GENEVA/WASHINGTON — The war between Israel and Hamas is having a catastrophic impact on health in the Gaza Strip, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Sunday.
The UN health agency called a special session of the WHO executive board to discuss the health conditions in the Palestinian territories, with WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus describing a collapsing system with medics facing an “impossible” job.
“The impact of the conflict on health is catastrophic,” Tedros said in his opening remarks to the meeting in Geneva.
“As more and more people move to a smaller and smaller area, overcrowding, combined with the lack of adequate food, water, shelter and sanitation, are creating the ideal conditions for disease to spread,” he said.
Tedros said there were worrying signs of epidemic diseases and the risk was expected to worsen with the deteriorating situation and approaching winter conditions.
“Gaza’s health system is on its knees and collapsing,” Tedros said, with only 14 out of 36 hospitals functioning with any capacity at all, and of them, only two are in the north of the coastal territory.
Only 1,400 hospital beds out of an original 3,500 are still available, while the two major hospitals in southern Gaza are operating at three times their bed capacity, running out of supplies and sheltering thousands of displaced people, Tedros added.
Tedros said that since October 7, the WHO had verified more than 449 attacks on healthcare in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, and 60 attacks on healthcare in Israel. The WHO does not attribute blame for the recorded attacks.
“The work of the health workers is impossible and they are directly in the firing line,” he said.
“In summary, health needs have increased dramatically and the capacity of the health system has been reduced to one third of what it was.
“WHO is on the ground in Gaza to support health workers who are physically and mentally exhausted, and are doing their best in unimaginable conditions.”
“There is no health without peace and no peace without health,” Tedros concluded.
Meanwhile, the head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees has accused Israel of laying the groundwork for the mass expulsion of Gazans across the territory’s border into Egypt.
In an opinion piece published on Saturday in the Los Angeles Times, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini pointed to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the increasing concentration near the border of displaced civilians who fled the fighting, first in the north and then further south.
“The United Nations and several member states, including the US, have firmly rejected forcibly displacing Gazans out of the Gaza Strip,” Lazzarini said.
“But the developments we are witnessing point to attempts to move Palestinians into Egypt, regardless of whether they stay there or are resettled elsewhere.”
The widespread destruction in the Palestinian territory’s north and the resulting displacements were “the first stage of such a scenario”, he added, while forcing civilians from the southern city of Khan Yunis closer to the border was the next.
“If this path continues, leading to what many are already calling a second Nakba, Gaza will not be a land for Palestinians anymore,” Lazzarini said, using the Arabic term for the exodus or forced displacement of 760,000 Palestinians during the war that coincided with Israel’s creation in 1948.
A spokesperson for the Israeli defence ministry office responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Lazzarini’s accusation.
When asked about the possibility of evacuating people into Egypt last week, a government spokesman said Israel was “focusing on getting civilians out of harm’s way inside the Gaza Strip”.
A small number of Gazans have been allowed to cross into Egypt for medical treatment, and some foreign nationals trapped in the territory at the outset of the war were also allowed to evacuate by way of the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only border not under Israeli control.
But other Palestinians are currently blocked from leaving, with the territory’s estimated 1.9 million displaced people, out of a population of 2.4 million, turning the border town of Rafah into a vast camp.
The war in the Gaza Strip was triggered by Hamas’s October 7 sudden attack on Israel, which left 1,200 people dead and saw another 240 taken hostage, Israeli officials say.
The country vowed to eliminate Hamas in response, and its ensuing military campaign has killed at least 17,700 people, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry.
Aid groups have sounded the alarm on the “apocalyptic” humanitarian situation in the narrow territory, warning it is close to being overwhelmed by disease and starvation.