‘All Eyes on Rafah’ – Says Head of WHO Office for Occupied Palestinian Territory
Over 1 million displaced Gazans crowded into makeshift camps in Rafah near the Egyptian border.

The World Health Organization says it is making contingency preparations for a possible Israeli incursion into the Gazan city of Rafah. The city hugging the Egyptian border remains under the control of the militant Palestinian Hamas government, nearly four months after Israel’s devastating invasion that followed a Hamas assault October 7 on some 22 Israeli border communities.  

But with over 1.5 million displaced Palestinians crowded into makeshift shelters in the Rafah area, a full-blown Israeli military entry into the area would be an “unfathomable catastrophe, further expanding the humanitarian disaster beyond all imagination,” said Dr Rick Peeperkorn, Director of WHO’s Office of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), on Wednesday.   

Peeperkorn was speaking in a WHO press briefing from Rafah, where WHO responders already are struggling to cope with a broken health system, an unending flood of wounded Palestinians, and barriers to resupply of health facilities further north with needed medical supplies.  More than 28,000 Palestinians have been reportedly killed in the fighting. Some 1200 Israelis were killed in the 7 October Hamas raids, while about 100 of the 240 Israelis taken hostage then continue to be held captive in Gaza. 

Rick Peeperkorn, WHO Representative for the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” (OPT), speaking from Gaza.

Heavy fighting was seen in Rafah early Monday morning, when Israeli commandos staged a rescue operation to free two elderly Israeli-Argentinian hostages held in an apartment in the city;  Palestinian authorities said that the operation, accompanied by fierce gun battles and Israeli airstrikes, led to the deaths of 74 Palestinians.  But that may only be a prelude to what could follow, WHO officials fear.  

“All eyes are on Rafah,” declared Peeperkorn, describing the tensions in the city, whose fate may be decided by the success or failure of Egyptian, US and Qatari-mediated negotiations over a possible ceasefire deal, including  Hamas release of remaining Israeli hostages alongside the release of Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israel.  

“We all watch the news and we all get the stories about this possible incursion,” Peeperkorn said, “and military activities are getting closer.”  

And while WHO is making plans in the event of a mass evacuation order of the area by Israel, “This should not happen,” Peeperkorn insisted, saying: “There is no place for people to go.  This is a desperate plea. Yes, contingency plans are being made, but they would be completely insufficient,” he added.

Meanwhile, getting supplies into northern Gaza remains a risk challenge with only about 40% of missions approved by Israel since November when Israel’s military operations in Gaza City commenced.

“Since January, that figure is much, much lower, and the missions have been denied, impeded or postponed,” Peeperkorn said.  “Approximately 45% of the mission requests for the south are facilitated,” he added, adding, “That’s absurd – even when there is no ceasefire a humanitarian corridor should exist.”

Nasser Hospital in eye of the battle in Khan Younis

WHO health supplies delivered to Al Nasser Medical complex in Khan Younis on 23 October, 2023.  The hospital is now encircled by Israeli troops amidst heavy fighting in the area.

Peeperkorn also called upon Israel to allow WHO access to Al Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, a city just north of Rafah.  Nasser Hospital serves as the leading medical facility serving Gazans in the southern part of the 364 square kilometer enclave. 

The hospital has been encircled by Israeli troops for over a week with WHO unable to access the site, he said, adding: “We know that 10 or more civilians have been killed outside and inside the compound,” he said, adding that there were also unconfirmed reports that the a main gate to the hospital compound as well as two medical supply warehouses had been destroyed. 

Some 402 patients and staff remain inside the hospital, he added, including 35 people on dialysis and 80 in the intensive care unit, including three neonates. 

Israel charges that Hamas military forces are operating from Nasser Hospital

In a message posted on X,  early Wednesday morning, Israel’s military claimed that Hamas military forces are operating from the Nasser hospital compound.  Israel demanded the “immediate cessation of all military activity in the area of the hospital and the immediate departure of military operatives from it.

 “The terrorist organization, Hamas, continues to conduct military activities within Nasser hospital complex, and moreover that the place was used to hold hostages,” said Israel’s military coordinator for Palestinian civilian affairs in the occupied territories, COGAT.

The post further said that the IDF had “conveyed this message to a senior official in the Palestinian Health Authority in Gaza and via him to senior officials in the Palestinian Health Ministry” warning that “if Hamas does not stop this terrorist activity, the IDF reserves its right to act against these actions according to international law.” 

Peeperkorn again denies Israeli allegations of  WHO “collusion” with Hamas 

Teresa Zakaria, WHO health emergencies official in Geneva at Wednesday’s briefing.

Last month, Israel also charged that WHO had ‘colluded’ with Gazan health authorities, by ignoring the evidence Israel had provided of Hamas military activities within and under hospitals – including hospital video footage as well as testimonies from former Hamas hostages freed in late November.

Those charges have been forcefully denied by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and were so again by Peeperkorn in Wednesday briefing on the situation in the Nasser complex: 

“Hospitals should never be militarized. That would be wrong. But we have received no evidence of military misuse of hospitals,” Peeperkorn asserted.

Added Teresa Zakaria, a WHO emergency officer in WHO’s Geneva headquarters: “Hospitals must be safeguarded and should not never be militarized; this constitutes, in itself, an attack on health facilities,” she said, comparing it to shootings or bombardment.

But she added that WHO lacks capacity to investigate such allegations as part of its Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care (SSA) reporting. 

”We are not in a position to investigate any [other] activities taking place in hospitals or underneath hospitals. We focus on the delivery of services, we are not in a capacity to look beyond the delivery of services,” Zakaria said.   

WHO platform reporting on attacks on health facilities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, since 7 October. WHO does not publicly name the health facility or designate who undertook the attack.

Israel’s unusual message to the Palestinian Authority over Nasser hospital

The very public message by Israel to the “Palestinian Health Authorities in Gaza” over the Nasser hospital situation is unusual in the context of war-time communications to date.  

Israel’s hard-line government has generally rejected suggestions by the United States and other allies that governance arrangements in Gaza, post-war, should involve the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is the internationally-recognized representative of Palestine. 

The PA, largely aligned with the Palestinian Fatah movement, was violently ejected from Gaza by Hamas in 2007, after a short period of Fatah-Hamas coalition rule. That followed Israel’s 2005 military withdrawal and Gazan elections  in which Hamas won the majority of votes – but not an outright majority. 

While the PA still holds a foothold in Gaza’s civic administration, its political echelon has been at odds with Hamas leadership ever since the group’s seizure of power – although Palestinian Authority officials have publicly expressed outrage with Israel’s invasion of Gaza as well as solidarity with the plight of Palestinians beseiged there.    

Image Credits: WHO .

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