US hospital causes controversy in Gaza

An American field hospital, being set up by a US nongovernmental organization adjacent to the northern borders of the Gaza Strip, has caused widespread controversy. (Shutterstock)
Updated 09 December 2019

US hospital causes controversy in Gaza

  • Hamas, which has been in control of the Gaza Strip since mid-2007, has been struggling to justify its approval of a US hospital in the besieged area

GAZA CITY: An American field hospital, being set up by a US nongovernmental organization adjacent to the northern borders of the Gaza Strip, has caused widespread controversy, and calls for a boycott.

Hamas, which has been in control of the Gaza Strip since mid-2007, has been struggling to justify its approval of a US hospital in the besieged area, despite claims that it had been brokered by Egypt and the UN, and funded by Qatar.

While Hamas says that the hospital is a service and will alleviate the health crisis in Gaza, and has no political dimension, the leaders of Fatah and other factions have questioned “American intentions” of the move, believing the hospital might be part of a strategy to drive a wedge between Gaza and the West Bank.

That fear has intensified since the publication of photographs on social media platforms of people wearing “foreign military” uniforms working on the construction of the site, in an area adjacent to the Erez crossing.

On Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned against continuing with the construction, saying: “We will not allow the American hospital in Gaza and other economic projects to pass.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said earlier: “The hospital embodies the American plan to refuse to deal with the political demands and national rights of our people, and what is happening is one of the outcomes of the Bahrain workshop.”

Hamas leader and former Health Minister Bassem Naim said Gaza needed such a hospital to provide advanced medical services not otherwise available to people due to the “Israeli blockade and
the Palestinian Authority’s sanctions.”

The 4,500 square foot, 50-bed facility will be funded by the Qatari government with assistance from FriendShips, a Louisiana-based organization which is reportedly moving tents and equipment used in a hospital in Syria to the enclave.

Concerning the location of the hospital, which raised questions and doubts about its proximity to the Israeli security fence, Naim said that any field hospital “is subject to security controls from the sponsoring state to ensure the freedom of movement of staff.”

The hospital has two entrances, one to the Gaza Strip and intended for patients and local nursing staff, and another leading to the Israeli side to secure the passage of foreign staff working in the hospital.

Hamas spokesman Hazim Qassem said: “The decision to establish the American field hospital came because part of the blockade had a major impact on the health conditions in the Gaza Strip, due to Israeli policy and the neglect of the West Bank government (PA) in dealing with medical conditions in Gaza.”

He added that due to the deterioration of the health situation in Gaza, it was agreed that medicine would enter Gaza from donors, and that the field hospital belonging to humanitarian charities would be built.

Hamas reached understandings with Israel at the end of last year to ease the siege on the Gaza Strip with some facilities at crossings and the fishing zone in exchange for keeping protesters away from the fence during the weekly demonstrations along the border between Gaza and Israel.

That led to Fatah accusations of participating in a US-Israeli plan to separate Gaza and establish a separate state.

“This hospital is part of the American-Israeli plan to separate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip, under humanitarian slogans, and thus the establishment of a state in Gaza, and the elimination of the dream of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state,” said Fatah leader Muneer Al-Jaghoub.

“Has the American conscience suddenly woken up? The US cut off all aid to the Palestinian people, including support for hospitals in occupied Jerusalem and the UNRWA. Will this hospital in Gaza be innocent?”

Ramallah-based political science professor Jamal Al-Fadi said: “The establishment of an American military hospital in the Gaza Strip falls within the framework of a suspicious understanding between a faction that rules the Gaza Strip and the occupation, especially with the severing of relations with Washington after its recent decisions against our people and our cause.”

Al-Fadi added, in an interview with Voice of Palestine Radio: “This hospital is the face of American and Israeli intelligence, or part of the American movement to implement the ‘Deal of the Century.’”

Saleh Naami, a journalist close to Hamas, said: “For many years, USAID has been very active in the West Bank and Gaza, launching health, infrastructure projects under the rule of Hamas and PA, and no one objected same as some European and Arab governments are active. Is it in the miserable conditions of the siege of Gaza that can lead the luxury to object to a health project that relieves the suffering of the people?”

Naami added that claims the hospital was a US spy base as part of US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” were “ridiculous and not worth responding to,” adding: “Gaza and the West Bank are controlled by the occupation authorities.”

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 21 September 2020

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.


45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.


Twitter: @saeedalBatati