Gaza’s only public eye hospital carried out 1,370 surgical operations, including 75 emergencies, in the first six months of this year, it’s biannual report revealed.
The report stated that 145 operations needed highly skilled experts. Meanwhile, the hospital carried out 6,364 minor operations, with Local anaesthesia.
According to the report, more than 27,000 patients visited the hospital, which is the only government-run eye hospital in Gaza.
Dr Abdul-Salam Sabbah, general director of hospitals in Gaza, hailed the efforts of the medical, nursing and administrative staff at the hospital, stating they have been striving to improve medical services in light of the severe shortages of medical equipment and medicines as a result of the Israeli siege and the Palestinian Authority’s sanctions.
A new report by the group ‘Forensic Architecture’ has found that widespread pesticide contamination from Israel into Gaza has occurred over decades, severely impacting the food grown in Gaza.
The full report follows below:
Staging the terrain
Over three decades, in tandem with the Madrid and Oslo negotiation processes, the occupied Gaza Strip has been slowly isolated from the rest of Palestine and the outside world, and subjected to repeated Israeli military incursions. These incursions intensified from September 2003 to the fall of 2014, during which Israel launched at least 24 separate military operations targeting Gaza, giving shape to its surrounding borders today.
The borders around Gaza—one of the most densely-populated areas on Earth—continue to be hardened and heightened into a sophisticated system of under- and overground fences, forts, and surveillance technologies. Part of this system has been the production of an enforced and expanding military no-go area—or ‘buffer zone’—on the Palestinian side of the border.
Since 2014, the clearing and bulldozing of agricultural and residential lands by the Israel military along the eastern border of Gaza has been complemented by the unannounced aerial spraying of crop-killing herbicides.
This ongoing practice has not only destroyed entire swaths of formerly arable land along the border fence, but also crops and farmlands hundreds of metres deep into Palestinian territory, resulting in the loss of livelihoods for Gazan farmers.
Farmers near the border in Gaza
Tractors flattening land for the ‘buffer zone’ in eastern Gaza, in 2018
(Read the press release from Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement here.)
To this end, our investigation sought to answer the following questions: how do airborne herbicides travel into Gaza? How far into Gaza does it enter? What is the concentration of the herbicide that drifts into Gaza? And what is the damage to the farmland on the Gazan side of the border?
Weaponising the wind
Our analysis of several first-hand videos, collected in the field, reveals that aerial spraying by commercial crop-dusters flying on the Israeli side of the border mobilises the wind to carry the chemicals into the Gaza Strip, at damaging concentrations.
The videos support the testimonies of farmers that, prior to spraying, the Israeli military uses the smoke from a burning tire to confirm the westerly direction of the wind, thereby carrying the herbicides from Israel into Gaza.
Our investigation shows that each spray leaves behind a unique destructive signature. No two aerial sprays will have the same effect, nor can their damage be reasonably predicted by the army, since the location where the toxic chemicals land, and their respective concentrations, depend heavily on the direction and speed of the wind relative to the flight path of the aircraft.
In November 2016, in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request filed by the NGO Gisha, the Israeli Ministry of Defense confirmed that aerial herbicides are sprayed along the width of the perimeter of Gaza. Aerial spraying is conducted between the Erez crossing in the north and Kerem Shalom in the south, over an estimated area of 12,000 dunums (12 square kilometres).
The Israeli government’s response to an FOI request filed by the NGO Gisha. (Gisha)
Following the advice of a contracted civilian agronomist, Israeli military spraying is conducted during key harvest periods, targeting spring and summer crops. Working with the private Israeli civilian aviation firm Chim-Nir (כימ-ניר), the army’s destruction of vegetation along the eastern perimeter is carried out in a continuous manner, using two aircrafts simultaneously, each equipped with a GPS system to enable precision.
The Ministry of Defense also confirmed that the Israeli military sprays a combination of three herbicides: Glyphosate, Oxyfluorfen (Oxygal) and Diuron (Diurex).
