Doctor warns Gaza wards could become ‘mass graves’ as a third of hospitals close over lack of power

Palestinian doctors forced to use washing up liquid to clean wounds, while UN chief warns of 'clear violations of international humanitarian law'

Bel Trew
Tel Aviv
Wednesday 25 October 2023 05:23 BST
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<p>Palestinians outside Najjar hospital in southern Gaza</p>

Palestinians outside Najjar hospital in southern Gaza

A third of Gaza’s hospitals are closed and more will shut down within hours due to lack of fuel, the United Nations has said, as medics warn wards could turn into ”mass graves”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has begged for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and safe passage of supplies and generator fuel to the 42km-long strip, which is being pounded by Israeli airstrikes and a punishing siege.

The WHO said that supplies were so low that six hospitals had already closed across the strip. Many more will halt operations in the coming hours if fuel is not delivered.

That will put thousands of vulnerable patients at risk of dying, including 130 premature babies, 1,000 patients dependent on dialysis and those on life support machines.

“We are on our knees asking for that sustained, scaled up, protected humanitarian operation,” said WHO regional emergencies head Rick Brennan.

Israeli airstrikes overnight killed more than 700 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. That is the highest 24-hour death toll since Israel began a bombing campaign to crush Hamas in the wake of an attack by the militants two weeks ago.

In total, more than 5,700 Palestinians have been killed so far, including some 2,300 minors, the ministry said. The figure includes the disputed toll from an explosion at a hospital last week. Israel said it had launched 400 airstrikes over the past day, killing Hamas commanders and hitting militants as they were preparing to launch rockets into Israel.

There are now concerns many more will die as medical centres are forced to close. The single oncology hospital in the Gaza Strip is only partially functional due to lack of fuel, putting around 2,000 cancer patients at risk.

The rubble of buildings hit in Israeli air strikes in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip

On Monday the private Indonesian Hospital, the biggest in northern Gaza, was forced to switch off everything except for the intensive care unit due to a critical lack of generator fuel.

The only other hospital that had still been serving patients in northern Gaza, Beit Hanoun Hospital, stopped operations because of the intense bombardment of the town.

In total, the Hamas-run health ministry said 40 medical centres had suspended operations at a time when the bombardment and displacement are putting enormous strain on the system.

Ghassan Abu Sitta, a British-Palestinian doctor who works with medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, said from the al-Shifa the situation was so dire that doctors and surgeons were having to “improvise at every level” including using washing up liquid to clean wounds.

“The number of wounded is astronomical compared to the size of the hospital,” he told The Independent. Gaza’s largest medical complex is already at 150 per cent capacity and sheltering thousands of terrified civilians displaced by the bombings.

“The wounded are everywhere, they are on mattresses, on the floor of the wards and in the corridors and the emergency department,” he added.

He said the medical team was “improvising at every level”.

“When I have a patient I want to clean up for surgery I first wash them with washing up liquid that I bought from the corner shop then I wash them with vinegar to make sure they are antiseptic.” Only then can he use Iodine-based antiseptic materials sparingly.

The next problem is power as the generator fuel runs out.

“If the electricity runs out, Shifa hospital will become a mass grave,” he added.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the Security Council meeting

The UN’s secretary general Antonio Guettes pleaded on Tuesday for civilians to be protected, voicing concern about “clear violations of international humanitarian law” in the Gaza Strip. He told the 15-member UN Security Council that at a “crucial moment like this”, it was vital to be clear that war has rules, starting with the fundamental principle of respecting and protecting civilians.

US president Joe Biden, when asked by reporters at the White House whether aid was getting to Gaza as fast as needed, said: “Not fast enough.” On Tuesday evening, The UN said 20 trucks that had been due to deliver aid to the besieged Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing from Egypt on Tuesday had not entered the enclave. “We hope the materials can enter Gaza tomorrow,” UN aid spokesperson Eri Kaneko said.

In his speech to the UN Security Council, Mr Guterres said: “It is important to also recognise the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation,” he added.

“But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people,” he said.

Israel’s UN ambassador Gilad Erdan described Mr Guterres’ speech as “shocking”.

“His statement that ‘the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum’ expressed an understanding for terrorism and murder,” Mr Erdan added.

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