Gaza: UN official reports horrific hospital scenes of casualties

In a UNICEF warehouse in Zarka, Jordan, workers review boxes of supplies for shipment to the Gaza Strip

12 January 2009 – Appalled that fighting was still continuing in Gaza despite the Security Council’s ceasefire resolution, senior United Nations officials said today they were horrified at the human costs amid reports that over 40 per cent of the nearly 900 Palestinians killed in the Israeli offensive, and almost half of the 3,860 wounded, were women and children.

“Behind those statistics that we read out every day is really profound human suffering and grave tragedy for all involved and not just for those who are killed and injured but for their families as well,” UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Director of Operations John Ging told a news conference in New York, speaking by video link from Gaza, where he had just visited the main Al Shifa hospital.

“(It) is the place of course where you see the most horrific human consequences of this conflict. Among the tragic cases that I saw were a child, six years of age, little or no brain activity, people don’t have much hope for her survival; multiple amputee – another little girl; and a pregnant woman who’d lost a leg,” he said, as the Israeli offensive went into its 17th day with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks into Israel.

“The hospital is really full of patients whose lives have been in many instances really destroyed, and they’re alive.”

Mr. Ging paid tribute to “the heroes,” the Palestinian hospital staff who have been working round the clock and have lost track of time, and the 40 expatriate medical staff who have joined them from Norway, the Netherlands, Egypt and Jordan, among other places.

He said the sense of fear in Gaza was all pervasive among a battle-hardened population of 1.5 million that had already seen many years of conflict. “In my three years here I have never witnessed anything like the scale of fear that is there,” he stressed. “We have to recognize that there’s no safe place in Gaza and that continues to be the case and the casualty figures speak to that.”

Speaking in New York, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told the news conference the UN had been unable to independently verify the casualty figures given by the Palestinians but they seemed plausible. As of today, there were 884 dead, 275 of them children and 93 women (42 per cent), and 3,860 wounded, 1,333 of them children and 587 women (49 per cent).

“I am appalled that violence on this scale is still continuing in Gaza and horrified at the human cost of all this,” he said. “What continues to be worrying is that the Palestinian civilian casualty rate appears to be still increasing.”

On a more positive note, the two officials reported that UN food delivery and other operations, suspended after a fatal attack on an UNRWA driver last week, have resumed following Israeli reassurances and aid is now moving around Gaza as much as possible. Mr. Ging said he was very satisfied with the more effective system put in place in high-level talks with the Israelis.

Mr. Holmes said more food supplies were getting through and power supply had improved because of infrastructure repairs and some fuel getting through, but the situation was still not satisfactory even if better than before. Some 500,000 people still lack water as Israel’s daily three-hour lull in fighting was insufficient for carrying out repairs and other UN operations, he added, urging Israel to extend the time period.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has appealed for $16 million to provide families and children with emergency supplies. “We desperately need more resources,” Director of Emergency Operations Louis-George Arsenault said, calling on Israel to increase the daily three-hour window for deliveries.

Asked what would happen if Israel escalated its operations deeper into Gaza’s cities, Mr. Holmes said UNRWA, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and others would want to continue their activities insofar as they can. “The fear is that any escalated operations would produce even more casualties, especially when operating in these densely populated urban areas and this would compound what is already a very dramatic humanitarian crisis,” he added.

Mr. Ging said 35,000 Gazans had now fled their homes for shelter in 38 UNRWA locations, and many more had sought refuge with relatives in other parts of the Gaza Strip. In answer to questions, he said he had no evidence that Shifa hospital was being used for Hamas military purposes and reiterated his call for an independent investigation amid conflicting reports on deadly Israeli shellings near an UNRWA school and a housing complex in Zaitoun last week.

“I hope that those who are dealing with this issue [the conflict] at the political level will have the same courage and humanity as I’ve witnessed here at Shifa hospital with the doctors who have come from abroad to help. They can only deal with the consequences in the terms of the injuries,” he concluded. “The solution here is to stop the fighting, stop creating the casualties, that’s what we want.”


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