MIDDLE EAST CRISIS
‘The health system is on its knees’ — WHO condemns attacks on hospitals in Gaza
At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the situation on the ground in Gaza was ‘impossible to describe’. On Sunday, multiple UN agencies called for an immediate ceasefire amid reports that power, water and oxygen cuts at al-Shifa Hospital had led to multiple deaths.
Addressing the UN Security Council on Friday, 10 November, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called again for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and “on both sides to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law”.
However, Ghebreyesus went further. In a possibly unprecedented coda to his statement, he personalised his appeal as he recalled growing up as a child during a time of war in Ethiopia.
“I understand what the children of Gaza must be going through, because as a child, I went through the same thing. I experienced war both as a child and as a parent. I know how the children are feeling and I know how the parents are feeling.”
In this context, he expressed his frustration with the Security Council, saying that when he was foreign minister for Ethiopia he had been “part of a group working on reform of the Security Council. I am dismayed that no progress has been made.
“It has long been my view that the Security Council no longer serves the purpose for which it was established, with all due respect. It represents the realpolitik of the Second World War, not the 21st century.”
Read the speech in full here.
Ghebreyesus condemned the 7 October attacks by Hamas in south Israel as “horrific, barbaric and unjustifiable” and said, “WHO is gravely concerned for the health and wellbeing of Israeli hostages in Gaza, many of whom are older people, children and those with urgent medical needs.”
However, the focus of his statement was on the catastrophic situation facing more than two million people in the Gaza Strip, particularly their fast-deteriorating health and the deliberate destruction of health services.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
The director-general said the WHO had “verified more than 250 attacks on healthcare in Gaza and the West Bank, in addition to 25 attacks on healthcare in Israel — hospitals, clinics, patients, ambulances.
“Last week, WHO documented five attacks on five hospitals in one day. In the past 48 hours alone, four hospitals have been put out of action, representing some 430 beds.
“Half of the Gaza Strip’s 36 hospitals and two-thirds of its primary healthcare centres are not functioning at all. Those that are functioning are operating way beyond their capacities. The health system is on its knees, and yet somehow is continuing to deliver some lifesaving care.”
Ghebreyesus listed some of the facts about the ferocity and cruelty of the bombardments:
- More than 10,800 people have now been killed in Gaza, almost 70% of them women and children.
- On average, a child is killed every 10 minutes in Gaza.
- 1.5 million people have been displaced, and are looking for shelter anywhere they can find it. But nowhere and no one is safe.
- In addition to caring for the 27,000 people who are wounded, many of them with life-threatening injuries, health workers are trying to manage the regular health needs of more than two million people.
- More than 180 women give birth in Gaza every day.
- There are 9,000 patients on cancer therapy.
- There are 350,000 patients with diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
Attacks on hospitals
Ghebreyesus told the UN Security Council that “as we speak, there are reports of firing outside the al-Shifa and Rantisi hospitals”.
According to media reports, these attacks escalated over the weekend, with the al-Shifa Hospital being targeted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). On Sunday the Palestinian Red Crescent announced that the Al-Quds hospital was now “out of service and no longer operational due to fuel depletion and power outage”.
At the Al-Ahli hospital a plastic and reconstructive surgeon reported on X, “We have run out of blood at Al-Ahli Hospital. Our wounded are dying after surgery because we can’t transfuse them.”
There are numerous similar reports from other health facilities.
Evidence of Israel’s violations of international humanitarian law has been captured on videos and in the testimonies of desperate healthcare workers. The IDF says the hospitals harbour Hamas operations, without providing any evidence, and in the face of denials by the hospitals and health workers who work in them.
The outcry in response is growing.
On Saturday Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, issued a statement titled Patients and medical staff in Gaza trapped in hospitals under fire — Attacks must stop now. The statement contains eyewitness accounts from an MSF nurse and surgeon in Gaza and “denounces the death warrant of civilians currently trapped in Al-Shifa hospital signed by the Israeli military”.
MSF urges “the US, UK, Canada, Member states of the League of Arab States, Member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation and the European Union who have repeatedly called for the respect of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) to take action to ensure a ceasefire now.
“Thousands of people have been wounded since October 7, many of whom are in critical condition and will require complex surgeries and sustained treatment for weeks, if not months. This can only be done with a total ceasefire and the unconditional supply of humanitarian aid including access to food, fuel and water; the survival of people in Gaza depends on this.”
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said that “it held the international community and signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention accountable for the complete breakdown of the health system and resultant dire humanitarian conditions”.
Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Nowhere to go’ – Children and healthcare workers trapped in Gaza as food and water run out
On Sunday, the last generator at Gaza’s largest healthcare facility, al-Shifa Hospital, was reported to have run out of fuel, leading to multiple deaths. The regional directors of the WHO, Unicef and UN Population Fund called for urgent international action to end the attacks on hospitals.
“We are horrified at the latest reports of attacks on and in the vicinity of Al-Shifa Hospital, Al-Rantissi Naser Paediatric Hospital, Al-Quds Hospital, and others in Gaza City and northern Gaza, killing many, including children. Intense hostilities surrounding several hospitals in northern Gaza are preventing safe access for health staff, the injured, and other patients.
“Premature and newborn babies on life support are reportedly dying due to power, oxygen, and water cuts at Al-Shifa Hospital, while others are at risk. Staff across a number of hospitals are reporting lack of fuel, water and basic medical supplies, putting the lives of all patients at immediate risk,” they said.
“The world cannot stand silent while hospitals, which should be safe havens, are transformed into scenes of death, devastation, and despair. Decisive international action is needed now to secure an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and prevent further loss of life, and preserve what’s left of the healthcare system in Gaza. Unimpeded, safe and sustained access is needed now to provide fuel, medical supplies and water for these lifesaving services.
“The violence must end now.” DM