, sniper fire, and evacuation orders, forcing thousands to move to Rafah, the next target of the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF).

Between October 7, 2023, and February 1, 2024, more than 100,000 people in Gaza were killed, injured, or are missing presumed dead, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Those trapped under the rubble rely on emergency services, including PRCS’ ambulances. At the same time, PRCS is coping with the disappearance of its staff, including Zaind and Al-Madhoun. Some are confirmed to be held by the IOF. Despite the release of one of them, Muhammed Abu Rukbeh, on February 1, others have been in prison for over 40 days.

More PRCS staff members were killed in Israeli attacks, adding to the devastating death toll of health workers in Gaza. Most recently, bombardments and attacks on the front steps of Al-Amal Hospital in Khan Younis killed two PRCS staff members, Naeem Hasan Al-Jabali and Khalid Kulab, on January 31.

Read more: In suspending funding to UNRWA, the West has become an active participant in Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians

Nasser Hospital, once the most important referral institution in southern Gaza, “has gone from partially to minimally functional” in just a week, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. What remains of the health services is due to volunteers, who are steadfast in their efforts despite an acute shortage of both trained surgeons and medical supplies.

Describing the situation at the hospital, Thaer Ahmad, a US-based physician, told Democracy Now! that the building is full, with people seeking shelter from heavy bombardments.

“The physicians that I was working alongside have been working nonstop for nearly four months. They are also hungry. They also are concerned about where they can get clean water from. Their families have been displaced multiple times. And they’re being asked to take care of waves and waves of people who are coming in as victims of bomb strikes or tank shellings,” Ahmad said.

Maternity and obstetrics services are nowhere near actual needs, especially with thousands of pregnant women displaced in tent camps. Emirati Hospital, the main institution for maternity services in Rafah, struggles to cope, leaving many without adequate antenatal care, sometimes with devastating consequences.

“Without enough supplies and too many patients, the healthcare system is overstretched, and mothers are forced to be discharged just hours after giving birth,” Rita Botelho da Costa from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned.

Her warning should be taken with adequate dread: early discharges, particularly those in the 24 hours following delivery, increase the risk of complications. Considering that the mothers and babies are discharged into conditions without clean water, sanitation, or food, the risks are even higher than they would usually be.

Read more: Israeli destruction of health infrastructure in Gaza places women and newborns in danger

The IOF’s attention has mostly shifted to southern Gaza, but healthcare in the northern areas remains staggered due to the lack of fuel, food, and supplies that Israeli authorities still do not allow in. MSF’s team accompanying a recent UN mission to Al-Shifa Hospital observed most procedures taking place in only a couple of rooms, while the rest remained filled with displaced people or heavily damaged.

“The team told us that they had recently lost a patient because they were unable to give him a blood transfusion. Their blood bank was empty,” MSF reported.

Meanwhile, Israeli attacks on health have increased in the West Bank as well. In a blatant violation of international rules protecting healthcare, masked Israeli soldiers entered Ibn Sina Hospital on January 30. Dressed as doctors, nurses, and patients, they stormed the hospital, ultimately murdering three people.

“They killed the three youth — Basel and Mohammed Ghazawi and Mohammed Jalamneh — in their room while they were sleeping on their beds in the room. They were killed in cold blood with direct gunshots to the head,” Naji Nazzal, medical director of Ibn Sina explained.

These assaults are certain to cause deep uncertainty among patients and health workers alike, increasing the mental health burden. It will now be impossible for patients in the West Bank to know with certainty if the nurse opposite them is a caregiver or a masked Israeli soldier. A nurse meeting a new patient will face the same doubt.

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.