Glyphosate, formulated as ‘Roundup’, is the most widely-used herbicide in the world, leaving traces in soil, foodstuffs, air, and water, as well as human urine. Roundup is the flagship product of the Monsanto Company, a leading agricultural chemicals business that previously produced herbicides and defoliants used by the US military in Vietnam.
In March 2015, the World Health Organization’s Cancer Research Agency classified glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. Since then, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency have ruled it safe for use, although a number of European environmental groups have opposed this ruling.
Oxyfluorfen, formulated as ‘Oxygal’, is manufactured by the Israeli company Tapazol Chemical Works Ltd, and suppresses the growth of certain broad-leaf and grassy weeds. According to the Material Safety Data Sheet provided by Tapazol, Oxygal can cause ‘severe irritation’ upon contact with skin or eyes, and must be ‘kept out of water supplies and sewers’.
The Ministry claimed that it is ‘not carrying out any aerial spraying over the area of the Gaza Strip… [but] only over the territory of the State of Israel along the security barrier’. Citing Israel’s Plant Protection Law, 5716-1956, the Ministry claimed that its spraying practices along the Gaza border are identical to aerial spraying carried out in other Israeli-controlled areas.
A bottle of Oxygal herbicide
However, wind direction is a key factor that determines the movement of aerial herbicides from the purportedly-targeted area, and when effective drift control techniques are not applied, the Israeli army cannot mitigate the reach of those chemicals into Gazan farmland.
Plant scientists have noted that under similar environmental conditions, and with all sprayers adjusted properly, herbicide drift is ‘generally greater from aerial application than from ground application’; the use of ground-based field crop sprayers through tractors reduces the likelihood of extensive drift.
The Israeli military has confirmed that it sprayed aerial herbicides at least thirty times in along the border with Gaza in the period from November 2014 to December 2018. The spring of 2019 season was the first spring season during which the military has not conducted aerial spraying in the past four years.
To date, no Palestinian farmers have ever been compensated for damages to their crops.
Tracking a single spraying
On 5 April 2017, standing on the Gazan side of the border area near Khan Younes, a fieldworker with the NGO Gisha recorded a video of an Israeli crop-dusters spraying herbicides.
Palestinian farmers in the area reported concerns that their crops would be damaged as a result of this spraying, once it was carried by the wind, considering that crops had already been harmed in a previous round of spraying that took place only months prior. Further, most of the crops in the area had been recently sown, making them particularly susceptible to damage from herbicide spraying.
Leaves damaged by herbicide
To determine the unique destructive signature of this spraying event, we threaded together evidence derived from vegetation on the ground, the testimony of civilians living and working in the area, and the nature of the environmental elements mobilised in the event.
We identified the plane spraying herbicides along the eastern border of Gaza as a Model S2R-T34 Turbo Thrush.
Using the GPS location of the videographer as recorded on their smartphone, we were able to establish the camera’s cone of vision by comparing the dimensions of visible landmarks, such as a watchtower. Through a process of camera calibration we found the location of the plane and used motion-tracking to model its path, in time and space, as it sprayed.
The flight paths seen in videos collected by Forensic Architecture were mapped onto a 3D model
Our analysis revealed that before each spray, the plane dives to roughly 20m altitude to get closer to the ground. Each spray goes on for a duration of 2–5 seconds, covering the area to be fumigated by travelling back and forth in linear paths.
For the spraying that took place on 5 April 2017, we were able to identify six such spraying paths during the course of the two videos. All six of the sprayings were conducted on the Israeli side, close to the eastern border of Gaza.
With the assistance of a fluid dynamics expert, Dr Salvador Navarro-Martinez, we sought to determine the extent and concentration of herbicide drift.
To this end, each spray event was simulated using our flight path reconstruction, the local topology, the injector systems fixed to the plane, and meteorological conditions at the time of spraying. We then collected key variables such as wind direction and speed, droplet distribution, and ground chemical deposition to determine the extent of the drift.
