GAZA CITY (AFP) – In the Al-Shifa hospital, the walls are decrepit and dirty. The elevators are broken. It is a sign of the times in Gaza City, brought to its knees by the international community’s refusal to do business with a Hamas-led government.
“If this continues, the majority of our services will cease to operate in two weeks’ time,” said Dr Jumaa al-Saqqa, the spokesman at the impoverished Gaza Strip’s main hospital.
Al-Shifa has effectively served as a combat hospital, saving thousands of lives over the course of the five-year Palestinian uprising.
But now the medical facility faces its toughest challenge yet. Its staff are struggling to provide health care to the Gaza Strip’s 1.3 million people in the wake of the Palestinians’ sudden international isolation.
“Our reserve supply of 200 medicines is almost depleted. We lack the most basic things like bandages and oxygen,” Saqqa said.
Dwindling supplies include antibiotics, anti-cancer treatments and replacements parts for scanners and dialysis equipment.
“I do not want to sound like I’m making this out to be a catastrophe, but the truth is it’s turning into a disaster,” Saqq added.
Doctors in white lab coats tend to patients in the emergency room, which boasts the Gaza Strip’s best medical equipment, and is constantly packed with urgent cases being rushed in.
“How can we care for our patients if we have so little means?” asked Dr Abdullah Zidan, nervously smoking a cigarette in a small room decorated with photos of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“We have ordered materials in Israel, but they’ve closed Karni crossing so nothing can be delivered.”
Al-Shifa doctors express a mix of anger, resignation and despair over the grim situation. None of them have received a salary since the beginning of March.
“We’ve had a humanitarian crisis for quite some time, but these last weeks, it’s gotten worse,” said surgeon Doran al-Hato, sipping tea in a breakroom where the windows have been shattered by gunfire.
“What can we do? Should we close and then people die,” said anesthesiologist Nahed Gharben. “I haven’t had any anesthesia supplies for 10 days now.”
The doctors now prioritize their cases. “We’ve stopped operating on patients whose lives aren’t in danger.”
The Gaza Strip had already been badly hit by Israel’s near constant closure of its borders since the beginning of the year.
The territory has suffered periodic shortages of foods and other basic commodities as a result. However, the situation deteriorated after a government led by the radical Islamic Hamas movement was sworn in last month and Western governments suspended direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.
Although Washington and the European Union have vowed to send humanitarian funds through the United Nations, the medical sector has been hard hit by the crisis.
The World Health Organisation warned on April 6 of serious consequences for Palestinian public health services because of Israeli economic sanctions and cuts in international aid.
Several foreign doctors, including French and American nationals, have pulled out of scheduled stints in Gaza City due to Shifa’s status as a government-run hospital.
The climate has dealt a rough hand to ordinary Palestinians suffering from life-threatening illnesses. “We have lost some patients stricken with cancer who were not able to go for care in Israel,” Saqaa said.
Some doctors, weary after years of war and dispirited by the bleak situation, are hoping to escape.
“I’m leaving for Norway. The situation is too awful here,” said a neurologist on condition of anonymity.
He was afraid he was not alone in his wish to flee.
“There are too many doctors like me in Gaza,” he said.