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Scoop Exclusive: Gaza - Dying To Break The Blockade

Gaza: Dying To Break The Blockade

Report - By Julie Webb-Pullman In Gaza

Gazans are dying to break the Israeli blockade – literally. More than 500 of them have already died from lack of access to life-saving medications and medical supplies directly attributable to the illegal Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Lest you think it is just Gaza crying wolf, here is what the International Red Cross had to say about the situation in its Operational Update of 28 July 2011, “The lack of a reliable system for delivering drugs and disposables to Gaza has a direct impact on patient care. Drugs used in the treatment of cancer, kidney-transplant and haemodialysis patients have been out of stock for the past three months.” (1)

And that is only the tip of the iceberg.

I interviewed Dr Muneer Alboursh (see video interview below), Director General of Pharmacy at the Ministry of Health, about the critical situation they are currently facing trying to provide health services in a context of occupation, breaches of international law, and an alarmingly passive international community.

180 essential medicines lacking

I first asked Dr Alboursh about the current state of medications and supplies.


Gaza Video 1. Interview between Julie Webb-Pullman and Dr Muneer Alboursh, Director General of Pharmacy, Gaza MOH.

“I have here on my desk a letter from a department in the Palestinian Ministry of Health stating that 180 essential medicines are lacking, and 164 medical supply items. Disinfectants and alcohol are also absent from the shelves of the Ministry of Health. In brief, the situation in the sense of medical supplies in the Gaza Strip is just tragic,” he said. “In my capacity in this position I can confirm that some people have already died because of these shortages.

15 out of 30 medications that are needed for cancer treatment are missing, and some of the missing items are involved in more than one treatment protocol. Their absence hinders the implementation of the entire treatment process. Thalassemia (2) medications are also absent from the shelves of the Ministry of Health.”


Gaza Video 2. Interview between Julie Webb-Pullman and Dr Muneer Alboursh, Director General of Pharmacy, Gaza MOH.

I went and looked in the warehouse myself, and sure enough, the cupboards are almost bare – and a lot of what is there, has expired.

Israel and Palestinian Authority both contribute

That the citizens of Gaza are pawns in a game by Israel to get rid of the Hamas government is widely acknowledged in reports by a range of international organisations, who have long termed Israel’s blockade of Gaza both illegal, and a form of ‘collective punishment.’ Not so widely acknowledged is the role that the Palestinian Authority has been playing in this sacrifice.

“There are multiple reasons behind this crisis but the Israeli occupation is the first and foremost because Israel is the occupier and the besieger of the Gaza Strip,” he told me. “And yes, the Palestinian Authority is also part of the problem because all of the medical items and supplies are procured by the Palestinian Authority and delivered to their warehouses in the West Bank, but they are only providing the Gaza Strip with the very minimum quantities of medications, to keep the situation lacking and to make sure that the people will grow resentful of the governors of the Gaza Strip. They [Palestinian Authority] have been getting all the funds from the World Bank yet they have been providing, as I said, only small quantities of these medications, to keep the crisis going and to keep Palestinians dying slowly, and they are responsible for fatalities among children due to the lack of medicines.”

Reunification

Will the reunification agreed to by Feteh and Hamas result in an improvement? I ask.

“We hope that Palestinians will eventually be re-unified but we should take into consideration that the Israeli occupation is the root problem of all of the problems. Israel has a keen interest in keeping the Palestinians divided and has been pressuring the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and in Egypt also, to keep all crossings closed and to keep the situation lacking.”

The queues at Rafah unsuccessfully trying to leave for medical treatment despite the putative ‘opening’ of the crossing from 28 May this year, unfortunately support this pessimistic conclusion.

International organisations wait for Israeli approval while babies die

I ask what international organisations such as the United Nations and the Red Cross, are doing to ensure that no more Gazans die as a result of the failure of essential medicines and medical supplies to enter Gaza in a timely manner.


Family with sick baby turned back at Rafah despite having 'permission' to get medical treatment in Egypt.

“It is well-known that the UN is working within the framework that is set up by the occupation in the area, so they are taking into consideration the prevailing political circumstances in the neighbouring states like Egypt, and in Israel. They don’t thinks it’s odd that international committees like the Red Cross, that are supposed to be able to be in, and work within, conflict zones and war zones, are unable to do their work because they are waiting for Israeli approval. So the UN and those international organisations do nothing, pending Israeli approval, they are all waiting for Israel’s permission to do their jobs,” Dr Alboursh replied.

