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Gaza: plight of civilians traumatic in "full-blown humanitarian crisis"

06-01-2009 Press Briefing

Increasing numbers of civilians are dying or injured in the escalating crisis in Gaza. At a press conference in Geneva on 6 January, the ICRC's director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, described the situation of civilians in Gaza as intolerable, and called on the parties to the conflict to make it possible for the ICRC and the Palestine Red Crescent Society to reach people in need.

©ICRC / T. Gassmann    
06.01.09. Press conference 

Mr Krähenbühl opened by underlining the enormous level of concern and anxiety that the ICRC feels in relation to the crisis in Gaza. He expressed the ICRC's grave concern over the growing number of civilian deaths and injuries and the increasing amount of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, that have been affected by the Israeli military operations.

" There is no doubt in my mind that we are dealing with a full blown and major crisis in humanitarian terms. The situation for the people in Gaza is extreme and traumatic as a result of ten days of uninterrupted fighting. In that sense, their situation has clearly become intolerable. "

" The main message coming out of Gaza this morning is one of fear and frustration. People are scared; parents for the safety of their children, and the population at large of being caught up in the fighting. This past night was described to us as the most frightening of all to date. " Mr Krähenbühl stressed that things had gotten much worse since the beginning of the Israeli ground offensive on Saturday night.

He emphasized that the conditions in Gaza were extremely harsh even prior to the recent escalation. Just a few months ago ICRC colleagues described the region as being'on the edge'because of the closure and import restriction imposed by Israel since mid-2007.

The ICRC's director of operations also highlighted the situation in southern Israel, where people continue to suffer from regular rocket fire from inside the Gaza Strip. Reports speak of four civilians killed and 60 injured. These attacks have spread fear among up to a million Israelis living in the affected ar eas.

Mr Krähenbühl said that it was now critical that the parties to this conflict do everything to keep civilians out of the firing line. He added that direct attacks against civilians are prohibited, as are indiscriminate attacks. Furthermore, military objectives must not be located in or near densely populated areas.

" The only people that can legitimately be attacked are those who participate directly in the hostilities. Everyone else must be spared. Likewise, essential civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, the water supply and sewage networks must not be directly attacked. Respect for the rules of IHL – respect of civilians, distinction between civilians and combatants, measures of precaution – are of the utmost importance, all the more so when one considers that Gaza is one of the world’s most densely populated areas. As the conflict intensifies, it is becoming ever more dangerous for civilians. They must be spared. Their security is of paramount importance. "

 Access to medical care  

Mr Krähenbühl went on to describe the crisis in terms of access to medical care, which is worsening by the day in Gaza.

" Many people in Gaza don't get the emergency medical care they need. Some are even dying because ambulances can't reach them in time, which is frankly appalling. "

To emphasize his point, he recounted the story of a woman in Zeitun in northern Gaza who gave birth to a dead baby because the ambulances couldn't reach her in time.

He said that if it were to be confirmed that Gaza will effectively be cut into two or three parts by the Israeli attack, this would make the delays for people needing medical care even worse.

" We call on the parties, in particular Israel, to do more to allow the Palestine Red Crescent Society and other medical workers to save lives. We urge the parties to fulfil their obligations under IHL to collect, care for and evacuate the wounded and to protect and respect medical workers, hospitals and other medical units and ambulances. "

He emphasized what a difference this could make in terms of saving lives, as despite the dangers and delays, the PRCS ambulance services managed to help dozens of wounded every day in Gaza.

 Situation in Gaza hospitals  

Mr Krähenbühl described the plight of the hospitals in Gaza, where emergency rooms and intensive care units are stretched to the breaking point. Hospitals are overcrowded and staff are exhausted.

" Hospitals now depend entirely on generator power but these generators could break down at any moment from the lack of maintenance and spare parts over the past 18 months. On Monday, there was concern that two hospitals were about to run out of generator fuel. The ICRC is trying to solve this problem by negotiating safe passage for UNRWA fuel tankers. "

 ICRC activities on the ground in Gaza  

Mr Krähenbühl expressed relief and satisfaction that the ICRC surgical team was finally able to enter Gaza on Monday and is now working in Shifa hospital in support of local teams. Depending on how the situation develops, the ICRC will deploy additional staff as needed.

He described the ICRC's close cooperation with the PRCS and the Israeli Magen David Adom (MDA). PRCS activities involve mainly ambulance services, for which the ICRC seeks safe passage. The MDA helps the injured in Israel, does additional first aid training and has also taken care of several wounded Palestinians evacuated to Israel for treatment.

" This is an opportunity to underline the often verified fact that the first actors to respond in almost every crisis are local actors working under very dangerous conditions. The ICRC team in Gaza is providing support and seeking to step-up its own direct involvement, notably in hospitals. "

Mr Krähenbühl went on to summarize the ICRC's key activities in Gaza, which primarily concern providing access to medical care and supporting hospitals.

The ICRC has been able to make available to hospitals drugs and essential medical items for 3,000 wounded and several thousand more lightly wounded and sick patients. It has also provided additional material such as plastic sheeting to cover broken hospital windows. However, with the steady influx of wounded the hospitals need new supplies every day.

" On Monday, for example, hospitals had completely run out of tetanus vaccines which are potentially lifesaving for wounded patients. The ICRC brought new supplies of blood and 1,000 doses of tetanus vaccines into Gaza. "

 Water and other essential supplies  

Mr Krähenbühl expressed the ICRC's deep concern over the damage to power lines bringing electricity from Israel to Gaza, which has had a rapid knock-on effect on the water supply. Ten of Gaza City's 45 water wells are no longer working as a result of this, others were damaged in air strikes and yet others are expected to stop working soon.

" Unless the power supply can be fixed, about half a million people in Gaza City will no longer have access to clean water. The ICRC is working to ensure safe access for technicians trying to repair the power lines. "

Pierre Krähenbühl closed with a strong statement to the parties to t his conflict.

" While there has been a stated willingness by the Israeli authorities to facilitate the conduct of humanitarian activities, which has translated into the possibility to transfer material and supplies into the Strip, movements on the ground remain extremely difficult and dangerous because of the conflict dynamic underway. This is happening despite the coordination mechanisms put in place. The ICRC insists that the ability to access people in need and infrastructure affected must improve immediately. "

 The ICRC is now present in Gaza with 13 expatriate and 65 national staff. It works in close cooperation with the PRCS, hospital staff and the staff of institutions providing essential services such as water and sanitation.