Frankly Speaking: Is the health situation in Gaza beyond saving?

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Updated 08 July 2024
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Frankly Speaking: Is the health situation in Gaza beyond saving?

  • WHO Regional Director for Eastern Mediterranean Dr. Hanan Bakhy described the reality facing health workers
  • Saudi physician discussed dire situation in Syria and Lebanon; funding shortages and flight of medical specialists

DUBAI: The devastation of Gaza’s health system and the magnitude and complexity of the trauma endured by the Palestinian people are difficult for aid workers to wrap their heads around, Dr. Hanan Balkhy, the World Health Organization’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, has said.

Appearing on the Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking,” the Saudi-born WHO official described the reality facing Palestinians and aid workers operating under Israeli bombardment in the embattled enclave.

“It is difficult for me to interact with and listen to those devastating stories, let alone … the photos and the videos that we see every day on TV,” Balkhy said.

“I was at the Rafah border crossing from the Egypt side. I was able to visit the patients that were hosted in the hospitals in Al-Arish … The stories that I’ve heard and the types of trauma that I have seen are quite significant.”

Balkhy, who took up her appointment as regional director in February this year and is the first woman to hold the position, described witnessing “maimed children and women” and “young adults with lost limbs.”

She said: “The devastation that we’re seeing, and the magnitude and complexity of trauma, is something that we will need to wrap our heads around and be able to find very creative ways to work with partners, the member states who have been very thankfully supporting us. But none of this is enough.”

Since the war in Gaza began on Oct. 7 last year following the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, the Palestinian enclave on the Mediterranean coast has endured heavy Israeli bombardment and a fierce ground offensive, which has displaced much of the population. 




Appearing on the Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking,” the Saudi-born WHO official described the reality facing Palestinians and aid workers. (AN Photo)

The bombing raids, the collapse of civilian infrastructure including sanitation services, and chronic shortages of food, drinking water and medications have brought Gaza’s health system to its knees.

Just 33 percent of Gaza’s 36 hospitals and 30 percent of its primary healthcare centers are functional in some capacity. Asked whether the health situation in Gaza is beyond saving, Balkhy said the WHO would continue to do its best to serve patients and those injured.

“The situation in Gaza has been quite devastating for all of us, especially the partners working on the ground,” she told “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen. “But WHO continues to work with its partners and with whoever’s on the ground at the moment in delivering fuel, medical supplies, and other aid.”

In particular, Balkhy highlighted the important role played by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

The agency came under significant financial pressure earlier this year after major Western donors suspended their funding in response to Israeli allegations that 12 UNRWA staff members had participated in the Oct. 7 attack.

Balkhy said UNRWA “is very important as we work with them to try to sustain what is left of the primary healthcare (system) and restore what has been significantly damaged, but also to work together with the partners to evacuate the necessary patients.”

Despite the challenges faced by the aid community, Balkhy said: “We stay, we serve, and we continue to do our best to serve the patients and the injured in Gaza.”

Compounding the health crisis in Gaza are the chronic shortages of food reaching civilians via the limited number of border crossings from Israel and from Egypt through the Rafah crossing.

Since the conflict began, Israel has limited the flow of aid permitted to enter the territory, claiming it was being commandeered by Hamas. As a result of these delays at the border, a significant proportion of the population is facing catastrophic hunger and famine-like conditions.

To add insult to injury, Balkhy said truckloads of urgently needed foodstuffs provided by aid agencies and donor nations were going rotten while awaiting clearance to enter Gaza.

“The catastrophic situation is in the numbers if you look at them,” said Balkhy. “So, 96 percent of the population of Gaza is facing acute food insecurity on a regular basis, and more than half of that population does not have any food to eat in their house, and 20 percent go for entire days and nights without any eating.

“I actually have been at the Rafah crossing, and I visited the hospitals in Al-Arish on the soil of Egypt and I’ve seen the tens or hundreds of trucks lined up to try to cross and provide the necessary aid, including food.

“Now, facing the summer months right now, it’s going to be even more difficult. Already we have information that the extreme waiting at the border and the delays (are) allowing for this food and some of this sensitive aid to go rotten or go bad, and that is really very difficult for us to manage.

