Babies cling to life in stricken hospital

The fate of 600 patients rests on four ageing generators keeping blackouts at bay, reports Kim Sengupta
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The Independent Online

Even with the glimmer of hope that a ceasefire may finally be under negotiation, the situation at Gaza's biggest hospital remains desperate, with more than 70 life-support patients now precariously dependent on generators because the main power supply has been down for five days.

The 596-bed Shifa hospital in Gaza City was struggling yesterday to cope with the latest casualties of war – the injured victims of the bombing on Tuesday at a school in the Jabalya refugee camp which left 42 dead.

But the shortage of fuel to run the generators, after months of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, is now the biggest problem facing Shifa and other medical facilities in Gaza. "It is not just a matter of fuel," said Dr Hassan Khalaf, the director of the hospital. "We have four generators and they are old. They are meant to be back-ups, not run all the time. We have difficulties with spare parts, and with maintenance. But we are having to use the generators to power all wards, including intensive care and dialysis units. I heard that they are opening the border for a few hours to let in humanitarian supplies, and that is good. But I don't know what is going to happen about the fuel, this is critical."

The intensive care unit at the hospital is looking after 25 premature babies as well as people injured in the fighting. Around 300 people need to use kidney dialysis. Gaza's sole power plant ceased operating after fuel deliveries were stopped by the Israelis because militants carried out rocket attacks on the crossings through which fuel was being shipped in. This has left most of the Palestinian territory's 1.5 million residents without electricity. Since the beginning of the military offensive there has also been a severe shortage of diesel and of gas in cylinders – used by many Gaza families for cooking – after the tunnels used to smuggle them in from Egypt were hit by air strikes. "We don't have any diesel and we only have about two days worth of cooking gas left," said Hussein Aashour, the chief administrator at the hospital.

"The doctors and nurses have already cut back on what they eat so that there is more for patients. But if cooking gas runs out, then we can't supply the patients with hot food, and we also won't be able to wash sheets and sterilise equipment in hot water."

Rada Ashraf Hussein was at the hospital yesterday sitting beside the bed of her 59-year-old aunt, who was lying with an oxygen mask over her face. "She has been like this since the second day of the bombing when she received some injuries to her head," said Ms Hussein. "She was hurrying back home with shopping when there was a bomb on the road. I think the Israelis were trying to destroy a ministry, but a lot of ordinary people got hurt.

"We are hoping that when things are better they will be able to operate on her. But we all know about the generators and of course we worry that they may break down. They must get power to the hospital as soon as possible, otherwise there will be a lot of suffering. I don't know anything about a ceasefire. I just hope that my aunt and other people here, who are still alive even if they are injured, don't die because the hospital doesn't have electricity."

Maxwell Gaylard, the United Nations' Humanitarian Co-ordinator for the Palestinian Territories, said: "Electricity and communications are down over much of the Strip, both on account of lack of fuel and damage to critical infrastructure. This is now one of the most serious problems being faced in Gaza and we must tackle this emergency." The World Health Organisation said that substantial shipments of medicine and medical equipment have now reached Gaza, although the distribution system is under great strain due to the continuing violence.

Dr Khalaf said: "We have got more supplies, but at the same time the numbers of patients we are dealing with keeps going up. Apart from the emergencies, we have other problems. People suffering from long-term chronic conditions like cancer are simply not getting treatment. We haven't got the time to treat them properly and they are also not risking the bombs to come to the hospitals. We can't send out to their homes from the hospital under present circumstances; 11 members of my staff have been killed since the bombing began."