It’s not only odd – it flies in the face of ethical and professional standards in the provision of health care, as well as the UN mandate to provide humanitarian assistance, and Israel’s obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention “...to ensure the supply of foodstuff, medical and hospital items and other goods to meet the humanitarian needs of the population of the Gaza Strip without qualification.” (3)

So while International organisations kowtow to Israel, permitting a rogue state to determine the manner, content and delivery of humanitarian assistance, contrary to accepted humanitarian principles, people in Gaza die.

Dr Alboursh gives a recent example. “The International Committee of the Red Crescent was waiting for a few days when we were appealing to them to provide for essential medications for five twins that were born in the Gaza Strip. We had to wait for them to get the Israeli permit to enter Gaza and bring the medications, and by then two out of the five were already dead.”

Keep politics out of medicine

Dr Alboursh emphasised the willingness of the Gaza Health Ministry to co-operate with international organisations to ensure the planned and timely provision of essential medicines and supplies to the Gaza population. “The political division, disputes and the siege have been hindering access to and delivery of highly-needed items. We have appealed several times to international organisations to intervene and to declare the tenders and to do the whole tendering process and we will serve only as an operational medium for them and we would be more than happy to provide and to whatever they want us to do, to make sure they can help Palestinians in need and to alleviate the suffering of the people and to make sure there are no fatalities among the people who are waiting for life-saving medications.”


Even ambulances carrying desperately ill patients must often wait hours, and are aslo turned back.

Despite their pleas, the situation has got worse, not better. International organisations obviously need a timely reminder of the core principles of humanitarian assistance, outlined in a previous article, most important of which are humanity, neutrality and impartiality; facilitation of transit of assistance by states in close proximity; United Nations guarantee of prompt and smooth delivery of relief assistance; and the creation of “*relief corridors for the distribution of emergency medical and food aid.*” (4)

In the meantime, while they wag their tails and wait for Israel’s next command, civil society has again had to step up.

Miles for Smiles 4 Convoy

A few minutes before our interview, Dr Alboursh had been with the European Miles for Smiles 4 convoy which had just arrived in Gaza, delivering to the Palestinian Ministry of Health desperately-needed supplies of therapeutic milk, and Factor 8 which is used for the management and treatment of haemophilia. The convoy is an excellent example of what can be achieved in the spirit of co-operation. “These medications can be considered as life-saving medications that are desperately needed in the Gaza Strip and these things were procured as a result of co-ordination with the convoy,” he said.

However, convoys are no substitute for proper planning – as the recent interception of the Freedom Flotilla 2 –Stay Human and the massacre on the Mavi Marmara illustrate only too well, such humanitarian missions are similarly subject to illegal – and brutal – Israeli attempts, often successful, to prevent essential medicines reaching the besieged population of the Gaza Strip.

So while Israel ignores its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure adequate medical supplies, while the Palestinian Authority pockets the money it receives from the World Bank yet fails to provide Gaza with the medicines and supplies it was provided for, while the UN and other international organisations try to clean up the mess left by the first two while begging Israel for the right to do so, Gazans die a slow but sure death trapped by an illegal blockade and the apathy and hypocrisy of an international community more concerned with appeasement of Israel than with international law, let alone fundamental humanitarian principles.

As Dr Alboursh concluded, “Above all, our major concern is that we can access and get timely delivery of the medications that are so needed by our people.”

The solution is simple – the international community must take a principled stand against Israel on moral, legal, and humanitarian grounds, and demand an immediate end to Israel's illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip. Gazan lives depend on it.

*************

Julie Webb-Pullman (click to view previous articles) is a New Zealand based freelance writer who has reported for Scoop since 2003. She recently managed to get into Gaza during a brief period when the Rafah Gate was open.

References: (1) http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/update/2011/palestine-update-2011-07-28.htm

(2) An inherited disorder common in the Middle East that affects the production of normal haemoglobin, leading to a form of anaemia.

(3) http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/specialsession/9/factfindingmission.htmPg 26, paras 74 & 75

(4) http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1101/S00068/role-of-ngos-and-international-organisations-in-gaza.htm

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