July 14, 2024

WHO Calls for Protection of Humanitarian Space in Gaza Following Serious Incidents in High-Risk Mission to Transfer Patients, Deliver Health Supplies

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during the 151st session of the Executive Board on 30 May 2022. This second shorter meeting of the year is a follow-up to the World Health Assembly. The Executive Board is composed of 34 technically qualified members elected for three-year terms. The main functions of the Board are to implement the decisions and policies of the Health Assembly, and advise and generally to facilitate its work.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a renewed appeal for the safeguarding of healthcare and humanitarian efforts in Gaza, following a series of concerning incidents during a high-risk mission aimed at transferring critically-ill patients and delivering essential medical supplies to a hospital in northern Gaza. Tragically, a patient reportedly lost their life during the mission.

On December 9, 2023, a joint operation involving WHO, the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and supported by the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), was undertaken to Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City. The mission had multiple objectives, including delivering trauma and surgical supplies capable of treating 1500 patients and transferring 19 critical patients along with 14 companions to the Nasser Medical Complex in southern Gaza for advanced medical care.

However, the mission was beset by troubling incidents. At the Wadi Gaza checkpoint, the UN convoy underwent an inspection, and ambulance crew members were required to leave the vehicles for identification purposes. Shockingly, two PRCS staff members were detained for over an hour, resulting in further delays. Witnesses from WHO reported that one of the detained individuals was subjected to humiliating treatment, including harassment, physical assault, stripping, and a body search.

As the mission entered Gaza City, an aid truck transporting medical supplies and one ambulance were struck by gunfire. On the return journey to southern Gaza, where patients from Al-Ahli Hospital were onboard ambulances, the convoy encountered another checkpoint at Wadi Gaza. Here, PRCS staff and most patients had to exit the ambulances for security checks, with critically ill patients being searched by armed soldiers.

The WHO said that one of the previously detained PRCS staff members was subjected to a second round of interrogation. Despite numerous attempts to secure his release, the mission decided to proceed after over two and a half hours, citing concerns for the safety of patients and humanitarian workers. Tragically, it was reported that one injured patient succumbed to untreated wounds during this time.

The PRCS staff member was eventually released that same night through joint UN efforts. WHO representatives subsequently met with him and his family, where he detailed a harrowing experience of abuse, including harassment, physical violence, humiliation, and being left without clothing or shoes with his hands tied behind his back.

These detentions are not isolated incidents, as similar incidents occurred during previous humanitarian missions in Gaza. On November 18, six individuals from the Ministry of Health and PRCS were detained during a WHO-led mission at Al-Shifa Hospital, with four of them still held in detention over three weeks later, their whereabouts and well-being unknown.

Such obstruction of ambulances and attacks on humanitarian and health workers are universally condemned. Healthcare, including ambulances, is protected under international law and must be respected and safeguarded without exception.

The challenges faced during this mission underscore the diminishing space for humanitarian operations within Gaza, despite the pressing need for access to alleviate the dire humanitarian situation, as called for in a resolution adopted by WHO Executive Board members on December 10.

Despite these challenges, WHO and its partners said they remain steadfast in their commitment to staying in Gaza and aiding its population. However, with escalating hostilities, inadequate aid resources, and a humanitarian support system on the brink of collapse, the only viable solution is a sustained ceasefire, adding that such a ceasefire would enable WHO and its partners to work safely and unhindered in strengthening the deteriorating health system, replenishing critical supplies of fuel, medicines, and essential aid, and preventing further disease, hunger, and suffering in the Gaza Strip.

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