Gaza residents now face battle against infectious diseases

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A Palestinian boy, wounded following an Israeli military strike, is treated upon his arrival at the hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 3, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Mohammed Hams)

By: Sanaa Kamal

Published Thursday, August 7, 2014

The repercussions of the war are beginning to gradually unfold. From bombing wells used for drinking water, sewage and power plants, to launching gas bombs suspected of being toxic, to targeting medical workers and even preventing municipalities from disposing of garbage away from residential areas, Israel has condemned Gaza to an environmental and health disaster.

Gaza – The war has been suspended for now, but its devastating effects continue to burden Palestinians in Gaza who have been exhausted by displacement and destitution after 30 days of constant bombardment that not only created an economic crisis, but destroyed all hope of an economic recovery for at least ten years, according to observers.

Those who survived the bombardments are now facing diseases and an epidemic explosion across the Gaza Strip, especially among displaced families who sought refuge in shelters.

These shelters – which did not shield Palestinians from the brutality of Israeli planes – did not provide a hygienic environment that would protect the displaced from the spread of contagious diseases. As usual, women and children bear the brunt of this disaster. In light of the shortage of medical supplies and the thousands injured from the war, they might not find a place for treatment. Some of them might be ashamed to even go to a hospital because they are ill, when people wounded from the war cannot find a hospital bed to lie on.

Somewhere between peace and checking on those who are still alive, there is a lot of talk and complaints about diseases, especially in areas where corpses remained for several days. Skin infections are perhaps the most prevalent diseases among the displaced, followed by the flu and tonsillitis, which are accompanied by a high fever. As soon as you enter a school shelter, you notice a number of people scratching continuously until their hands and feet start bleeding.

It is important to point out that power outages in many areas, which have lasted for more than a week, meant these areas did not get water either. This left Gazans who survived the Israeli killing machine fighting contagious diseases. Another reason behind this explosion of infectious diseases is the fact that municipalities and other authorities in charge of public hygiene have not been working for a month, given that Israeli attacks spared no one, not even paramedics.

Om Mohammed fled with her ten-member family to a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school. She said all of them have scabies or skin rashes. The woman risked her life to take her children for treatment at a time when hospitals had a hard time receiving patients with non-traumatic injuries, especially with the state of emergency declared by the Health Ministry.

Om Mohammed told Al-Akhbar: “My children weren’t killed in the war but they’re going to die from the fever and the scabies... We can’t treat them and we don’t have money to buy medicine.” However, she did not blame hospitals or doctors after the horrific scenes she saw there.

Amal on the other hand, who is in the shelter with Om Mohammed, does not think this situation is acceptable. She said they should open emergency clinics inside schools to combat the diseases spreading among their children. Amal told Al-Akhbar: “Medical services should be provided to all citizens. Patients that cannot be received in hospitals can be treated here, especially that the UNRWA has medical staff, but they do not treat war-related injuries.”

A displaced woman from al-Arir family blamed others in the shelter for what has befallen them and for the chaos they are living in. She asked them to maintain the cleanliness of the place where they are staying because the lack of hygiene helped in the spread of diseases.

Health Ministry spokesperson, Ashraf al-Qudra, said the crisis is not restricted to displaced Gazans, “but has affected a large number of people, especially with the ongoing electricity and water crisis and the garbage in the streets, which contributes to transmitting diseases to healthy people.”

He told Al-Akhbar: “What happened was an all-out war on the Palestinian people. From the start, Israel, targeted everything to damage anything that its war machine might have missed.” He warned of the poisonous gas bombs launched by the enemy in the last days of the war, which “probably transmitted infections that we have not identified. But eyewitnesses told us about the stench of these gases.”

Qudra pointed out that the sick might have either the flu or tonsillitis. He added, however, that “the most prevalent illnesses are skin infections, which require a certain environment for treatment, which can’t be done at this stage. So it is difficult to treat patients quickly.” He did not, however, point to the potential side effects if this continues much longer.

In an effort to address the situation, medical relief agencies tried to ease the crisis by sending medical teams to shelters to treat patients. But Gaza’s mayor, Nizar Hijazi, told Al-Akhbar that the garbage is a big reason behind the crisis, adding that before the war, the municipality disposed of 600 to 700 tons of waste daily outside the city.

“During the war, it was very difficult to work and during the truce, the amount declined to 400 tons daily as workers were targeted and some of them were killed,” he said. This forced them to dispose of garbage inside the city, “after Israel refused requests by the Red Cross and the UNRWA to transfer it outside city limits.”

Mounds of trash have accumulated in al-Yarmouk Square in the center of Gaza City, which Hijazi estimates to be around 30,000 tons. “This subjects the city to a serious health catastrophe in addition to the spread of epidemics and diseases, especially if it catches fire and smoke columns begin to rise in the air.”

Perhaps Israeli officials knew what the outcome of this crisis would be, given that they deliberately pushed things to this point, forcing people to leave border areas and go to the center of the city. As the cease-fire went into effect, the municipality mobilized its workers but they do not have an easy job ahead of them, especially as they are facing a shortage in materials and a number of their transport vehicles were targeted and damaged.

In addition to these hardships, from the start of the war, people have not had access to any drinking water, and sewage water has leaked onto the streets after the largest sewage plant in western Gaza was bombed. It is plant No. 1, which contains 20,000 liters of sewage water. The water treatment plant was also hit. This forced the municipality to discharge the polluted water into the sea, prompting the municipality to ban swimming in it even before the war.

Israel began its war on water by destroying more than six groundwater wells completely and four others almost completely. This damaged water networks in the neighborhoods of al-Tuffah, al-Shujaiyah and al-Zeitoun in eastern Gaza and led to water outages for days on end. People also have a problem with drinking water not getting to their homes because the only power plant in the Gaza Strip was targeted. They are forced to pump water using generators, which does not meet their needs.

As a result of this situation, Oxfam, a worldwide development organization, warned that Gazans are facing a serious health crisis despite the humanitarian truce reached between Palestinians and Israelis because the “bombing destroyed dozens of wells, pipelines and reservoirs and contaminated fresh water.” It also warned that water pumping stations have stopped working because they ran out of fuel.

Oxfam pointed out that it is working in an environment with a completely destroyed water infrastructure “that prevents people in Gaza from cooking, flushing toilets or washing hands. The current public health risk is massive.”

Nishant Pandey, head of Oxfam in the occupied Palestinian territories, said that “Gaza’s infrastructure will take months or years to fully recover.”

Pernille Ironside, head of the field office run by the UN children’s agency (UNICEF) in Gaza, said that more than 400 children have been killed in Israel’s assault on Gaza, and almost 400,000 are traumatised and face an “extraordinarily bleak” future.

Addressing a UN press conference in Geneva by phone from Gaza, Ironside added: “Rebuilding children's lives would be part of a much larger effort to reconstruct the Palestinian enclave once the fighting has stopped for good.”

*Due to an error in translation, the article erroneously stated that there were cases of smallpox in Gaza. The article has been edited to reflect that skin infections, not smallpox, are especially prevalent among Gaza's displaced.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


There is no more naturally occurring smallpox, so either the Arabic version is mistaken or the writer was using "mard al-jadari" to mean some other ailment.

If in fact there is real smallpox in Gaza, then you're burying the lead. Seeing as how smallpox has been declared eradicated for the past 35 years, a revival would be big news.

Thank you for pointing out the error in translation. We have amended the article to rectify this mistake.
The AAE team.

'Smallpox is perhaps the most prevalent disease among the displaced'

Certainly not true. Can you issue a correction please?

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