Three children are attached to respirators in the intensive care unit in the Rantisi Children’s Hospital in Gaza City. Their lives depend on the proper running of the generators, which have become the main suppliers of electricity in the Gaza Strip.
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Since the only power station in the Strip stopped operating a month and a half ago, due to a political conflict, Gaza is left mainly with electricity purchased in Israel, which enables four consecutive hours of current, at most, followed by at least 12 hours of being off the grid. Even when the power station was operating, the inhabitants of the Strip lacked about half the amount of electricity required for a normal life.
I came to the children’s intensive care unit (ICU) and to the hospital in general as part of my work as a researcher for the Gisha human rights organization. In the words of the hospital director, Dr. Mohammed Abu-Salmia, “The situation is catastrophic.” Every time the flow of electricity from the grid stops and the generator is activated, he says, mishaps are likely, which interfere with the activity of the wards, the laboratories and the medical equipment, including the oxygen generators and pumps for distributing it in the wards, along with the sewage, laundry, cooking and sanitation systems.
Last month, says the director, there was not enough diesel fuel for the full operation of the main generator, so he was forced to order lights out in the hospital, with the exception of the critical wards, which used a small generator: the ICU, the dialysis center and the operating rooms. Since then, with the help of UNRWA, additional fuel has arrived, which will suffice until the end of June. Despite that, Dr. Abu-Salmia is afraid that the dramatic increase in the hours of generator activity, which has lasted for seven weeks already, will lead to malfunctions, “and then we’re really lost.” A support team, whose job it is to repair malfunctions, is in a constant state of readiness.
The electricity shortage affects all areas of life in the Strip. Routine everyday activities, such as sanitation, laundry, cooking and showers are severely affected, as is of course the use of telephones and computers. Also internet access, in other words work and study, which even on “ordinary” days, when the power station is operating, has to be synchronized with the supply of only eight consecutive hours of electricity.
The pumps that channel water into the houses are now working only part-time; there are areas where there is water distribution only once a week. There has been a dramatic decline in the activity of water purification stations; the pumping of sewage in communities and neighborhoods has been totally or partially discontinued; millions of liters of untreated sewage are flowing to the beach, which is the residents’ refuge from their daily travails. The electricity shortage is no longer a temporary inconvenience, but a potential health hazard, and in any case it isn’t a sustainable situation.
In addition to the loss of power, according to Dr. Abu-Salmia hundreds of types of medicines and medical equipment are missing from the warehouses of the Gaza Health Ministry, and of course the Rantisi Hospital suffers from that too. In the gastroenterology department, for example, feeding tubes for infants have run out, and the staff is forced to use tubes whose diameter is too large for their tiny windpipes, causing the babies unnecessary suffering.
Even transferring equipment from Israel that was bought in advance especially for Rantisi is a challenge: Four months have passed since the renovation of the oncology department, with the help of monetary assistance from an American foundation, and they’re still waiting here for essential parts for the air conditioning system. The entry of the parts and equipment into Gaza is being delayed because Israel decided to label them “dual-use” items (in other words, items that are liable to be used for military purposes). The department is designed for children with cancer and their caretakers; those who can’t go out for treatment via the closed Rafah crossing, those whom Israel labels a “security risk” and doesn’t approve their exit for treatment outside Gaza, patients who were able to receive the desired permit but won’t be able to endure the journey that awaits them.
The UN humanitarian liaison officer and the Qatari ambassador recently conducted separate visits to Rantisi and met with the director. He asked them to intervene to get the equipment released. They said they hoped they’d be able to help.
When leaving the hospital I meet the head nurse in the ICU, Osama Alkahlot, who tells me about a shift a few days before that he will never forget. “A technical problem stopped the operation of the generator, and the children’s respirators continued to work on batteries, which emptied after 15 minutes,” he recalls. “We stood among the children, two nurses for each child, alternately performing manual respiration, tensely watching the blood pressure numbers. There was absolute quiet in the room, except for the metallic banging of the manual respirators. The generator went back into operation after 10 minutes, but we felt as though 10 days had passed. I’m not sure that during the next malfunction we’ll be able to save the patients’ lives.”
The writer is a resident of the Gaza Strip and a field worker for Gisha, which promotes freedom of movement for people and goods to and from the Strip.