WHO Makes Contingency Plans for Gaza’s Hospitals but Critical Humanitarian Corridors are Closed   
Families flee Rafah to seek safe shelter in central Gaza, 7 May 2024.

With Gaza’s Rafah crossing into Egypt closed by an advancing Israeli incursion, and Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing shut since last Sunday’s Hamas missile attack, Gaza hospitals have only about three days left of fuel and medical supplies, said WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Wednesday.    

The global health agency is making contingency plans for a full-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza in the wake of an impasse in Israel-Hamas talks over a cease-fire, including release of Israeli hostages. But such preparations would only be a “drop in the ocean” of human need that would follow the death and injuries incurred in such an operation, added Dr. Rick Peeperkorn, head of WHO’s office in the Occupied Palestinian Territories at the press briefing. 

“WHO has pre-positioned some supplies in warehouses and hospitals, but without more aid flowing into Gaza, we cannot sustain our lifesaving support to hospitals,” Tedros said.

Meanwhile, one third of Sudan’s population is facing acute hunger and  70% of hospitals in conflict affected areas are not functioning, Tedros noted – calling for a cease-fire in the African country wracked by a year-long civil war as well as in the war between Israel and Hamas.    

Rafah’s population fleeing and hospitals shutting down

Dr Rick Peeperkorn, head of WHO’s Jerusalem-based office of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) speaking at a WHO press briefing Wednesday

In war-torn Gaza, tens of thousands of people left Rafah’s eastern outskirts, as Israeli tanks moved in Tuesday and Wednesday through a narrow wedge of land between the city and its crossing into Egypt, taking full control of the strategic entry point for the first time since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

More people were packing up and leaving by the hour, local media reported, showing scenes of advancing Israeli tanks, artillery explosions, and families pulling up tents and loading belongings onto tractors and donkeys.   

Despite the evacuations, some 1.4 million Gaza Palestinians remain in the densely populated Rafah area and “at risk”, including about 600,000 children, said Tedros. Areas designated by the Israeli military as safe zones, such as the Muwasi district westwards, near the Mediterranean Sea, are already packed with displaced Palesitnians, and lack infrastructure to accommodate tens of thousands more people, added Peeperkorn. 

Israeli evacuation order Sunday to Gazans – telling them to leave neighborhoods on the edge of Rafah (marked in red) for Khan Younis and Muwasi, skirting the Mediterranean sea, marked in yellow and beige.

One Rafah hospital, An-Najjar, has already been forced shut down since the Israeli incursion into the southernmost area of the Gaza strip overnight Tuesday – and the city’s other two hospitals are threatened with closure should the military advance further into the city core, said Peeperkorn, speaking by video from Jerusalem. 

Efforts are now being made to shift critical supplies and operations to hospitals further north, such as Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis and other hospitals in Gaza’s ‘Middle region’, Peeperkorn and Tedros said. Nasser hospital has recently been reopened after undergoing extensive repairs following damage in earlier phases of the seven months of war, and even just opened a dialysis center. 

Only three days of fuel left 

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

However, if the Israeli advance continues, and key entry points remain cut off, then hospitals will have no more fuel or supplies with which to operate, Tedros warned. 

“Fuel that we expected to be allowed in today has not been allowed in, meaning we only have enough fuel to run health services in the south for three more days,” he said.

Already, WHO has had to suspend a number of medical missions to northern Gaza due to a lack of fuel to move EMTs, added Peeperkorn.  Israel has promised the United States that the Kerem Shalom entry from Israel would reopen Wednesday, but as of late afternoon that hadn’t happened, Peeperkorn said.

“There were discussions that fuel will come in through Kerem Shalom, but the current state is that just that there’s no fuel coming in today. So anyone with influence, it’s the biggest item that is needed. I’m not only talking about food distribution, I’m talking about fuel for bakeries, fuel for hospitals, fuel for any operations.

The WHO remarks were echoed by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a statement Wednesday: “An average of 48 trucks and more than 160,000 litres of fuel entered Gaza via the Rafah crossing between 1 and 5 May. We need that fuel to sustain our humanitarian operations.

“We are engaging with all involved on the resumption of the entry of goods, including fuel, and so that we can again begin managing incoming supplies. However, the situation remains extremely fluid, and we continue to confront a range of challenges, amid active hostilities.

“We count on cooperation and facilitation to get these crossings operational again, since stocks of critical supplies – including fuel – are being depleted by the hour.” 

‘WHO has no intention of withdrawing’

Tedros said that WHO is coordinating the work of some 20 Emergency Medical Teams in Gaza, comprising 179 internationals and 800 local staff based in 10 hospitals and five field hospitals. 

“WHO has no intention of withdrawing from Rafah and will stay and deliver alongside our partners,” Tedros asserted. 

Sudan faces humanitarian disaster after year of fighting

WHO team member providing nutrition support to internally displaced children in Gedaref state, Sudan, in August 2023 during the ongoing civil war.

As for Sudan, some 15 million people – nearly one-third of the population –  are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and almost nine million people are displaced, Tedros said.  And even in areas where there is no active combat going on, one-half of the hospitals are not functioning.

“Those that are functioning are overwhelmed by people seeking care, many of whom are internally displaced,” he said. “Health facilities, ambulances, health workers and patients continue to be attacked, depriving entire communities of essential health services. Just last week, two of our colleagues from the International Committee of the Red Cross were killed in South Darfur.”

“The conflict has led to a devastating deterioration in food security. More than one-third of the population is facing acute hunger, and there is a risk of famine in Darfur and Khartoum. Humanitarian partners have released a famine prevention plan,” he added.

“WHO’s priority is to ensure continuity of health services to prevent and respond to outbreaks, and to provide care for those most in need, including pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under five,” he said.

Late last year, WHO launched a $US 178 million appeal for an emergency health response in Sudan.  But the agency has said little recently about efforts underway to support hospital capacity in the war-torn country. Although it does have a major nutrition stabilization effort underway, the last detailed report to Geneva media was in late February.

And Tedros didn’t provide any added details at Wednesday’s briefing, saying only: “It is imperative that all sides to the conflict provide unhindered humanitarian access to those in need, including through cross-border routes.

“Most of all, we call for a ceasefire and a comprehensive peace process for Sudan. It is time to silence the guns and raise the volume for peace. The best medicine is peace.”

Image Credits: OCHA/Olga Cherevko. , Twitter/@IDF, WHO.

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