Rafah hospitals cannot cope if Israel attacks, say WHO doctors in Gaza

Israeli military is planning an offensive to flush out Hamas militants in city hosting more than one million people

Dr Said Abdulrahman Marouf, who was detained by Israel for 45 days, examines patients at Abu Yousef Al Najjar Hospital in Rafah a day after he was released. Reuters
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World Health Organisation doctors in Gaza have said the remaining operational hospitals in Rafah are making contingency plans for an expected Israeli military incursion, but warned they would not be able to cope.

“Of course, we are working with our partners in Rafah, the remaining three hospitals, to prepare for when the Israeli military operation takes place but I reiterate that even if the contingency plans are in place, they are nowhere sufficient enough for the level of catastrophe we expect,” Dr Rik Peeperkorn, WHO representative for the Palestinian territories who is currently in Gaza, said on Wednesday.

The Israeli military says it wants to flush out Hamas fighters from hideouts in Rafah and free hostages seized when the militants attacked southern Israel on October 7, but has given no details of a proposed plan to evacuate civilians.

The war between Israel and Hamas, now in its fifth month, has devastated Gaza's health system. Fewer than half of its hospitals are even partially functioning as scores of people are killed and wounded in daily bombardment and ground operations. Israel accuses the militants of using hospitals and other civilian buildings as cover.

Palestinians began evacuating the main hospital in Khan Younis, north of Rafah, on Wednesday, after being trapped inside for weeks by heavy fighting that also killed several people inside the medical facility.

Khan Younis was the most recent target of Israel's rolling ground offensive that it said would be expanded to Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city on the border with Egypt. Rafah's population has expanded to about 1.4 million as people fled there, seeking refuge from bombardment and fighting in other parts of the territory.

Dr Peeperkorn, speaking in an online briefing, said any new wave of displacement would “wreak havoc” on the population.

“It would only increase the burden on the under-capacitated health system on its knees and push the system to the brink of collapse. In Rafah, only three relatively small hospitals are operational. They are not sufficient to support the continuing cases we’re seeing,” he said.

“[Abu Yousef] Al Najjar Hospital is supposed to be a primary clinic facility but was forced to operate at a larger capacity. Lots of patients are refusing to be discharged because they have nowhere else to go. They are afraid if a military operation does happen, it will come in their direction.

“It’s not about direct military targets on the hospital, but even military operations near the hospital that is worrisome,” he said.

Dr Athanasios Gargavanis, a trauma surgeon and emergency officer for the UN health agency, said a ceasefire was needed immediately so that “health workers are able to deliver at the best of their capacities”.

“We are here to support the health system that’s suffering, not only because of the chronic blockade and this actual war but also from the movement of the population that impedes health workers to do their work in the best possible way,” Dr Gargavanis said.

He said that at least 9,000 patients in Rafah need urgent medical evacuation, 6,000 of whom have been injured as a direct result of the war with many cases of severe burns and amputations that have become infected due to lack of medical resources.

Updated: February 14, 2024, 1:04 PM