“So, the situation is dire, the food catastrophe is significant. On top of (that is), of course, the lack of our ability to deliver as much health aid as we would wish.”




A Palestinian man walks along a road past damaged buildings during the Israeli military bombardment of Gaza City on July 7 amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Efforts to secure a ceasefire have been repeatedly thwarted in recent months, first by US vetoes at the UN Security Council, and later by the unwillingness of the warring parties to reach a compromise.

Although the UN Security Council has since passed a resolution calling on Israel and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire, coupled with the Biden administration’s own peace plan, a pause in the fighting to allow an exchange of prisoners and the delivery of more aid has proved elusive.

Asked what difference a ceasefire would make to Gaza’s health crisis, Balkhy said it would allow the WHO and other aid agencies to move freely within the enclave to reach those most in need and to restore its shattered infrastructure.

“We very much welcome the Security Council resolution. Peace is the only way for us to move forward with helping the people in Gaza,” she said.

“The significant impact that has been taking place on the healthcare settings, on the health workforce, the complexities of the trauma that are taking place, requires that we are capable to freely move within Gaza, accessing the very difficult areas, even in the north, the middle and the south, to be able to have the people move back into their homes, to be able to have access to healthcare for not just the traumas.

“Remember, there are people who have chronic diseases. People are not having access to their hypertension medications, for example, their dialysis treatment, people who require a treatment for their cancers. All of these things … have been jeopardized to a very big degree.

“The benefit of a ceasefire today and a permanent peace agreement will allow us to go back and build with all of the partners on the ground and with the staff from Gaza themselves.”

International humanitarian law prohibits attacks on medical workers and infrastructure, and yet, from Ukraine to Syria and more recently in Sudan, such infrastructure has been damaged and destroyed by warring parties, drawing accusations of war crimes.

Asked whether similar destruction of health infrastructure in Gaza amounted to a war crime, Balkhy said the level of protection required under international law appears to have been lacking.

“Healthcare facilities and health workforces are protected under international humanitarian law. And, unfortunately, that has not been the case so far,” she said.

“When we talk about the amount of people that have been injured and killed during the past few months, and large numbers of them are women and children, then that question definitely comes up quite strongly.”

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, there have been regular claims from Israeli authorities that Hamas has been using a network of tunnels, command centers and weapons caches hidden under hospitals, thereby using patients and medical staff as human shields.

Asked whether WHO staff had seen any evidence to support or debunk the Israeli claims, Balkhy said: “I have not been aware of any evidence that supports that the hospitals have been used for such reasons.

“Of course, we are not the entity that has the role or the mandate to investigate this. So, the evidence, even if it existed, does not come to us and we have not seen anything that supports those claims.”

A major concern among regional governments and the wider international community is the potential for the war in Gaza to spill over into a broader conflict, dragging in vulnerable neighbors, Iran and its regional proxies, and even the US.

Lebanon is especially vulnerable, with months of cross-border fire between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia threatening to escalate into a full-blown war. Balkhy said an escalation would be “catastrophic” for Lebanon.

“We do hope and pray that this escalation does not take place because the health systems within Lebanon and within many of the countries bordering the Occupied Palestinian Territories are already overwhelmed with what is happening,” she said.

“And at any rate, none of us would wish for further war, further destruction. It’s really not what any human being … would want to see. So, we do hope that diplomacy plays its role and the region can calm down and that this escalation does not happen.

“If it does happen, then I can tell you it will be extremely catastrophic for the fragile health systems.”

Indeed, since Lebanon plunged into a grave economic crisis in late 2019, medical workers have been leaving the country in droves in search of better opportunities. 

Likewise in Syria, following more than a decade of civil war, sanctions and isolation, compounded by the catastrophic twin earthquakes of February 2023, medical staff have been abandoning the country.

Asked what could be done to convince medical workers to remain and serve their compatriots, Balkhy said it was a matter of economics, security and dignity. 