The results of Forensic Architecture’s analysis show the distribution of concentration of herbicide as it travels westward into Gaza
The results showed that as the wind moves across the path of the herbicide spray, it carries chemicals westward that are then deposited onto Gazan farmland. The simulation indicates that for the spraying on 5 April, harmful concentrations of herbicide drift reached in excess of 300m into Gaza. This confirms that Palestinian crops could have been harmed as a result of herbicide drift.
Satellite imagery analysis
Analysis of satellite imagery corroborates the findings of our drift simulation. We compared satellite imagery 5 days after the spraying, and 15 days after the spraying, to reveal visual indicators for the presence and health of vegetation. When the two analyses are overlaid with one another, vegetation degradation becomes visible across much of the same area potentially affected by herbicide drift.
An NDVI analysis showing losses of vegetation between 5 days and 15 days after the herbicidal spraying. Red indicates areas in which vegetation has been lost
These findings suggest that herbicides carried by winds during and after the Israeli military spraying on 5 April contributed to the degradation of vegetation on the Gazan side of the border, in Khan Younes. We believe that these findings are largely generalisable, since similar vegetation degradation is also visible in other areas in Gaza which are close to the border and in the vicinity of known Israeli target areas for aerial herbicide spraying.
Following another confirmed spraying flight by the Israeli military on 9 and 10 January 2018, also in the Khan Younes area, the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture actively surveyed dozens of farms that had reported crop damage. Gazan farmers living hundreds of metres away from the border reported damage to crops totaling 250 acres following the January spraying.
Three days after another spraying in December 2018, we gathered similar samples of leaves that exhibited characteristic damage from a contact herbicide.
Spraying by the Israeli military was conducted along the border on 3 December 2018. On 6 December 2018, samples were collected from Palestinian farms whose leafy crops showed visible damage
Leafy crops sampled from two locations along the border with Israel in East Gaza and Juhor ad Dik, hundreds of metres into Gaza, revealed visible damage from fungal pathogens, insect feeding, and possible herbicide drift carried by the wind into Gaza. Corroborating human testimony on the ground, leaves of plants along the Israel-Gaza border function like sensors, recording memories of environmental violence.
Aerial spraying: Less control, unpredictable damage
When analysing the elements of a single spraying event on 5 April 2017, the testimonies of farmers, satellite imagery, and drift analysis we have gathered all confirm that agricultural lands more than 300m from Gaza’s eastern border experienced damage, and with concentrations of herbicides above the recommended amounts for drift, according to the European Union.
Evidence derived from vegetation on the ground, civilian testimony, and the environmental elements mobilized in the spraying event all correspond to show that the Israeli practice of aerial fumigation at times when the wind is blowing into Gaza causes damage to farmland hundreds of metres inside the besieged strip.
This confirms that as a practice for the clearing of vegetation, aerial spraying causes indiscriminate damage: the effects are less readily controllable, and the extent of damage to Palestinian farmland per spray is largely unpredictable. As such, the Israeli military cannot guarantee the reach of the chemicals it sprays by air, nor ensure that those chemicals remain proportionate to the declared objective of improving visibility for security operations.
Israeli military authorities continue to reject calls to end the practice of aerial herbicide spraying along the border with the Gaza Strip. Israel does not coordinate or share the proposed timing of planned operations with the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or with Gazan farmers, a practice which could mitigate some of the harm to those farmers’ property, and possibly to the surrounding environment as well.
Damage to land, health and livelihoods
The inability to control both the effects and reach of this ongoing military practice along the eastern border enacts a heavy price on Gaza’s farming community and the broader civilian population.
The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture estimates that between 2014 and 2018, herbicide spraying damaged upwards of 13,000 dunams of farmland in Gaza. The NGO Al-Mezan has further warned that, in addition to crop damage, the long-term consumption by livestock of plants affected by the sprayed chemicals has negative effects that may harm the health of humans who then consume meat from those livestock.
