Gaza Headed Towards Humanitarian Disaster: UN Officials

After weeks of intense fighting, the Gaza strip appears headed towards a "health and humanitarian disaster" with medical services and facilities for nearly 1.8 million Palestinians "on the verge of collapse," according to senior UN officials in the region.

At least 1,676 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed and nearly 9,000 injured in the Israeli offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip that started on July 8.

Medical services and facilities in the Gaza Strip are "on the verge of collapse" and health disaster of widespread proportions is rapidly unfolding as the conflict grinds on, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territory James Rawley said.

"We are now looking at a health and humanitarian disaster," Rawley said, adding that "the fighting must stop immediately."

Joining Rawley in sounding the alarm about the looming health catastrophe as a result of the ongoing violence are Director of Operations in the Gaza Strip for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Robert Turner and acting Head of Office of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Ambrogio Manenti.

The officials expressed grave concern regarding the lack of protection for medical staff and facilities, and the deteriorating access to emergency health services for the 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

After three weeks of Israeli offensive, Gaza's medical services and facilities are on the verge of collapse, with one-third of hospitals, 14 primary healthcare clinics and 29 Palestinian Red Crescent and Ministry of Health ambulances having been damaged in the fighting.

According to the UN, at least five medical staff have been killed in the line of duty and tens of others injured.

At least 40 per cent of medical staff are unable to get to their places of work such as clinics and hospitals due to widespread violence and at least half of all public health primary care clinics are closed.

The latest warning from the UN officials comes in the wake of the collapse of a humanitarian ceasefire brokered by the UN and the US, which led a "profoundly shocked and disappointed" Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to state that "instead of giving both sides, especially Gazan civilians, a much needed reprieve to let them attend to their injured, bury their dead and repair vital infrastructure, this breach of the ceasefire is now leading to a renewed escalation."

Further, in the last 24 hours, anonymous calls have been made to staff at hospitals in Rafah and Gaza City warning of imminent attacks, causing major panic and chaos.

Since July 7, more that 8,000 people have been injured, many seriously and critical supplies of medicines and disposables are almost depleted and damage and destruction of power supplies has left hospitals dependent on unreliable back-up generators, the statement added.

Al-Shifa, the main referral hospital in the Gaza Strip, is inundated with casualties and people seeking safety in its grounds.

"The ability to provide necessary healthcare is being severely compromised. This puts the lives of thousands of Palestinians in needless danger," Manenti said.

Compounding this already-grave situation, an estimated 460,000 people have been displaced and are now living in overcrowded conditions in schools, with relatives or in makeshift shelters.

This, coupled with lack of inadequate water and sanitation, poses serious risks of outbreak of water-borne and communicable diseases. "Hundreds of thousands of people are sheltering in terrible conditions, pushing UNRWA's coping capacity to the edge," Turner said.

Rawley stressed that "international law sets out clear obligations on the parties to the conflict to respect the status of hospitals and medical facilities as protected objects, to respect the status of and ensure the protection of medical personnel, to ensure the protection of civilians and to respect the fundamental human right to health."

The Palestinian toll in the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza has surpassed that of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.

So far, 63 Israeli soldiers, including two Indian-origin, have been killed in the conflict. Nearly 400 soldiers have been injured. Three Israeli civilians and a Thai national have also died in rocket and mortar attacks.

Emerging story. Watch this space for updates as more details come in
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