Gaza’s two largest hospitals – al-Shifa and al-Quds – have both closed their doors to new patients after running out of fuel due to the continuing blockade by Israel. Al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital is facing dire conditions. It lacks oxygen, medical supplies, and fuel to power incubators. It has had no electricity or water for days. Some babies have already died and many more are at risk. “Yesterday I had 39 babies and today they have become 36,” said Dr. Mohamed Tabasha, head of the paediatric department at al-Shifa. “The premature babies should be in incubators where the temperature and humidity can be regulated according to their individual needs. Instead, they had to be moved to ordinary beds over the weekend because of a shortage of electricity.” Dr. Ahmed El Mokhallalati, also involved in caring for the babies, described the conditions as deadly. “They are in a very bad situation where you slowly kill them unless someone interferes to adjust or to improve their situation,” he said, by telephone from al-Shifa.
Not only is al-Shifa facing the cruelty of the deprivation of water and fuel, emphasising the huge power imbalance between Israel and Gaza, but it is also having to cope with military aggression from the Israel Defence Force (IDF). The intensive care unit has been bombed and damaged. Staff moving between buildings have been shot at and critically wounded. Those who have tried to flee have come under fire and lie dead or wounded in the street, as rescue is impossible. With the mortuary shut down, a hundred bodies are piled up and cannot be buried.
Medical Aid for Palestine said on Monday: “Day after day, week after week, we have been warning of catastrophic consequences if world leaders fail to protect healthcare in Gaza. Our worst fears are coming true.”
In fact, 21 out of 35 hospitals are out of service in Gaza, and 51 out of 72 primary medical care facilities are no longer operational.
A fully functioning health service is a priority even in normal times. During a non-stop bombardment where, according to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, Israel has dropped more than 25,000 tonnes of explosives on the Gaza Strip since 7th October, equivalent to two nuclear bombs, it is critical. As well as the escalating death toll, which now stands at over 11,000, including medical staff, well over 25,000 people, many of whom are children, have been seriously injured. What do they do, where do they go?
The ongoing attack by Israel on Gaza on three fronts, air, ground, and the deprivation of the basic necessities of life, continues to have devastating consequences for civilians, medical professionals and healthcare facilities. Al-Shifa’s closure is another red flag that humanitarian boundaries have been crossed, and that there is an urgent need for Western leaders to find their voices in the same way that hundreds of thousands of their citizens have and demand peace in the region.
It cannot have escaped leaders’ attention that international humanitarian law specifically protects hospitals and medical personnel. Attacks on such facilities are considered war crimes and are in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Neither do these Conventions recognise principles of reciprocity, meaning that parties to a conflict cannot use violations by the enemy as an excuse to disregard humanitarian norms. One interpretation of this is that it would be a war crime to fire weapons and to position bases in proximity to heavily populated civilian areas, near facilities that should be protected.
However, Wesam Ahmad, a Palestinian human rights advocate at Al-Haq NGO in Ramallah, Palestine, is under no illusion that international law is a tool for justice. He says that “the mask that has long obscured the true nature and purpose of “international law”, the supposed foundation of the current global order, is finally off. As Palestinian cries for help from Gaza remain unanswered, the sinister truth is now undeniably out in the open: international justice, more often than not, is used as a tool to advance imperial interests, and not justice.”
Israel has attempted to justify its actions in and around the hospitals, by arguing that the hospitals are command centres for Hamas, and that this is part of an ongoing strategy of using the population as human shields. Hamas has denied this, but the issue is complicated by the nature of Gaza. Over two million people are confined in an area just 41 km long, and the territory consists mostly of an extremely dense urban environment. It is perhaps not surprising that Hamas operates in civilian areas. International law also makes clear that, even if an armed force is improperly using civilian objects to shield itself, its opponent is still required to protect civilians from disproportionate harm.
Israel is aware that criticism is growing at its relentless slaughter of the civilian population, so it says that Israeli forces have established “humanitarian corridors” to facilitate the safe evacuation of doctors, patients, and other vulnerable individuals from al-Shifa. However, the reports are that these are not working and those civilians capable of being moved from the hospital continue to be killed. The question also needs to be asked as to where they go? Over one million people have been displaced to the south of Gaza. The hospitals in this region are also barely functioning.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded to outrage surrounding the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza, and asserted that Israel was blameless for such bloodshed. He went on to claim that the Israeli military’s shift to a ground-based invasion of the occupied Palestinian territory had “reduced” what would have been an even higher civilian death toll resulting from a bombing campaign. The implication being that the people of Gaza should be grateful to Netanyahu that only 11,400 men, woman and children had been killed so far.
Although international criticism of the Israeli military campaign is growing, Western leaders remain silent and, as a result, are potentially complicit in war crimes taking place before their eyes.
As Jeremy Corbyn said, ”…underneath the rubble are the quiet, unremarkable foundations of our shared humanity. Morning coffee rounds, hot showers, shopping trips, card games and bedtime stories. Friendship, heartbreak, love, disappointment, boredom, and suspense. Schools, mosques, theatres, universities, libraries, playgrounds, and hospitals. Hopes, dreams fears, cares, and joys. We are not just witnessing mass death. We are witnessing the erasure of an entire culture, an identity, and a people.”