In the context of an ongoing Israeli blockade—with restrictions on the movement of people and goods into Gaza, and diminishing possibilities for farmers to cultivate land, maintain livelihoods, raise livestock, and to fish—the agricultural lands along Gaza’s eastern border are an important part of the food security of its population.
This map displays long-term changes to visual indicators of vegetation health across the Gaza region over the past three decades of Israeli occupation. Red indicates areas in which vegetation was completely eradicated. Vegetated areas that have degraded over time are shown across a gradient from yellow to red, according to the severity of vegetation degradation over time. Areas that have become greener over time are shown across a gradient of light to dark green, and occur mainly on the Israeli side of the border
Along with the regular bulldozing and flattening of residential and farm land, aerial herbicide spraying is one part of a slow process of ‘desertification’, that has transformed a once lush and agriculturally active border zone into parched ground, cleared of vegetation.
These practices have provided the Israeli military with visibility along the eastern border of Gaza—a visibility that has also left Palestinian civilians, including farmers, youth and families, further exposed to Israeli fire from hundreds of metres away.
The slow violence of spatial degradation through the mobilisation of environmental elements thus accelerates into an eruptive violence.
The Palestinian Commission of Detainees’ and Ex-Detainees’ Affairs has accused the Israeli administration of Ashkelon jail of procrastinating over providing Palestinian prisoner Basem al-Na’san with medical treatment.
According to the Commission, prisoner Na’san suffers from a bullet injury and serious colon and bowel problems, and thus he uses special bags attached to his body for excretion and secretion.
The prisoner, a 24-year-old from the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, has been waiting long for medical tests and an urgent surgical operation, but the administration of Ashkelon only pays him lip service.
3 volunteer medical teams from South America and Italy crossed into the Gaza Strip to start providing medical care for injured and sick children, as well as training for local doctors
A Chilean team of orthopaedic surgeons is carrying out urgent operations in the European Hospital in southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, Al-Resalah newspaper reported yesterday.
Doctor Lautaro Campos headed the team which arrived in the Strip on Friday and is expected to leave tomorrow evening.
In a statement, the Palestinian orthopaedic surgeon Jamal Abu-Hilal said that the three-member team carried out 16 surgeries and they are expected to carry out 30 more.
The PCRF ✔@ThePCRF
This week, our volunteer orthopedic surgery team from Argentina arrived in Gaza to provide surgery for in-need children. The team screened over 80 children on their first day, scheduling 44 for surgery.
We are honored to work with these great surgeons from South America.
Amputee Football Championships in Gaza on 13 April 2019
By Muhammad Hussein
Gaza. The very name evokes images of Israeli bombardment, crumbling infrastructure, keffiyeh-clad protestors standing defiantly with Palestinian flags and slingshots, and screaming children shot by snipers in a fog of tear gas and smoke from burning tyres. All of these images are the unfortunate reality of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but there remains an untapped sporting potential within the population, and one man has dared to dig it out from among the most unlikely of people: the growing number of amputees.
Over the past few years, the number of amputees in the Gaza Strip has risen exponentially, particularly since the beginning of the Great March of Return protests at the nominal border between Gaza and Israel since 30 March last year. The brutality of the Israeli response to the peaceful protesters includes the use of live ammunition and tear gas, killing almost 300 Palestinian men, women and children, and wounding more than 25,000 others. In May this year, the UN stated that in the current crisis with its serious healthcare shortages, around 1,700 Palestinians face the possibility of having lower limbs amputated. All is not lost, though.
Speaking exclusively to Middle East Monitor from his office in Dublin where he works full-time as an accounts manager for a housing company, Simon Baker stressed his status as a football coach rather than someone who is trying to change the politics in occupied Palestine.
“I was there to try and create a good image,” he told me, “and the one thing I said to the players is ‘I’m not telling you to forgive, I’m not telling you to forget, but if you don’t start focusing on tomorrow and you only focus on yesterday, you’re never going to move forward’.”
