Israel's Rafah incursion taking dire health toll - WHO

The United Nations has long warned of looming famine, especially in the north of besieged Gaza.

29 May 2024 08:52am
Palestinians are seen at the site of an Israeli airstrike on tents for displaced people near the southern Gaza Strip. Photo by Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua
Palestinians are seen at the site of an Israeli airstrike on tents for displaced people near the southern Gaza Strip. Photo by Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua
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GENEVA - Israel's military offensive in Rafah is already taking a dire health toll in southern Gaza, and if it continues, "substantial" increases in deaths can be expected, a top WHO official warned Tuesday.

Since Israel launched its long-threatened Rafah incursion in early May, access to healthcare in Gaza's southernmost city has been devastated, said Rik Peeperkorn, the World Health Organisation's representative in the Palestinian territories.

Speaking to AFP and Reuters in a joint interview in Geneva, he pointed to the around one million people on the move since the incursion, which has left two of Rafah's three hospitals completely disfunctional.

Al-Najar, Rafah's most important hospital, which had been servicing 700 dialysis patients from all over the Palestinian territory, has shut down, as has the Kuwaiti hospital.

And the Emirati maternity and paediatric hospital was now "barely functional", Peeperkorn said, pointing out that it could no longer accept new patients.

"If the incursion would continue, we would lose that last hospital in Rafah," he warned.

That would mean that around 1.9 million people in southern Gaza will basically be fully dependent on a string of field hospitals along the coast.

It would still be possible to be referred to the Al Aqsa hospital in the middle part of Gaza, and Peeperkorn pointed out that WHO had helped revive two recently defunct hospitals in Khan Yunis, also in central Gaza.

'A band-aid'

But while that might sound like "a contingency plan", he stressed that "if there will be a full incursion (in Rafah)... this contingency plan is like a band-aid".

"It will not prevent what we expect: substantial additional mortality and morbidity."

Already, WHO and other aid organisations are struggling to keep humanitarian operations running, as bringing fuel and other aid into the Palestinian territory has been significantly hampered by the closure and disruption of two key crossings.

"There are currently 60 WHO trucks (in Egypt) waiting to get into Gaza," Peeperkorn said, adding that only three trucks with medical supplies had crossed in since May 7.

And even when medical and other aid makes it into Gaza, it remains "very challenging" to transport and deliver the goods both in the south and to the north, he said.

The Gaza genocide began after Hamas fighters launced an operation in southern Israel on October 7, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel's relentless military retaliation has killed at least 36,096 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

'Very concerned'

The United Nations has long warned of looming famine, especially in the north of besieged Gaza.

And since the Rafah incursion, Peeperkorn said he was becoming increasingly worried about malnutrition in the south.

He said that during a mission to the north in April he had been somewhat relieved to see signs that access to food might be improving slightly.

"There was more food on the market, it was a bit more diverse," he said.

And while the hospitals he visited then were still full of severely malnourished children -- "two-year-olds weighing only four kilos" -- he said he had been hopeful that the situation might be on "a better trajectory".

But now, with the impact of the Rafah incursion already taking a heavy toll on access to aid and healthcare, he said that "we fear that instead of (being) on the right trajectory with regard to malnutrition, we will see very quickly a reverse again".

"We are very concerned."

Asked if he feared more people could eventually die from otherwise non-life-threatening injuries and disease or malnutrition-linked causes, than from the fighting itself, he said: "I would really hope... that this is not going to happen". - AFP

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