Opinion

In a Gaza Hospital, Palestinian Reconciliation Is a Matter of Life or Death

While Gaza's electricity supply is still hostage to unresolved Hamas-Fatah tensions, the Al-Shifa hospital uses generators to keep its neo-natal intensive care unit operational. 'We've lost infants who could have been saved', its director says

Newborn triplets in Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital. October 2017
Newborn triplets in Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital. October 2017 Mohammed M.

GAZA CITY - I entered the big gates of the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip to visit a sick relative. The hospital yard resembled an expansive factory: it was full of massive generators, roaring at high decibels to supply patients power for their medical equipment, including ventilators for babies who depend on the oxygen supply to survive.

Al-Shifa's open spaces have become generator-land because there hasn't been a reliable electricity supply here, or anywhere in Gaza, since June.

That's when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas requested that Israel reduce electricity purchases and supply to the Gaza Strip in order to pressure Hamas, a request to which Israel acquiesced.

I couldn't find my relative's room. But on my search, I saw a mother, followed by female family members, leaving the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) weeping after their infant had passed away. The child had seemed healthy when he was born, but then he deteriorated. As a result, he was moved to the NICU unit at Al-Shifa hospital, where the doctors did their best to keep him alive, but weren't able to him - a child for whom his parents had waited four long years.

He died because the treatments that could have saved him are only available outside of Gaza - and there was no way out.

His parents wanted to name him Ahmed. But he was not the only child who has fallen victim to the decade-long siege that has affected every sector of the Strip. Dozens of other kids have died due to the lack of facilities at hospitals, the impossibility of eliciting exit passes that would enable treatment abroad, and the lack of electricity for life-saving equipment. Gaza still only has access to electricity for four hours a day.

Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip watch on TV the signing of a reconciliation deal in Cairo between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. October 12, 2017
SAID KHATIB/AFP

From inside that unit, I heard the beeps of incubators. It was surprising to see there were three or four babies lying together in the same incubator.

At the door, I met Dr. Allam Abu Hamida, director of the intensive care unit, who said that in addition to the incubators, power is the lifeline for those babies, and that if it is cut, most of these babies will die within seconds.

"These days the hospital has lost about 16 infants due to power shortages and the lack of the incubators, most of which are donated from UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations," Dr. Allam said. "If the hospital did not have these problems, ten out of those 16 infants could have been saved."

Many of the babies in the unit, which only has 10 incubators, are premature, and some weigh less than 1000 grams.

Dr. Allam says his unit faces a shortage of staff, of supplies – a shortage of everything, leading to disastrous consequences.

"If this situation lasts, my unit will catastrophically collapse."

Those generators, keeping the vulnerable alive, might still stop at any time, if the new Palestinians consensus government doesn’t act. 20 hours of power produced by Al-Shifa's generators costs at least $3,500. That's the daily cost for 2,000 liters of industrial fuel, and it's money the hospital can't afford.

But, despite the Palestinian reconciliation agreement, there's still no sign that Abbas has requested from Israel a return to the electricity supplied before Fatah-Hamas tensions ratched up.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has already warned that Gaza might soon experience a systemic collapse, while the UN warned even before the electricity crisis that Gaza may not be habitable by 2020.

Several of the medical staff I spoke to explained the damage that the Palestinian Authority's payment freeze on Gaza public sector wages has caused them. One described receiving only 40% of her salary, which isn't enough to provide food for her own kids.

For the families of newborns in intensive care, there were mixed emotions: some were waiting for their babies to be discharged, others were praying that their kids would survive.

Newborn triplets in Gaza's Al-Shifa Hospital. October 2017
Mohammed M.

Ahlam Melhem, who had newborn triplets lying in an incubator together, was happy but worried. Along with her unemployed husband, she was staring at the oxygen machine through which her infants were breathing.

"I really want my kids home already, but the doctors advised me not to, since the babies still need more care here," Ahlam said. "Thanks to God, I am in a better state than others, but I am still worried, since the generators might stop soon, and there aren't so many doctors to take care of all of these kids."

Khalid Ahmed and his wife were sitting beside an incubator in which a 700 gram infant lay. Khalid was attempting to comfort his wife.

"Our baby’s status isn’t stable, and we are very worried about him," Khalid said. "He was born after seven years of waiting, and I cannot bear losing him."

Asked what he thinks about the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, Khalid wasn't particularly optimistic. His only concern was that it would lead to an improvement in Gaza's fortunes, "especially the medical sector."

Can the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah offer Gazans another chance for stability, for a renewal of basic living standards, for hope in the future?

For the medical staff, parents and babies at Al-Shifa, it's not a theoretical question at all.