Balkhy took up her appointment as regional director in February this year and is the first woman to hold the position. (AN Photo)

“It’s very important to understand that every individual, and this is coming from my personal perspective, every individual seeks to live a dignified, healthy life,” she said.

“So, if you have been trained as a healthcare provider and you’re not able to perform and to practice the medicine that you have learned, then it’s very difficult.

“It’s not about convincing. It’s about the economy. It’s about the lifestyle. It’s about the security and the safety for them to be able to feel that they can practice and do what they want to do when it comes to the healthcare provision.

“And that has not been secured at the moment because of the lack of the equipment, the lack of the medications and the lack of opportunities to progress in their career as healthcare providers.”

She added: “I come from the region, so I know quite well that they would love nothing more than to stay in their country. They would love nothing more than to serve their own people. 

“And that applies by the way to several other countries in the region. In Lebanon, it’s the same thing. And Palestine, it’s the same thing. The people do not want to leave their countries and their lands, but the situation that they’re in pushes them to seek a better life elsewhere.”

 


Arab Parliament speaker in Washington to discuss key issues with World Bank chief

Updated 8 sec ago
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Arab Parliament speaker in Washington to discuss key issues with World Bank chief

  • Al-Asoumi will also talk about the role that the World Bank can play in development and humanitarian issues

CAIRO: Arab Parliament Speaker Adel Abdulrahman Al-Asoumi will discuss the challenges faced by women and children in the occupied Palestinian territories with President of the World Bank Ajay Banga during a visit to Washington DC.

Al-Asoumi will also talk about the role that the World Bank can play in development and humanitarian issues.

Al-Asoumi, who arrived in the US at the invitation of the World Bank president, will also discuss ways for the bank to support development projects in the Arab world.

The visit’s agenda includes extensive meetings with World Bank officials, a number of executive directors, heads of various sectors, and representatives of Arab countries at the World Bank.

The visit will conclude with an expanded meeting of the Arab Parliament delegation, with the World Bank chief to put the final touches on a joint action plan between the two parties, especially those related to women, youth and children.


Israeli army attacks kill five Lebanese in 24 hours, including two women

Updated 16 July 2024
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Israeli army attacks kill five Lebanese in 24 hours, including two women

  • Hezbollah responds by shelling Kiryat Shmona; warns of ‘severe response’ if Israel launches large-scale war in Lebanon
  • A Hezbollah member and his 2 sisters died on Monday night in an attack on their home, and 2 people on a motorcycle were killed on Tuesday by a drone attack

BEIRUT: Israel continued to target Hezbollah members on Tuesday with attacks by combat drones, less than 24 hours after a member of the party and his two sisters were killed in an air assault on their home in the town of Bint Jbeil.

On Tuesday afternoon, an Israeli drone launched a missile at a motorcycle on the Khardali road, a strategic route connecting the Nabatieh area to Marjayoun, killing two people.

An eyewitness said: “The motorcycle was carrying two persons, and when several citizens tried to approach the targeted motorcycle, it was subjected to a second airstrike with a guided missile.”

On Monday evening, Israeli warplanes had conducted intense raids on the towns of Bint Jbeil, Kfarkela, Mays Al-Jabal and Marwahin, destroying several homes and causing significant damage.

One of the strikes hit the home of Amer Jamil Dagher and his sisters, Taghreed and Fawzia, in Bint Jbeil, destroying it and killing all three, who were said to be in their 40s and 50s.

Hezbollah mourned their deaths and they were buried on Tuesday afternoon in their hometown, 18 people from which have been killed since fighting in southern Lebanon began on Oct. 8.

The Israeli army said it had “targeted Hezbollah infrastructure in several areas in southern Lebanon on Monday night to eliminate threats.”

Hezbollah said it responded to the attacks by “shelling the Kiryat Shmona settlement with dozens of Falaq and Katyusha rockets.”

Meanwhile, Israeli forces also shelled the outskirts of Deir Mimas and the town of Yohmor Al-Shaqif, along the Litani River.

Lebanese Civil Defense teams and paramedics from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement reportedly worked through the night fighting fires in forests alongside the river caused by Israeli phosphorus shells.

