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A quiet emergency: how can the UK help save lives in Gaza?

A hidden crisis is unfolding—and the international community is not fulfilling its obligations

By Aimee Shalan  

The Gaza strip

This article was produced in association with Medical Aid for Palestinians

Quietly, a man-made emergency is unfolding in Gaza. Blighted by stifling blockade and closure, Gaza has suffered a decade of humanitarian decline and economic ruin. Its two million inhabitants have the highest unemployment rate in the world. 80 per cent are dependent on some form of international aid, and the basic right to movement or travel to other areas of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) is denied.

This year, those woes have been compounded by an unprecedented electricity crisis. In April, Gaza’s only power plant ran out of fuel and ceased working. In June, Israel reduced the amount of power it provides to Gaza by a third at the request of the Palestinian Authority. Though the power plant has resumed some limited function, Gaza still only receives on average four to six hours of electricity per day, with some homes receiving as little as two.

This is having devastating effects. Sewage treatment and desalination plants are operating minimally, severely limiting access to potable water and seriously contaminating 73 per cent of the shoreline. In July, the first death from this pollution was reported: a five-year-old boy, Mohammed Ahmed Salim al-Sayes, contracted a bacterial infection while swimming in the sea with his family and died of associated complications ten days later. The International Committee of the Red Cross and others have warned of an impending public health crisis.

Meanwhile, hospitals and clinics are struggling to provide even the most essential services. Electricity cuts mean prolonged use of backup generators which regularly break down and for which parts are hard to procure. Switching between mains and generator power has damaged sensitive but vital equipment such as CT scanners. Sanitation, cleaning and even laundry services have been scaled back significantly, risking increased hospital infections, and fewer operations are taking place.

The youngest and most seriously ill are most at risk, including at least 100 patients in intensive care and 133 new-born babies in incubators. In one recent incident, staff at the neonatal intensive care unit at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City had to provide care to 71 seriously ill babies, despite the unit only having capacity for 43, placing multiple babies in incubators designed for just one.

This incident crystallises additional challenges to the health sector, including worsening maternal nutrition, shortages of essential medicines and consumables, and the growing barriers to referral to hospitals outside of Gaza. In June, 40 per cent of essential medicines had less than a month’s supply in stock, many of them completely depleted. Meanwhile Israel granted exit permits for just half the number of patients seeking to leave Gaza for treatment in July, while financial coverage for referrals, provided through the Ministry of Health in Ramallah, dropped significantly.

With escalations of violence and military incursions come media attention and scrutiny of Gaza’s plight. But during a period of relative calm, people in Gaza could be forgiven for feeling forgotten by the international community at their time of greatest need.

The UK appears to be waiting for the US to resuscitate a peace process and for the perpetual occupation and blockade to end. But the people of Gaza cannot wait. Relief and development is needed now. Since the UK government pledged its ongoing support for health and education in the oPt in December 2016, the needs have only grown.

Palestine and Israel continues to be a foreign policy issue of real concern to the British public, and the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration gives us greater cause to reflect on the UK’s legacy. Meanwhile, Gaza’s humanitarian emergency and the erosion of international law remain pressing challenges for British foreign and aid policy. They raise a crucial question concerning Britain’s historic responsibilities towards Palestinians: what will the UK’s legacy be in the region for the next 100 years?


With the support of Medical Aid for Palestinians, Prospect will be hosting a round-table discussion at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference on how can the UK best support development in the occupied Palestinian territory? Confirmed participants include: Sir Terence English, former President of the Royal College of Surgeons and the British Medical Association; Pauline Latham MP, International Development Committee member; Aimee Shalan, Chief Executive, MAP; Dr Andy Ferguson, Director of Programmes, MAP; Sameer Rahim, Managing Editor, Prospect (Chair); Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK; Eugenio Donadio, Programme Manager, Plan UK; Oliver McTernan, Director, Forward Thinking; Chris Rose, Director, Amos Trust.

If you would like to register your interest to attend our events or to find out more about our thought leadership programmes, please email Saskia Abdoh.


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