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Amid catastrophic health threats in Gaza, health leaders urge a permanent ceasefire

The head of the World Health Organization has joined humanitarian agencies and medical groups in calling for the pause in the conflict between Israel and Hamas to be extended into a permanent ceasefire.

WHO’s Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged those in positions of influence to implement a political solution to enable a lasting ceasefire.

“We continue to call for a sustained ceasefire so that aid can continue to be delivered to end further civilian suffering. And we call for the remaining Israeli hostages to be released, and for those who are still being held to receive the medical care they need,” he told a media briefing on 29 November.

Dr Tedros – whose public advocacy for peace has been recognised in an article by The Lancet’s Editor in Chief Dr Richard Horton, describing him as “the moral conscience of the health community” – also warned of the catastrophic health risks facing people in Gaza, where it is estimated 1.3 million people are living in shelters in rough conditions.

Dr Tedros said only 15 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are still functioning at all, but are completely overwhelmed. Of the 25 hospitals north of the Wadi Gaza before the conflict began, only three are functioning at the most basic level, but lack fuel, water and food.

“The health needs of the population of Gaza have increased dramatically, but they are now being serviced by one-third of the hospitals and primary care clinics,” he said. “And with severe overcrowding, the risks are increasing for epidemics of respiratory tract infections, acute watery diarrhoea, hepatitis, scabies, lice and other diseases.”

Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, told the briefing that many of the hospitals now being supported by WHO and others are potentially in harm’s way again within the next 24 hours, and described the “truly horrific” living conditions in Gaza.

“We’re not talking about people in tented cities here, we’re talking about open ground on to which we could have up to two million people, approaching into the depths of winter, with their underlying nutritional status, with the overcrowding, with the stress, and the wounded and the old and the disabled and the mentally, the mentally and psychologically damaged and suffering…”

During a visit to Gaza this week, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder also described the desperate situation of people without water and lacking basic sanitation, and said “this humanitarian pause must turn into a ceasefire”.

Watch the UNICEF video

Australian calls for lasting ceasefire

The Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) issued a statement yesterday, calling for the “current fragile pause in this catastrophic war” to be indefinitely extended.

The MAPW welcomed the current pause in the bombardment of Gaza and the passage of some critically needed food, water and medical and other supplies into the stricken enclave, as well as the release of Palestinian women and children from Israeli prisons, and the release of women and children who were held as hostages by Hamas.

“The terrible toll being paid by children on both sides of this war cannot be justified in any way,” said the MAPW statement.

“No military strategy can justify the scale of children’s deaths, or their terrorising, whether by forced separation from family, fear of imminent death, incessant aerial warfare, starvation, the deprivation of healthcare or incarceration in prisons as punishment for throwing stones.”

MAPW said the aid being delivered each day during the ceasefire is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed, and it is imperative that the delivery of essential supplies matches that needed by a population that has endured unprecedented levels of destruction for over seven weeks.

MAPW said it supported the message from UN Secretary-General António Guterres for the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, which was marked on 29 November.

He called for “a long-term humanitarian ceasefire, unrestricted access for life-saving aid, the release of all hostages, the protection of civilians and an end to violations of international humanitarian law”. Guterres also called in his message for an end to the occupation and the blockade of Gaza.

These measures would boost security for both Palestinian and Israeli people, MAPW said, “because peace can only be built on justice”.

MAPW said it again called on the Australian Government “to demonstrate equal concern for all civilians suffering as a result of this war, condemn all war crimes that have been committed regardless of who committed them, and call explicitly for a lasting ceasefire by both sides in this war”.

Do not look away

Addressing the UN Security Council on 29 November, Guterres gave an overview of the toll of the past seven weeks.

According to Israeli authorities, more than 1,200 people were killed – including 33 children – and thousands were injured in the Hamas attacks on 7 October.

Some 250 people were also abducted, including 34 children, and there are also numerous accounts of sexual violence during the attacks that must be vigorously investigated and prosecuted, he said.

More than 14,000 people are estimated to have been killed since the start of the Israeli military operations in Gaza, with tens of thousands of Palestinians also injured, and many more missing. In Gaza, more than two-thirds of those killed are reported to be children and women.

“In a matter of weeks, a far greater number of children have been killed by Israeli military operations in Gaza than the total number of children killed during any year, by any party to a conflict since I have been Secretary-General,” Guterres said.

He said that over the past few days, the people of the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel had finally seen “a glimmer of hope and humanity in so much darkness”.

“It is deeply moving to see civilians finally having a respite from the bombardments, families reunited, and lifesaving aid increasing,” he said.

Guterres said 80 percent of Gaza’s people had been forced from their homes, with an estimated 45 percent of all homes in Gaza damaged or destroyed.

The level of aid to Palestinians in Gaza remained completely inadequate to meet the huge needs of more than two million people, he said, and “much, much more is required”.

“Hospitals across Gaza lack the basic supplies, staff and fuel to deliver primary health care at the scale needed, let alone safely treat urgent cases,” Guterres said. “The medical system has broken down under the heavy caseload, acute shortages, and the impact of hostilities.”

“The people of Gaza are in the midst of an epic humanitarian catastrophe before the eyes of the world,” he said. “We must not look away.”

Marking International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, another UN leader said the plight of Palestine refugees remained the world’s longest unresolved refugee crisis.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, the UN agency that has assisted this population for the past 75 years, said “the appalling human tragedy we are witnessing in Gaza is reminiscent of the collective trauma experienced by Palestinians in 1948”.

Ethical leadership

In a tribute to Dr Tedros’s sustained advocacy for peace and humanity, Dr Richard Horton said his voice had “stood out as a beacon of moral clarity” amid the claims and counterclaims about war crimes in Gaza and Israel.

Horton wrote that WHO is a technical UN agency that provides assistance to ministries of health in 194 member states. It convenes experts to set norms and standards in health and healthcare. And the agency’s governing bodies bring countries together to set priorities in global health.

“The Director-General is the chief technical and administrative officer of WHO. But Tedros has added a further dimension to this role,” wrote Horton in The Lancet.

“He has been the moral conscience of the health community as we have watched Gaza become a graveyard for children and seen Israeli hostages cruelly held by Hamas.

“His voice has been one of principle, above the fray of national political interests and compromises. He has redefined the idea of ethical leadership.”

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Previously at Croakey