Hezbollah said it had targeted a “gathering of Israeli enemy soldiers around the Pranit barracks opposite the Lebanese border town of Rmeish,” “spy equipment at the Al-Raheb site” and “Al-Samaqa site in the occupied Kfarchouba hills.”

MP Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, threatened Israel with “a severe response if the Israeli army launches a large-scale war in Lebanon.”

He added: “The Israeli army knows this. We know the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, and it knows we know its weaknesses.”

Raad urged the “enemy to stop its evil against Lebanon and Gaza; we are ready to cease fire on the Lebanese front if the aggression on Gaza stops and the enemy will comply with this.”


Israeli drone strike along Lebanon-Syria border kills Syrian businessman close to the government

Updated 16 July 2024
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Israeli drone strike along Lebanon-Syria border kills Syrian businessman close to the government

  • Mohammed Baraa Katerji was killed when a drone strike hit his car near the area of Saboura, a few kilometers inside Syria
  • Strike came as Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have been exchanging fire on an almost daily basis since early October

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike on a car Monday near the Lebanon-Syria border killed a prominent Syrian businessman who was sanctioned by the United States and had close ties to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to pro-government media and an official from an Iran-backed group.
Mohammed Baraa Katerji was killed when a drone strike hit his car near the area of Saboura, a few kilometers or miles inside Syria after apparently crossing from Lebanon. Israel’s air force has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in recent years, mainly targeting members of Iran-backed groups and Syria’s military. But it has been rare to hit personalities from within the government.
The strike also came as Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have been exchanging fire on an almost daily basis since early October, after the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
An official from an Iran-backed group said that Katerji was killed instantly while in his SUV on the highway linking Lebanon with Syria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
The pro-government Al-Watan daily quoted unnamed “sources” as saying that Katerji, 48, was killed in a “Zionist drone strike on his car.” It gave no further details.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based opposition war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that Katerji was killed while in a car with Lebanese license plates, adding that he was apparently targeted because he used to fund the “Syrian resistance” against Israel in the Golan Heights, as well as his links to Iran-backed groups in Syria.
Israel, which has vowed to stop Iranian entrenchment in its northern neighbor, has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets in government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years, but it rarely acknowledges them.
The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, sanctioned Katerji in 2018 as Assad’s middleman to trade oil with the Daesh group and for facilitating weapons shipments from Iraq to Syria.
The US Treasury declined Associated Press requests for comment. The sanctions imposed on Katerji were authorized under an Obama-era executive order issued in 2011 that prohibits certain transactions with Syria. A search of the OFAC database indicates that the sanctions were still in effect against Katerji and his firm at the time of his death.
OFAC said in 2018 that Katerji was responsible for import and export activities in Syria and assisted with transporting weapons and ammunition under the pretext of importing and exporting food items. These shipments were overseen by the US­ designated Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, according to OFAC.
It added that the Syria-based Katerji Company is a trucking company that has also shipped weapons from Iraq to Syria. Additionally, in a 2016 trade deal between the government of Syria and IS, the Katerji Company was identified as the exclusive agent for providing supplies to IS-controlled areas, including oil and other commodities.
Katerji and his brother, Hussam — widely referred to in Syria as the “Katerji brothers” — got involved in oil business a few years after the country’s conflict began in March 2011. Hussam Katerji is a former member of Syria’s parliament.


US military destroys 5 Houthi drones amid escalating ship attacks

Updated 16 July 2024
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US military destroys 5 Houthi drones amid escalating ship attacks

  • Centcom: It was determined these UAVs presented an imminent threat to US, coalition forces and merchant vessels in the region
  • Houthis also fired an explosive and remotely controlled boat at the MT Chios Lion, a Greek-operated, Marshall Islands-owned, crude oil tanker

AL-MUKALLA: US naval forces in the Red Sea destroyed a barrage of drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis as the militia increased drone, boat and missile strikes on ships in international commercial channels.

The US military said in a statement on Tuesday that its forces intercepted three Houthi unmanned aerial vehicles over the Red Sea and two more over Houthi-held areas of war-torn Yemen during the past 24 hours, all of which were aimed against international commercial and navy ships.