His mission in Gaza began with losing his own leg after an accident at a building site in 2004. The incident left him depressed and traumatised. He overcame this by getting back into sports, football in particular, where he discovered that being an amputee was no real barrier to his value as an active member of society. Since then, he has dedicated his free time and energy to teaching and helping other amputees to realise their potential as the head of the European Amputee Football Federation (EAFF) since 2015.
When he first began training Gaza’s amputee football team, his intention was clear. “I don’t understand the situation, I only knew what I saw on the news, but I wasn’t there to be a politician.” He outlined to the players the many benefits that sporting activities can bring when separated from politics, namely that “you turn your life around” and that you “can become a valuable member of society… you’re representing your community. But the long-term goal is that you’re actually going to represent your country.”
When Baker arrived in Gaza in April this year with a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the amputee football team had already been together since the start of the Great March protests, but did not have the resources and opportunity to develop to any meaningful extent. “It was really just a few lads having a kick around with a ball,” Baker recalled, “and it was more them just chasing the ball. It looked good, though, and they were impressive, and it was great that they had taken this initiative.”
What the players really lacked was a solid structure which could help them move from being a local to an international team. “There’s a lot of work before they start playing football: we’re working on the structure, delivery, dominance; everyone has a role to play. It has to become sustainable.”
This sustainability, Baker pointed out, is the primary end goal of his time in Gaza. “When I go to a country, the first thing to do make sure that there’s good governance and that they’re registered. It’s not a case of get off a plane, here’s some crutches, take some photos, goodbye, because six months later it’s all collapsed.”
With the objectives and structures set up for the team back in Gaza and maintained during his absence, Baker plans to return to the coastal territory in September to continue his mission; he has ambitious plans for the team. He wants to create “a festival of sports in Gaza”, a two-day programme of events for other disabled sportsmen and women, including blind karate and wheelchair basketball, in one of the Strip’s stadiums, bringing people together to celebrate sporting achievements with plenty of food and music. “The head of the ICRC delegation said that this sounds really good, because it’s a long time since the people of Gaza had something to celebrate.” Baker also aims to lead a marathon along the coast of the territory.
Moreover, the Irishman does not simply aim to coach the team to play in Gaza; his sights are set far beyond the Strip towards an international horizon. His long-term goal is to establish a junior amputee football team, drawing players from the growing legion of child amputees, which would make the project both regulated and recognised as one with the capability to play internationally. “We created it in Europe and the reason we did so is because that’s the future of the sport… You create a proper league so there’s regular football, and from the league we hope in six months to have a proper international team, because you get the best of the best.”
For this, the project requires more media recognition, funding and help from both local and international actors. One possible stakeholder that Baker intends to bring on board is the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), the governing body for the sport in Palestine, which has yet to recognise amputee football. “The PFA has a responsibility to participate in something like this,” he insisted. “We’re not asking it for money, we’re just there to create the foundations – the governance, the structure, the right public image – and we register with a sporting organisation. But then we grow the teams.”
The PFA, if it decides to back the team, could arrange for it to have the use of football pitches free of charge, facilitate training and governance, and provide other support which would boost Gaza’s amputee football team towards an international level.
Although Baker admitted that he had seen the obvious effects of the suffocating siege imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007 by Israel and its allies, he confessed that he did not experience any serious personal shortages during his stay. He did, however, say that he forgot to bring sunscreen lotion with him and, on the first day of training, the heat got to him. After the training session, he asked the security guard assigned to him to stop somewhere to buy some lotion; he was told that only absolute necessities are generally available in Gaza, due to the siege.
The Israeli authorities did not allow him to bring any kit and crutches with him into Gaza because “they could be used as weapons”. Baker’s sunburnt face brought it home to him that the Palestinians in Gaza are affected even more seriously by the daily shortages of basic items. “I know all these things,” he said in dismay, “but I can’t change it.”
