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Israel-Palestine: Blockade puts Gaza aid on the line, WHO spotlights soaring mental health needs in Israel

An alert from Gaza’s main hospital in the south of the enclave that lifesaving operations would stop on Wednesday evening because of fuel shortages followed an appeal from UN chief António Guterres for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

A truce was needed, he told the Security Council on Tuesday, “to ease epic suffering, make the delivery of aid easier and safer and facilitate the release of hostages”.

He said although nothing could justify the appalling attacks by Hamas of 7 October, it was important to recognize they “did not happen in a vacuum” and did not justify the collective punishment of Palestinians.

Following the Secretary-General’s comments, Israel’s ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan announced that visas would be denied to UN officials, arguing that Mr. Guterres’s speech sought to justify Hamas’s brutal assault which left some 1,400 dead.

An Israeli visa has already been refused for UN emergency relief chief Martin Griffiths, Mr. Erdan said in a media interview.

Israel in deep trauma

The trauma of survivors and the “collective psychological burden” brought on by the hostage crisis in which over 220 Israelis and foreign nationals were still being held captive in Gaza has sent mental health needs soaring, UN health agency WHO’s Special Representative in Israel Dr. Michel Thieren said.

When visiting a hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon which is treating many of the 4,600 people wounded in the attacks, Dr. Thieren said that “almost every one of those survivors had seen someone else die before they themselves were injured”.

‘Ghost towns’ in the south

The WHO official underscored that the mental health of doctors and nurses he met in Israel had been strongly affected by survivors’ accounts and the wounds they were treating.

He also visited military bases where the mutilated bodies of many of the 1,400 victims of the Hamas attacks are stored in refrigerated containers and spoke about the impact on the doctors and forensic experts struggling to identify them.

“I have visited ghost towns in the south whose populations have been evacuated. There is still the terrible stench of death. […] The shadow of national shock and grief has plunged this country into night. When mental health perishes, so does physical health,” Dr Thieren said.

Fuel critically low

Meanwhile in Gaza, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, which is the largest humanitarian provider in the enclave, warned that unless fuel is allowed in, it will be forced to halt all operations as of Wednesday night.

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Gaza has been under a full electricity blackout since 11 October and fuel shortages have compromised essential services from ambulances to bakeries and water facilities.

According to media reports, a fourth humanitarian aid convoy arrived in the enclave through the Rafah border crossing late on Tuesday, consisting of eight trucks from the Egyptian Red Crescent.

Tuesday also saw the highest fatality toll reported in a single day in Gaza during this round of hostilities, the UN humanitarian affairs coordination office (OCHA) said.

Some 704 Palestinians including 305 children were killed, bringing the total death toll in the territory to 5,791 according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health.

Plight of women and girls

Joining its voice to the UN chief’s calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, UN Women has highlighted the plight of women and girls in the Gaza Strip amid the escalation.

Speaking to UN News, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Sarah Hendriks stressed the urgent need for women and girls in Gaza to access safe shelter, protection and maternal healthcare. She said that according to UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, some 50,000 women in Gaza are currently pregnant and over 5,500 are expected to give birth just in the next month.

Access to healthcare is tightening by the hour in Gaza. WHO said on Tuesday that a third of hospitals and nearly two thirds of primary health care clinics in the territory have shut down.

Ms. Hendriks also said that “the violence has produced close to 900 new female headed households” and highlighted the struggle of widows to provide for their families. She warned about the ever-present threat of gender-based violence compounded by mass displacement and conditions in overcrowded shelters.

“We will continue to remain on the ground listening to the voices of women and girls, hearing their perspectives and translating those to the international community so that their needs can be prioritized even as the solutions to the overall conflict are being addressed,” Ms. Hendriks said.

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