Pregnant women in besieged Gaza are living without access to basic medical care and hospitals and clinics on the brink of collapse without electricity and medical supplies.
About 50,000 women in Gaza are pregnant, with some expecting to give birth in the coming month, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
“For the thousands of women about to give birth and those who are sick and critically injured being forced from their homes with nowhere safe to go and no food or water, is extremely dangerous,” said the UN agency that supports pregnant women and newborns by providing medicines and the services of midwives.
Relentless Israeli air strikes on the densely populated Gaza strip have so far killed nearly 2,800 Palestinians and wounded thousands.
It has left the enclave's already underfunded healthcare system “gasping for breath”, the agency said.
Hospitals in Gaza are expected to run out of electricity generator fuel some time on Wednesday, with aid and emergency medical supplies stuck at Egypt’s Rafah border crossing after Israel completely shut off the 40km-long territory.
No place to deliver babies
Iman, who is five months pregnant, is among the women struggling without enough food and medicine.
“She is exhausted,” her sister Alaa, who has three children, told The National.
Their family had to flee Gaza city and take shelter in a small flat in Deir Al Balah, where 11 relatives and 10 neighbours use a small bathroom and kitchen with minimal supplies, she said.
“We try to let Iman rest as much as possible,” Alaa said. “We gave her a mattress to sleep on, and my mum and I slept on the floor.
“When there is nutritious food, we give up our shares for her.”
Food supplies are low and water ran out on Tuesday morning, she said.
Dominic Allen, the UN Population Fund’s representative for Palestine, said these women face a “double nightmare” after a “horrifying week” of Israeli air strikes.
UNFPA is calling for $6.9 million to support emergency reproductive health and gender-based violence services to people in Gaza and the West Bank. It is also running a helpline with counsellors and doctors available to help traumatised youth and women.
It has called for “immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access” to allow food, medicine, water and fuel to reach everyone in need.
It said it was “deeply concerned” for the safety and well-being of all civilians, particularly women and girls.
Each step is a 'race against death'
One 30-year-old pregnant woman forced to evacuate her home four times because of aerial bombings told UNFPA that “each step felt like a race against death”.
Each time she moved, she could take only a small bag of clothes. Her fears for the safety of her child have made it impossible to rest in the overcrowded school shelter, the agency said.
Another woman, who went into labour and managed to reach Al Shifa maternity ward in time, said: “I had no idea where or how I would deliver my baby.”
Three hours after the delivery, she had to be discharged to make space for other pregnant women and wounded people.
Healthcare workers and midwives in Gaza's overcrowded hospitals are struggling with dwindling supplies.
A midwife at Al Shifa hospital said many of the pregnant women are now internally displaced in schools, lacking basic essentials such as clothing and hygiene items, privacy or access to bathrooms.
“Access to primary healthcare services has become a distant dream. Some are even forced to give birth at home or while en route to the hospital,” she said.
In the past week, Israel has given repeated evacuation orders to 22 hospitals treating more than 2,000 inpatients in northern Gaza even as they become overcrowded with wounded patients.
The World Health Organisation said it has documented more than 111 attacks on healthcare services in the occupied Palestinian territory, including 48 attacks on the Gaza Strip, which have resulted in the death of at least 12 health workers since the conflict began.