While some might criticise Baker and other outsiders for not openly condemning the Israeli blockade on Gaza and the atrocities committed against participants in the Great March protests, the reality is that to pick a side is to jeopardise the ability to help the team and other needy Palestinians. Visas to enter Gaza are a fact of life and can be withheld by the occupation authorities, as could visas for players and the team to go abroad for international matches. This is constantly on Baker’s mind.
While the Strip is blockaded and its people languish in suffocating circumstances, the Palestinians in Gaza have made a lasting impression on the football coach. Baker not only underwent his own personal trauma, but has also travelled to various countries to train those in poverty, and has gained an insight into the challenges facing amputees in less developed parts of the world. He has also discovered a trait in the Palestinians which he did not find in such abundance anywhere else: resilience.
“One thing I did notice is that not one person came and said, ‘We have it so bad, I hate Israel, I don’t want this.’ They just said, ‘No more training, let’s play football.’ I was really amazed by it.” Unlike other countries in which he has trained amputees, he was shocked by the restraint and pride which with the Palestinians hold themselves. “I have never seen such resilient people… not one player said, ‘Give me something, give me money.’ They were very proud people.”
Simon Baker’s overall message is to separate sport from politics. “Sport is about fair play,” he explained. “If only for one hour a week the players can forget the problems in Gaza and only focus on the football, then I’m doing my job.” This, he said, is how anyone who is not a politician can truly help people, as the sport will help to develop them back into being core members of society; the politics can follow. “I’m not a politician; the only thing I can say is what I think sport will do, and that is that it can make a person feel a sense of worth, a sense of being; feel like a valued member of the community.”
He admitted that he doesn’t know how the situation in the Gaza Strip will end. “You know, I just hope that there’s no more damage and no more amputees… One thing I can say, though, is that in the future, if I can, I will take my wife to Palestine, for sure. It’s a beautiful country. And the beaches!”
This Irish football coach, himself an amputee, is giving hope to Palestinians in the same situation. In that sense alone, Gaza has been revived.
A child receives medical care in a hospital in Gaza
The Palestinian Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip said on Tuesday it was facing an “unprecedented” shortage of essential medicines and medical supplies.
“The medical crisis in hospitals and health centres is the most difficult during the years of the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip,” the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry’s annual requirement of medicines and medical supplies amounts to $40 million, however during the first half of this year, only $10 million was available for medicines and medical supplies.
The statement noted that the shortage deprived 50 per cent of patients in the Gaza Strip from treatment.
It called on all parties to take urgent and effective measures to provide essential medicines for patients with cancer, blood diseases, kidney failure, neurological and psychological illnesses as well as chronic diseases.
The Gaza Strip has suffered under a more than 12-year siege at the hands of Israel, with support from Egypt and the international community. Goods, food, aid, construction materials and other essentials have not been allowed into the Strip and people have been left unable to leave even to access medical care.
The General Federation of Palestinian Labour Unions reported last year that as a result of the siege, unemployment in the enclave almost doubled to 50 per cent, rising from 27.2 per cent before 2007.
Due to the ban on the entry of fuel, Gaza’s sole electricity plant has been forced to shut down leaving civilians with only 4 hours of electricity a day; further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.
A report released by the UN last month raised concerns that the Strip is “de-developing” faster than anticipated, such that the 2020 deadline by which it was said that Gaza would be “unliveable” may have already arrived.
Palestinians are regularly denied access to much needed medical attention, and unable to leave the Gaza strip to access it.
Palestinian journalist Fathi Sabbah has accused the Palestinian Authority (PA) government and its health ministry of not being serious about providing medical treatment for his daughter, Rima, who suffers from blood cancer.
In Facebook remarks, Sabbah said he received pledges from premier Mohamed Shtayyeh over the phone to personally follow up the case of his daughter after he published her story a few days ago.
He added that he was also phoned by Ahmed Abu Houli, member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Executive Committee, who pledged to provide his daughter with appropriate medical treatment in hospitals like any citizen.
However, he affirmed that the medical referral to Hadassah Hospital in Israel only included a medical checkup without covering the expenses of medication.
