WHO Issues Fresh Appeals for Release of Hamas-held Hostages; Gaza Fuel Resupply
Trucks carrying humanitarian aid wait to cross into Gaza from Egypt through Rafah border point – some 74 have now passed but WHO says its not nearly enough.

The World Health Organization has issued its most forceful statement to date calling for the immediate release of some 200 Israelis and foreigners, including health workers and children, abducted by Hamas and other armed groups from Israel on 7 October during a deadly rampage of 22 Israeli communities that left about 1300 other people dead.   

Meanwhile, WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) issued a fresh appeal for the entry of fuel supplies as well as more medicines  to Gazan overburdened hospitals, struggling to cope with a rising toll of casualties from unprecedented Israeli air raids. Since Saturday, Israel has the allowed entry of  74 trucks of food, water and medical aid. But it has barred fuel deliveries to the besieged enclave in an effort to stem the blitz of missiles being fired on Israeli cities by Hamas, and deplete its fuel reserves while staging the initial phases of a promised ground incursion into Gaza.  US President Joe Biden, a staunch supporter of Israel in the conflict, has admitted that the Gaza aid deliveries aren’t getting in “fast enough.

WHO hostage statement

Outside of UN Headquarters in Geneva, demonstrators call for the release of some 222 Israeli and foreign hostages held by Hamas. In the past week, families have also met with the heads of WHO, the ICRC and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The WHO appeal on the hostages came late Wednesday evening following a meeting between WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and members of an Israeli civil society group representing families of those abducted. 

WHO is “gravely concerned by the humanitarian and health situation facing approximately 200 people, including health workers and up to 30 children, abducted from Israel by Hamas and other armed groups on 7 October 2023,” the statement said. It called for “the immediate release of all the hostages, along with urgent access to each of them and delivery of medical care.” 

Said Tedros, “We met today with families of people abducted from southern Israel on 7 October and heard firsthand the tragedy, trauma and suffering they are facing. There is an urgent need for the captors of the hostages to provide signs of life, proof of provision of health care and the immediate release, on humanitarian and health grounds, of all those abducted.”

Elderly, children and people with chronic health conditions

Two of the estimated 30 Israeli children taken hostage by Hamas at demonsration outside of the UN Headquarters in Geneva Sunday, calling for their release. Some families met with the heads of WHO, ICRC and the Office of the UN High Commisioner for Human Righs (OHCHR)

“Many of the hostages, including children, women and the elderly, have pre-existing health conditions requiring urgent and sustained care and treatment. The mental health trauma that the abducted, and the families, are facing is acute and psychosocial support is of great importance,” Tedros said.

The captives were taken after several thousand Hamas gunmen broke through an Israeli security fence separating Palestinian Gaza from pre-1967 Israel in the early morning of 7 December. Fanning out to some 22 Israeli villages and small towns nearby, the gunmen forced their way into hundreds of homes, and set others on fire. Survivors reported seeing neighbors and family members shot or bludgeoned to death, while a few were led away on foot,  motorcycles or in pickup trucks. 

So far, only four of an estimated 224 hostages have been released – including two elderly women, aged 85 and 79 on Monday, whose husbands remain in captivity.  Among the hostages are people of some 25 nationalities, including many Israelis with dual citizenship, but also Nepalese agriculture students and Thai caregivers who were working in the Israeli communities near Gaza.  A handful of the Israeli captives are Beduin Muslims, who live and work in the area.  

Since being taken captive, hostage families have launched a diplomatic campaign in Europe, North America and at UN institutions.  Last week some hostage family members also met in Geneva with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Volker Turk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on a tour that has also taken some families to Brussels and around European capitals as well as to the UN Security Council meeting in New York.   

WHO Eastern Mediterranean Office issues fresh appeal for Gaza fuel supplies 

Displacement of Palestinian families from northern Gaza to one of the UNRWA schools in Gaza City to escape the ongoing Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since October 7, 2023.

Meanwhile, WHO’s EMRO office warned again that more Gazan hospitals are facing collapse, due to the lack of fuel and the collapse of the electricity grid.

In addition to the hospitals that have had to close due to damage and attacks, six hospitals across the Gaza Strip have already shut down due to lack of fuel, said the WHO/EMRO statement. 

“Unless vital fuel and additional health supplies are urgently delivered into Gaza, thousands of vulnerable patients risk death or medical complications as critical services shut down due to lack of power. These include 1000 patients dependent on dialysis, 130 premature babies who need a range of care, and patients in intensive care or requiring surgery who depend on a stable and uninterrupted supply of electricity to stay alive.” 

Since last Saturday, some 74 trucks carrying food, water and medicines have been allowed by Israel to pass into Gaza through Egypt’s Rafah, with 12 trucks crossing in the latest relay, on Thursday. 

