Thousands of casualties in one day: Gaza’s health system is dangerously close to collapse

Israel’s 11-year blockade must be lifted to aid chronic shortages of dwindling medicine supplies.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Our UK programme director and senior surgeons, here as part of an orthoplastic team, have all been in conflict zones before, but they say they have never seen injuries on the scale they saw yesterday. Ambulances, triage areas, emergency rooms and theatres were all full. In just one day across Gaza, 2,771 casualties were reported, including 255 children – a third of the casualties during Israel’s 51-day offensive in 2014.

Hospitals are now struggling to cope with the influx of so many injuries, with 1,359 gunshot wounds reported yesterday alone. At least 50 per cent of essential medicines are at zero stock, which means there is less than one month’s supply, and 40 per cent are completely depleted. We had phone calls from hospitals yesterday that had run out of very basic supplies such as gauze, bandages and normal saline.

I have visited Gaza many times, and I have never seen the situation this bad before – in terms of morale, it is rock bottom. The people here are exhausted by Israel’s closure and blockade, which has lasted 11 years. The restrictions on movement are having a huge impact on the young generation. They feel that those who are older at least had some chance to travel, while they have never been out of Gaza.

The chronic shortages in medicines and disposables have spiked in recent months and are particularly acute for cancer, cardiac and dialysis patients. The health system is near breaking point. It is a bit calmer today – yesterday morning, we thought if the same number of injuries were to come in throughout Monday and Tuesday, the whole system would collapse. Indeed, with so many devastating and disabling injuries it is not clear how the system will hold up.

At a press conference last night, the Ministry of Health called for international support to prevent the complete collapse of the healthcare system in Gaza. In addition to medical shortages, hospitals have just one week’s supply of fuel to keep generators running and services open. They are functioning on four or five hours of mains supply of electricity a day. 

The blockade of almost two million people in Gaza has been labelled “collective punishment” by the UN Secretary General, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory and by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Collective punishment is prohibited under international law, yet the international community seems to have no will to ensure the blockade is lifted.

It is also essential that governments, including the UK, actively work towards credible independent investigation into Israel’s use of force against unarmed protestors. High velocity bullets are wreaking appalling damage. Surgeons are describing a small entry wound and a devastating exit wound. These bullets are shattering bones, damaging soft tissue, blood vessels and arteries all at once. The majority of injuries have been to people’s legs, and in many cases there is a very real risk of amputation. It potentially means a generation of young people with a long-term disability – the kinds of wounds they have suffered will potentially maim them for life.

Aimee Shalan is the chief executive of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Aimee Shalan is the Director of Advocacy and Communications at Medical Aid for Palestinians.