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Skin diseases and head lice spread as conditions worsen in Gaza

October 31, 2023 at 11:16 am

A view of a United Nations Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) school sheltering displaced Palestinians in Khan Yunis, Gaza on October 22, 2023 [Abed Zagout/Anadolu Agency]

Many of the Palestinians displaced in the Gaza Strip are taking shelter in overcrowded UN schools. A lot of them are mothers and children who left northern Gaza and Gaza City for the south due to Israel’s bombardment of residential areas. The result, said Futna Khalifa, is a “health disaster” and an alarming and rapidly deteriorating crisis.

Khalifa is the coordinator of the Palestinian Working Women’s Society for Development (PWWSD). She said that the situation continues to worsen with each passing day as she told us about a woman called Haneen, who sought shelter at an UNRWA school in Nuseirat refugee camp, along with nearly 15,000 other people.

“Skin diseases and head lice have started to spread, mothers and children are falling gravely ill and there’s no medicine to treat them, so everything is just spreading,” Haneen told Khalifa. “They are provided with only one loaf of bread and one can of tuna per day by UNRWA. There’s a serious lack of food, milk and sanitary pads.”

The schools are severely overcrowded and loud, and Haneen cannot close her eyes for more than 30 minutes.

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Khalifa represents an organisation dedicated to combating violence against women, offering psychological support, and advocating for policies that promote human rights. Its multifaceted approach empowers women not only to participate in politics, but also to achieve economic independence.

While this is vital, her explanation took a poignant turn when she revealed the challenges faced by her team in Gaza. Displaced and separated, her colleagues have been forced to find refuge in refugee camps in the north of the territory. “Unfortunately, we have lost contact with our team, who are all separated and in refugee camps now. But the most desperate conditions are those in hospitals because many are no longer working. At least 11 hospitals have no medicine, electricity or fuel. This is all in addition to the constant, barbaric bombing by Israel.”

Khalifa also shared the story of Yahya, a father in Gaza whose wife has given birth during the war. His new-born baby is reliant on an incubator, leaving him in constant anxiety over the life-threatening consequences should the electricity supply be cut completely.

It is impossible to move so many patients, medical staff insist

Israel’s threat to hospitals and repeated calls for hospital staff to evacuate along with the tens of thousands of patients and displaced Palestinians seeking refuge within these medical facilities have been responded to with steadfast refusals by medical staff. It is impossible to move so many patients, they insist, given the dire circumstances. They have made the courageous decision to stay where they are and transform the hospitals into civilian shelters. Al-Quds Hospital, for example, now serves a dual purpose, offering both medical care and refuge to civilians and displaced persons.

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Even before this latest war against the Palestinians in Gaza, the health system was on the brink of collapse. A severe lack of medical equipment and personnel, as well as a shortage of medicine and medical disposables, mean that a significant number of patients, notably those suffering from chronic conditions such as cancer, must obtain medical referrals covered by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to enable them to seek treatment in the occupied West Bank or Israel.

If their applications are approved, patients must apply to Israel for permits to leave the Strip through the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing, the only land crossing for Palestinians who want to move between Gaza and the rest of occupied Palestine.

Futna Khalifa pointed out that eight women out of 16 applicants were transferred to Nablus in the occupied West Bank for IVF treatment before the war. Initially, their plan was to stay for just one week. However, the war has left them unable to return and facing financial and psychological anxieties, in addition to the communication challenges from power cuts imposed by Israel.

“IVF technology is unavailable in Gaza, and these women arrived in Nablus for treatment just before the war started, intending to stay for a brief period,” explained Khalifa. “Now, they find themselves cut off from their families in Gaza. Our organisation is helping them with essential support.”

She then delved into the story of Sabrine, who gave birth to twins prematurely at six months in Nablus. The fragile new-borns required specialised treatment in the intensive care unit, but their mother had to return to Gaza. Tragically, the war has prevented her from being reunited with her babies.

Palestinians pose no threat, insisted Khalifa. She put the blame for the fighting on Israel, which perpetuates the violence. Palestinians living in the narrow Strip are desperate for the Israeli bombardments to stop. She urged the world to listen to the Palestinians and understand that the people of Gaza are strong and resilient, and love life despite the odds.

Finally, she called on Israel to open humanitarian corridors for the injured to leave for treatment, and for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Her plea echoed the collective cry of a people determined to survive and thrive, no matter the circumstances.

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