However, UN Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) officials say that is only about one-tenth of the aid that used to cross into the besieged Gaza strip, before the war broke out – and bereft of fuel.

WHO statements coincide with intense diplomatic activity on hostages and  de-escalation 

Palestinian man walks across a pile of rubble in Gaza, whish has seen the heaviest bombing attacks ever by Israel.

The WHO meeting and statements coincided with a UN Security Council debate Tuesday and Wednesday on the Israel-Gaza conflict, which ended in a veto by Russia and China of a proposed US resolution calling for a humanitarian “pause” in hostilities but also condemned Hamas and affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. A competing Russian resolution that also called for a pause and condemned Hamas, but omitted language about Israel’s right to self-defense, failed to get the required 9 Security Council votes. 

While there have also been reports that Hamas is negotiating with mediators in Qatar, Egypt and elsewhere for the release of more Israeli captives, the hostage mission is vastly complicated by repeated Israeli threats to enter Gaza and remove Hamas altogether from power.  

The Hamas attacks on wide swathes of southern and central Israel, as well as from the northern Lebanese border, have led to the displacement of some 200,000 Israelis. Some of the Gaza-area Israeli villages that were the scenes of massacre on 7 October, are now mere burnt out ruins. 

But that is nowhere near the level of destruction now being seen in densely populated Gaza – where average people lack access to the network of shelters that Israel has built for its civilian population against missile attack – not to mention its “Iron Dome” air defense system. Around one half of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinian inhabitants have reportedly been displaced.  

Gaza reports soaring casualties 

A Palestinian boy with his cat salvaged from an apartment bombed by Israel.

Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry released Thursday a detailed report on 7,028 Palestinian casualties, including 2,913 minors as a result of the conflict. Although US President Biden has expressed scepticism as to whether the numbers indeed are that high, WHO and UN sources, say that the Hamas figures have usually been reliable, bearing up to post-war scrutiny.  The Hamas toll, however, does include some 471 people reported to have been killed in the explosion at Al Ahli Hospital, which French and US intelligence agree was an errant missile fired from Gaza. It also does not separate military from civilian deaths. 

Regardless, Palestinian casualties appear to now outpace the combined Gaza toll of all of its major conflicts with Israel since in 2008. And there is no doubt that Palestinian deaths far outpace the losses seen by Israel, which has lost 1,400 people, including 380 soldiers.   

And irregardless, Israel’s air raids on Gaza, some of the heaviest ever seen on an urban area anywhere in the world, have thrust average Palestinians deep into crisis – overcrowding hospitals, as well as schools and refugee centers. Israel also has called for the evacuation of most of northern Gaza, while it takes aim at the huge labyrinth of underground tunnels created by Hamas as refuge for its fighters and high-ranking officials. 

The fuel war 

Some Gaza facilities, like Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, now have solar power capacity – but PV cannot fill the energy gap left by fuel shortages.

Already two weeks ago, Gazan health officials warned that hospital fuel supplies would run out in days. Fuel is also  critical for powering Gaza’s desalinization plant to produce clean water, UN and relief workers stress, in light of the heavy salt-water encroachment and pollution of Gaza’s wells and underground aquifers. And it is essential to bakeries, producing bread, a critical staple food. 

As of this week, fuel reserves hadn’t yet entirely been exhausted. On Monday, WHO reported its delivery of  34,000 liters of fuel to ambulance services and four major hospitals in southern Gaza.  But “this is only enough to keep ambulances and critical hospital functions running for a little over 24 hours,” WHO warned. 

Meanwhile, Hamas has continued to strike out against southern and central Israel, hitting homes in the city of Rishon Le Zion Wednesday night, and at Tel Aviv on Thursday, even if the pace of attacks was slackening noticeably from as hundreds of rockets a day, fired at the beginning of the incursion. to around 100 a day.  Precisely because of that, Israel remains adamant about allowing fuel convoys  into Gaza – which they say could be filched by Hamas.  

In the past few years, more Gazan hospitals have also been fitted with large PV rooftop solar installations, as part of a major initiative by UNDP, as well as WHO and bilateral donors – to cope with chronic interruptions in electricity grid supply that were a problem even before the war. But PV solar capacity is still under development, and clearly cannot meet the needs of flooded hospitals now. Moreover, one of the hospitals with one of the biggest and newest PV installations, the Palestinian Red Crescent’s Al Quds Hospital, is located in the northern Gaza strip, which Israel has called to evacuate. 

Updated Friday 27.10.2023 with further details of the death toll in Gaza, as reported by the Hamas-controlled government.

Image Credits: E. Fletcher , © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe, E. Fletcher/HPW, WHO/Eastern Mediterranean Region , Care International , UNRWA, WHO, 2019.

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