Palestinians children fill plastic bottles and water containers with drinking water from a public tap on 27 July 2014
Up to 850 Palestinians from the village of Marda in the northern West Bank were infected by organisms in polluted water between Monday and Wednesday, the Palestinian Ministry of Health has revealed.
According to Hisham Mansour, the director of health in Salfit, the issue is now under control. Cultures from the drinking water, he explained, have been taken for testing, but local people have been ordered not to use the water until the results are known and it is declared safe to use.
Mansour added that some of those infected were transferred to the government hospital in Salfit while others were treated in their village.
Babies, children pass away without presence of their parents who are only minutes away
Oliver Holmes and Hazem Balousha
Israeli blockade on Gaza means parents are separated from critically ill children who almost die in hospitals alone.
At first glance, nothing appeared out of place at the children’s intensive care unit. Nine beds were filled with nine tiny newborn babies, all with tubes attached to their wiry bodies. Monitors emitted the sounds of steady electronic blips. Nurses walked from bedside to bedside. A tired-looking paediatrician filled out paperwork.
Yet something was missing: there were no parents.
Some had been sent home to rest, or might be anxiously drinking coffee in the cafeteria downstairs. But for two babies at this Palestinian hospital in Jerusalem, their mothers were trapped an hour and a half away behind an Israeli-enforced blockade in Gaza. Both infants would later die, one without seeing her mother again.
Critically ill Palestinian infants taken from impoverished and war-battered Gaza to the better equipped Makassed hospital are suffering and dying alone.
Israel allows temporary exit from Gaza for medical reasons in some cases, but not all. At the same time, it prevents or seriously delays many parents of patients from leaving, and others never apply in the first place, fearing that extensive security checks for adults will hold up their child’s exit permit and lose vital time.
Some 56 babies separated since last year
Since the beginning of last year, 56 babies from Gaza were separated from their mothers and fathers, six of whom perished without a parent present, according to the hospital.
In one case, a 24-year-old mother from Gaza was permitted to travel to Jerusalem to give birth to gravely ill triplets two months early. Two weighed less than a bag of sugar.
But Hiba Swailam’s permit expired and she had to return to Gaza. She was not there when her first child died at nine days old, or two weeks later when her second baby also died. She was informed by phone.
The surviving child, Shahad, spent the first months of her life cared for by nurses, and Hiba could only see her daughter in video calls.
While the baby was ready for discharge since February, no family member was able to pick her up.
After being approached for comment, Israeli authorities allowed Swailam to exit Gaza. She was permitted to travel to Jerusalem the same day Israel responded to the Guardian’s request for comment on 29 May.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, an Israeli medical non-profit, said more than 7,000 permits were issued for minors from Gaza last year.
Less than 2,000 permits for parents were granted, the right group said, suggesting most children travelled without their mothers and fathers.
Baby died due to need for breasfeeding
Mor Efrat, the group’s director for the occupied Palestinian territories, said: “The Israeli government should be held accountable for the human suffering.”
“I wouldn’t say that if the mother was there, they wouldn’t get it, but it would decrease the chances,” said Hatem Khammash, the head of the neonatal unit.
Ibtisam Risiq, the serving staff nurse in charge at the paediatric intensive care unit, has observed a psychological effect of newborns who are alone in her care. “They need love. Their heart rates go up. They are depressed,” she said.
Sitting at her desk, stacks of paper everywhere, she watched on as her nurses rushed to keep babies alive. She scolded them for leaving discarded medical wrappings on the floor. A large computer screen behind her showed the heart rates of each of the patients. As she talked, one jumped to 200 beats per minute. “It should be 130,” she said, and quickly dispatched a nurse.
Doctors walked in and out. Risiq picked up the phone to argue with an administrator who had called because another child was in need of urgent care. They asked in vain if any of Risiq’s patients were stable enough to move to a lower-risk unit.
“We’re are at 100% occupancy,” said Risiq. “This happens every day. I face this every day.”
