'Any hospital in the world would have been collapsing:' ICRC Gaza spokesperson

Gaza hospitals on the verge of collapse. The Shifa hospital alone deals with 400 injured people that cannot continue. Aloyna Synenko/ICRC

WASHINGTON — At least 59 people were reported killed and thousands wounded in the Gaza Strip this week during protests over the move of the United States’ Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. The impoverished territory has little capacity to deal with such waves of violence, already suffering from undersupplied and understaffed hospitals and rampant power shortages.

One of the few organizations able to address health care shortages in Gaza is the International Committee of the Red Cross. Since March 30, when the latest clashes at the border began, the organization has donated 145 external fixators used to treat people with limb injuries and enough equipment to treat 600 surgical patients and 6,000 injured people.

Just before this week’s violence began, ICRC was able to get two trucks of medical supplies into Gaza. That included enough supplies to treat 500 complex surgical cases, 15,000 injured people and 39 external fixators. The successful transfer of the materials on Sunday was done with cooperation from authorities in Ramallah, Gaza, and Israel.

“The violence in Gaza started at the end of March and then the peak was on Monday. The hospitals of Gaza have been weakened by 10 years of humanitarian crisis — adding to that the internal Palestinian differences which make the problem even more complicated.”

— Suhair Zakkout, ICRC Gaza spokesperson

ICRC also erected a 30-bed makeshift emergency room in front of Al Shifa Hospital to increase capacity to treat patients needing surgical treatment due to gunshot wounds.

Now that the immediate violence has ceased, ICRC must ensure that those estimated 1,700 wounded who had hospital treatment are provided appropriate postcare, and that medical supplies are replenished in hospitals across the territory. 

ICRC Gaza spokesperson Suhair Zakkout spoke with Devex from Gaza to discuss challenges the organization faces in treating civilians during waves of violence, and what comes next.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How has ICRC responded to what has happened this week in Gaza?

On Monday — on one day — 400 cases came to one of the Gaza hospitals. Any hospital in the world would have been collapsing if it received 400 wounded people at once — the majority are gunshot-wounded.

The ICRC deployed two nurses and one doctor in the emergency department of the biggest hospital in Gaza, Al Shifa Hospital. Another surgical team was deployed in the southern Gaza Strip, Gaza European Hospital.

The violence in Gaza started at the end of March and then the peak was on Monday. The hospitals of Gaza have been weakened by 10 years of humanitarian crisis — adding to that the internal Palestinian differences which make the problem even more complicated.

In Gaza, there are 14 hospitals and in the best case scenario, they receive electricity four hours a day, which means that hospitals should run on generators for more than 16 hours per day. They need maintenance, they need fuel, and the local authorities here don't have enough money to purchase the fuel needed to run the hospital.

How does ICRC get supplies into Gaza and into the hands of the doctors?

In Gaza, there is a shortage of drugs, disposables and also of equipment … in the past seven weeks, the ICRC has managed to bridge this gap.

Yesterday and today it’s calm, and this will give the opportunity for the health officials to sit back and see what are the most urgently needed items. ICRC will stay, of course, committed to responding to the most pressing needs, but one humanitarian organization will not be able to cover everything.

On Friday, Kerem Shalom, the main crossing for goods to Gaza, was closed, and the ICRC in cooperation with authorities from all sides — in Ramallah, in Gaza, and in Israel — got this shipment into Gaza on Sunday, when it was really needed. And it helped in saving lots of lives.

What challenges does ICRC encounter in working with poorly supplied government health care facilities?

The challenge now is postcare after the surgeries. You can have the best surgeons in the world, but if someone receives a gunshot in his leg and the wound is open, then this wound might be infected.

You can have good surgery but after that you need medicine, you need antibiotics, you need all these drugs and disposables. If the system is not capable of providing the proper care in this long healing process, the patients will be at risk.

“I wish that politicians can someday spend one day next to an operation theater, to know how their decisions impact the civilians in these areas.”

What does the aid community misunderstand about Gaza?

From a humanitarian point of view, I think that people are tired. What humanitarians can do is just to put on a bandage on it.

The real solutions should be brought by politicians, and I wish that politicians can someday spend one day next to an operation theater, to know how their decisions impact the civilians in these areas.

Now that things have calmed and there is no more immediate violence, how do you assess needs on the ground to make sure you’re prepared for a next incidence in which you’re needed?

If another cycle of violence would happen, I do not know how the system would cope. Let’s cross our fingers it does not happen. But now, the priority is to document everything that happened.

This documentation will help the ICRC in its bilateral, confidential dialogue with authorities and security forces concerned. Next, will be the close cooperation and monitoring of the health situation. To see what areas the ICRC can fill the gap and can react faster than other humanitarian actors — who can now help and get involved until authorities can respond to the needs.

The ICRC has been here, working for 50 years, and we are still committed to the people and to the victims of this long conflict.

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About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.