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It’s a New Year, but Israel’s attacks against Gaza healthcare remains unchallenged

08 Jan 2024  9


There is significant circumstantial evidence that Israel has systematically targeted hospitals in Gaza, including that dozens of medical facilities were attacked over a seven-week period in November 2023, and many repeatedly.

“The practice of medicine is under attack,” said Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health and South African physician. She made these comments recently, in relation to Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza. “We are in the darkest time for the right to health in our lifetimes. As a practicing medical doctor, I cannot fathom what my Gazan colleagues are enduring. They are working while their colleagues and loved ones are under attack. Many have been killed while treating their patients.”

International humanitarian law (Geneva and Hague Conventions, the Rome Statute, occupational law, and international and humanitarian law) is clear that healthcare workers (HCWs) and facilities must be protected during war zones. We are beyond the debate whether Israel is using healthcare as a weapon of war, and whether it is guilty of systematically targeting medical facilities and workers — the evidence of that is overwhelming. What’s prudent now is for urgent action to be mobilised via every avenue to ensure that Gaza’s remaining healthcare infrastructure is protected, accessibility ensured to its two million largely civilian population who remain under Israeli attack, and that what remains is made salvageable.

Tlaleng Mofokeng, Gaza

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alon Skuy)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

On 12 December, the WHO reiterated its call for the protection of health care and humanitarian assistance in Gaza. This came after an aid convoy, led by the WHO, Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), completed a high-risk mission to Al-Ahli Hospital to deliver medical supplies and transfer critically injured patients to a hospital in the south. One PRCS member was detained, stripped and handcuffed by Israeli forces for more than 24 hours, while a delay in treatment at multiple Israeli checkpoints resulted in the death of one of the patients.

Healthcare targeted

In two months, the WHO has independently recorded more than 300 Israeli-led healthcare-related attacks in Gaza, affecting 60 health facilities and 76 ambulances. Numerous other humanitarian organisations, including Médecins Sans Frontières, have confirmed these numbers. Only 11 out of 36 hospitals in Gaza are partially functional and able to admit new patients, although services are limited. The Palestinian Health Ministry has confirmed that from 7 October to 19 December, 340 Palestinian HCWs have been killed by Israel — this translates to five HCWs a day. More than 100 have been detained by the Israeli army, their whereabouts unknown weeks later, including the director of Gaza’s largest hospital (Al-Shifa) Dr Muhammad Abu Salmiya.

We read these numbers in the news as just that, numbers, but do we understand the gravity of what they mean? How do we grapple with the moral depravity that dictates Israel’s actions and what the long-lasting effects are going to be, both for Gaza and our moral conscience for allowing this darkness to envelop us in our lifetimes? “Never again”, has indeed happened again.

Jordan protest, Gaza

Doctors and medical personnel of the King Hussein Cancer Foundation and Centre in Amman, Jordan hold placards on 9 November 2023 as they stage a demonstration in solidarity with Palestinian civilians, the hospitals and the cancer patients in Gaza and to stress that they needed medical treatment, medical supplies and cancer therapy medicines. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mohammad Ali)

There is significant circumstantial evidence that Israel has systematically targeted hospitals in Gaza, including that dozens of medical facilities were attacked over a seven-week period in November 2023, and many repeatedly. CNN reported that facilities were attacked after their locations were shared with Israeli forces by the US government, and many were attacked with close-range fire. The clearest indication of targeting is Israeli military officials’ own admission, on social media platform X, that they have conducted targeted operations on Al-Shifa and other hospitals, obviously unscrupulous to the manner in which their behaviour is delict and transgresses all boundaries of ethics and morality.


People wait in tent shelters in the darkness as fuel for electricity generation runs out, outside al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City early on 3 November, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo: Dawood Nemer/AFP)

‘Medical apartheid’

The trend of attacks on Palestinian healthcare is one which has dictated the 75-year-long Israeli occupation. Barhoush and Amon revealed through evidence-based assessments and reviews (published in the medical journal Global Public Health) that there has been a systematic violation of Palestinians’ right to health in occupied Palestine by Israel, with records as early as 1967.

This has resulted in a form of ‘medical apartheid’ where Palestinians continue to encounter major barriers to realising their fundamental right to health. This was affirmed by WHO Representative for Gaza/West Bank Dr Richard Peeperkorn early last year already, when he described how Palestinians are denied their fundamental right to health daily through Israeli occupation.

This is unacceptable. As a HCW, I cannot even begin to fathom what my colleagues in Gaza are experiencing. I echo Dr Mofokeng’s sentiments when she said, “We have descended into depths from which we must quickly emerge. As a child survivor of apartheid, I understand all too well the trauma that children and people of Gaza will carry with them, not only from the current violence, but from the displacement and military occupation that they, and generations of their families, have endured.”

Indeed, Israel is taking us all to depths that we may never emerge from if we do not use all platforms and avenues accessible to us to challenge their nefarious and wicked behaviour. DM

Dr Aayesha J Soni is a specialist neurologist and medical volunteer with the Gift of the Givers Foundation. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans 2017 and News24 100 Future Young Mandelas 2018.