Parents must be over 45 or 55
Already struggling with finances, Makassed has faltered since Donald Trump cut millions last year in medical aid to it and other hospitals that serve Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
A vicious political rivalry between the Palestinian political factions in the West Bank and Gaza has also deepened a health crisis. The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), the only group Israel will liaise with, has been accused of cutting medical aid to Gaza to press Hamas to cede control of the strip – a charge the PA denies.
Saleh al-Ziq, the head of the PA office for Gaza that forwards exit permit applications to Israel, said it advised that sick children only be accompanied by people over 45, whose permits were usually processed more quickly by Israeli authorities as they were deemed to be less of a risk.
The result is that rather than parents, who are usually younger, Makassed is full of grandparents. The hospital has to cover their accommodation and food, and has set up trailers for them to sleep in. But in some cases, they too have to return to Gaza and the babies are left completely alone.
At the paediatric ICU, Risiq picked up a large green book filled with her scribbled records of admittances, many of them premature babies.
Grandmother must use Whatsapp
One newborn, Reema Abu Eita, came with her grandmother from Gaza for emergency spinal cord surgery. It was delayed as she had an infection, said Risiq, looking down at the baby, her eyes closed and chest pumping. Abu Eita’s father, an ambulance driver, managed to get a permit to visit his daughter, but the baby died before returning to Gaza.
Another newborn from Gaza, Khalil Shurrab, came with an enlarged liver. Yellow with jaundice, he had been suffering convulsions.
Khalil’s grandmother accompanied him, according to his father, who spoke from Gaza. “The hospital staff taught her how to send me and my wife photos of him on WhatsApp,” said Jihad Shurrab, 29.
His wife, Amal, said she had stopped sleeping after her son left. “I wish I could have gone with him to Jerusalem. I was begging everybody, but they said I am young and the Israeli side wouldn’t accept.”
To the families’ relief, Makassed eventually discharged Khalil after a month, and the baby could return back to Gaza. But when he did, they found the medication was locally unavailable.
“The swelling was increasing,” his father said. He decided to try to leave Gaza to the south via Egypt, which also imposes a blockade but allows travel in certain cases. “The day we were supposed to travel, he died.”
Israel says its land, air and sea blockade on Gaza is to prevent Hamas and other militant groups from launching attacks. The UN calls it “collective punishment” for the 2 million people trapped there. Residents call it a siege.
Cogat, the defence ministry body responsible for coordinating Israeli government activity in the Palestinian territories, claimed in a written response that it had no age limits for permits and every request was examined individually.
Regarding the case of the triplets, it said a “human error in the application forms” meant one request filed by the mother in April had been rejected.
It blamed the health crisis in Gaza on Hamas and the PA, which it said “massively reduced its medical aid budget for residents of the Gaza Strip”. Hamas had used patients as mules to smuggle explosives and “terror funds” into Israel, it said.
Cogat is “active in the issuance of tens of thousands of permits for patients as well as in the issuance of permits for Palestinian physicians, who receive training at hospitals in Israel”, it added.
The reason is Israeli occupation
While it is harder for people in Gaza to exit, Makassed also serves the West Bank, and Palestinian parents there also find it difficult, sometimes impossible, to get to the hospital.
Israel claims sovereignty over all of Jerusalem and has isolated even its majority Arab neighbourhoods from the rest of the Palestinian territories.
Some patients, many older children with cancer, have families who live just minutes away but cannot visit.
The separation of children from their families is so common that Palestinian hospitals in Jerusalem provide tablets for them to make Skype calls.
A UK-based health charity, Medical Aid for Palestinians, has been giving British MPs tours of Makassed hospital to show them the results of separating children from their parents.
One Labour MP who visited said she has been pressing the UK government to intervene. Rosena Allin-Khan, who used to work as an emergency doctor, said: “No child, anywhere in the world, should be alone in their time of greatest need.
“The UK government must lean on Israeli authorities to overhaul this inhumane system.”