Women wait with their infants at a Gaza hospital

GAZA CITY, Gaza (WOMENSENEWS)–Two days after the air strikes started, Ola Othman’s water broke.

She told Women’s eNews that she could not check into any hospital in Gaza because they were all overcrowded and filled with injured patients.

“I thought my baby and I were going to die because we didn’t get any medical attention till too late,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it when the nurse told me to look in other hospitals for a doctor since all were busy treating the injuries,” she said.

Now the usually crowded maternity section of Al Sharif Hospital in Gaza City is nearly empty.

The hospital’s staff–contending with an influx of war-related injuries–is only treating the most urgent cases of miscarriages and pregnancy complications.

Due to a shortage of medical supplies, Othman said that it could be more than a month before her baby could get vaccinated. “Doctors told me they run out of vaccines,” she said, while holding her baby in the waiting room of Al Sharif Hospital. “I don’t think it can get any worse.”

On Dec. 27, Israel launched an air strike campaign on Gaza City in retaliation against rocket strikes into southern Israel by Hamas, the militant Islamic group that has governed Gaza since elections in 2006.

Hamas launched 3,000 rockets into southern Israel during a seven-month period in 2008. The Israeli military says it has killed 130 Hamas militants since the start of its ground operations in Gaza on Jan. 3.

Over 700 Palestinians have died since the conflict flared, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Civilian fatalities are between one-quarter to half of these tallies, according to U.N. estimates. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported on Jan. 7 that 1,135 out of 2,250 injured are women and children.

Seven Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed since the strike began, according to Jan. 8 press reports. Also on Jan. 8, rocket fire on Israel launched from inside Lebanon to the north threatened to escalate the conflict and regional tensions. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Heavy Death Toll

Statistics are difficult to verify as Israel is barring most international reporters from the war zone and only allowing footage pre-approved by Israeli military censors. U.N. relief agencies halted operations Jan. 8 after a humanitarian aid mission was hit by Israeli tank fire, killing one and injuring two.

The U.N. Security Council held high-level meetings Jan. 7 and 8 to determine its response to the crisis. Arab and Western countries went back and forth about the language, attributions of responsibility and the terms of a ceasefire. Egypt is leading diplomatic efforts to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas.

On the ground, in Gaza, maternal health care and related medical support stand frozen until further notice. Nurses and doctors that normally work in the maternity wards have been redirected to overcrowded emergency rooms. Pregnant women told Women’s eNews they are being turned away at the door.

Mothers in Despair

All of Gaza’s 56 primary health care clinics depend on back-up generators and face fuel shortages, the World Health Organization reported Jan 7. Three mobile clinics and three ambulances have been destroyed.

Among the hardest hit is Al Shifa Hospital, the only maternity ward with neonatologists in Gaza City. Currently, Deaths of premature infants have risen during Gaza strikes.there are 30 neonatal units. Power shortages have left premature infants in incubators tethered between life and death.

“Our staff isn’t able to work effectively under electricity power shortage,” said Dr. Hasan Al Louh, chief of the maternity unit. “Most of Gaza’s hospitals rely mainly on power generators. They are threatened with a complete collapse if problems arise with the generator machines, putting at risk our patients and these babies’ lives.”

Soraya Hassan, 32, said her premature baby, Sara, stopped breathing after the back-up generators went off for 30 minutes and cut off life-support systems in Al Shifa Hospital. Fourteen other infants also stopped breathing. Nurses and doctors rushed to revive them manually. Hassan says her baby survived, but others did not.

New Babies Lost

“The losses in premature babies have increased 10 percent since the start of the war,” said Dr. Abu Wael Morjan. “We cannot host mothers with their babies anymore. We have to separate them to take good care of children. Some mothers even refuse to take their babies out of the hospital in fear of not being able to provide them with proper medications at home.”

“There may be serious consequences on patients’ lives if we don’t manage to get through these days,” said Samah Mousa, a nurse at Al Shifa. “Even Kamal Edwan’s Hospital in the north can barely send us pregnant women in critical condition. Any delay can cost us a life or more. The shortage of medicine and vaccines isn’t helping either.”

On Jan. 7, the 12th day of military operations against Gaza, Israel called for a three-hour truce to allow the distribution of humanitarian aid.

Al Louh told Women’s eNews that Al Shifa Hospital learned of the truce too late and by the next day, the hospital still needed to get medication and fuel supplies for the generators. Resupplying the hospital, Al Louh says, would take more than a few hours, perhaps days.

This story was reported by Eman Mohammed, correspondent in Gaza, and Dominique Soguel, Arabic editor, in New York.

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