News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Cases of child malnutrition double in Gaza because of blockade

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 16 March 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:632
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    The Israeli blockade of Gaza has produced a health crisis among Palestinians, according to the charity Christian Aid, with cases of child malnutrition doubling in just one year.

    More than 100 000 Palestinians from Gaza previously earned their living in Israel, but the closing of the border has driven most into unemployment. This loss of income has devastated the fragile Palestinian economy, producing a further 76 000 job losses locally.

    Costa Dabbagh, director of the Middle East Council of Churches, which runs two clinics for women and children in Gaza City, said: “We are treating more underweight and malnourished children, and this is a problem of the economy. Gaza suffers from 85% unemployment. Food is available here—we are not short of anything. But it is hard to buy bread, vegetables, cereal, and meat when you don't have a job.”

    The two clinics run by the council have 590 cases of child malnutrition on their books. Rates of infection, anaemia, and other diseases have risen sharply. Another Palestinian medical charity, Ard El Insan Palestine, said that in 2000 it treated 2528 children under five years old for malnutrition, a figure that more than doubled the next year to 5702.

    Providing medical care has become increasingly difficult, because internal blockades set up arbitrarily by the Israeli army often prevent medical staff from reaching work.

    The director of Al-Yamamah hospital in Bethlehem, Dr Ahmed Othman, was killed while touring the wards. Soldiers shot him because he was not supposed to be moving around inside the hospital—all staff were prohibited by the Israeli army from leaving their offices.

    Dr Mustapha Barghouti, of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, said that the Israeli military are denying ambulances entry to Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarm, where there are 70 injured. There are also several reports of Israeli soldiers shooting at ambulances.

    The threat of air attack without warning also hampers movement and contributes to high levels of stress. Hypertension has risen among Palestinians, despite their reduced diet.

    Christian Aid spokesman Dominic Nutt said: “I have met families living in fear of starvation who spend their days dodging Israeli bullets and waiting for neighbours to donate meagre food rations.”

    A report by the World Bank said: “The Palestinian Authority is effectively bankrupt since tax revenues have dwindled to a quarter of previous levels.” The economy, says the report, is only kept afloat by foreign donations, while most health care is provided by local charities. Organisations such as Hamas, considered a terrorist network by most Western governments, owe much of their local popularity to their charitable clinics and food banks.

    The World Bank report warns: “Economic collapse remains a real prospect. If the confrontation persists at recent levels and the closure is tightened further donor and community efforts will not suffice. Serious health and environmental problems are emerging.”

    The Israeli government, while acknowledging that Palestinians are suffering considerably, said their own leadership was to blame. A spokesman said: “Prior to September 2000, when Israel and the Palestinians were negotiating a land-for-peace deal, none of the current military measures, including closures, were in place. They have only been instituted as a direct consequence of the threat posed to Israeli life and limb by unchecked Palestinian terrorism.”

    Shaul Mofaz, Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, said this week that while he regretted the deaths of any innocent Palestinians, the forces had proof the Palestinians were using ambulances to ferry gunmen. They had deliberately placed them in the path of tanks to ambush them when they stopped.

    Regarding the shooting of Dr Othman, a government spokesman said: “The Bethlehem doctor was killed last Friday as a result of what appears to be a miscommunication between IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] units.”

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