“It was determined these UAVs presented an imminent threat to US, coalition forces and merchant vessels in the region. These actions were taken to protect freedom of navigation and make international waters safer and more secure,” US Central Command said on X.

During the last 24 hours, the Houthis targeted a Panama-flagged, Israel-owned, Monaco-operated tanker vessel, MT Bentley I, which was transporting vegetable oil from Russia to China. The militia deployed three surface ships, one explosive-laden drone boat and two small boats, causing no damage to the ship or casualties, according to the US military.

The Houthis subsequently launched a ballistic missile from Yemeni territory toward the same ship in the Red Sea.

The Houthis also fired an explosive and remotely controlled boat at the MT Chios Lion, a Greek-operated, Marshall Islands-owned crude oil tanker operating under the Liberian flag in the Red Sea, inflicting damage to the ship but no reported casualties.

The US statement came hours after Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea claimed in a televised statement that the militia’s naval, drone and missile forces launched a joint attack against MT Bentley I in the Red Sea, and struck the Chios Lion oil tanker ship with a drone boat.

The two ships were targeted because their owners defied the militia’s warnings against traveling to Israeli ports.

Sarea said that a third operation was carried out with the assistance of the Iraqi Islamic Resistance, targeting the Olvia ship in the Mediterranean.

Olvia was recognized by ship monitoring apps as a crude oil tanker flying the Cyprus flag when it left the Israeli port of Haifa on Saturday.

Since November, the Houthis have fired hundreds of ballistic missiles, drones and drone boats at more than 100 ships on international trade routes near Yemen, forcing major commercial firms to divert ships away from the Red Sea and on to longer and more costly routes via Africa.

The Houthis maintain that they solely strike Israeli-linked and Israeli-bound ships to put pressure on Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. Critics say that the Houthis are using Yemenis’ fury over Israel’s war in Gaza to silence vocal voices calling for salary payments and public service improvements, as well as to recruit fighters.

On Tuesday, Houthi militia leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi promised to keep striking ships until Israel stops its war in Gaza.

“Our missile and naval operations will continue and expand until the aggression ends and the Israeli embargo on Gaza is removed,” he said.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s internationally recognized government reiterated on Tuesday its request for international groups to shift their offices from Houthi-held Sanaa to the southern city of Aden, Yemen’s temporary capital.

Rashad Al-Alimi, chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council, demanded during a meeting with US Ambassador to Yemen Steven Fagin that international donors fulfill their commitments to the humanitarian response plan in Yemen and that international organizations relocate their main offices to Aden after the Houthis kidnapped dozens of aid workers in Sanaa.

Yemeni Minister of Interior Ibrahim Haidan reiterated the same request during a meeting with Mahmoud Salah, head of the Foreign Committee of the Red Cross mission in Aden on Tuesday.


Israeli military to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox seminary students next week

Updated 16 July 2024
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Israeli military to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox seminary students next week

  • In June, Israel’s Supreme Court mandated the government to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military will next week begin issuing military draft summons to ultra-Orthodox seminary students who were previously exempt from military service, the military said on Tuesday.
The issue is especially sensitive amid the war against Hamas in Gaza and related fighting on other fronts that have caused the worst Israeli casualties — mostly among secular draftees and reservists — in decades.
In June, Israel’s Supreme Court mandated the government to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students into the military, creating new political strains for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
An Israeli military statement said that starting next Sunday “the process of issuing initial summons orders for the first call-up” ahead of the upcoming July recruitment cycle would commence.
Netanyahu’s coalition includes two ultra-Orthodox parties that regard the exemptions as key to keeping their constituents in religious seminaries and away from a melting-pot military that might test their conservative values.
The issue has prompted protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 13 percent of Israel’s 10 million population — a figure expected to reach 19 percent by 2035. Their refusal to serve in wars they generally support is a long festering schism in Israeli society.
Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority is also largely exempted from the draft, under which men and women are generally called up at the age of 18, with men serving 32 months and women 24 months.