Creating people's geographies
Dr. César Chelala reminds us of the human cost of war, and the terrible psychological scars and health costs borne by the most vulnerable. In this Gulf Times article (25 Dec), he continues the important highlighting of how children often suffer most from conflict; he also reminds us that in the past six years, over 60 mothers-to-be have been held up interminably at checkpoints, adding to an already unacceptably high infant mortality rate. Dr Chalala has also written on the effect of conflict and occupation on children in Iraq and the recent war on Lebanon.
See also Raed M. Sharif’s, Cancer didn’t kill my mother, the occupation did, Live from Palestine (11 Dec)
NEW YORK: It is a miracle that six-year-old Lydia Abu Eid is still alive. She was being driven to school in Gaza with her three cousins, Osama, 9, Ahmed,6, and Salam, 3, when their car was riddled with more than 70 bullets by masked gunmen. Her three cousins died almost instantly. Lydia, who crouched down on the floor in the back seat of the car was unharmed. Found in the car were two school bags, one green, the other blue.
The children’s assassination represents the latest children’s casualties in a wave of increasing violence that is sweeping Gaza. That children have become targets is a clear indication that a dangerous threshold has been crossed. At the boys’ funeral a Palestinian was quoted as saying, “We live in chaos.” He was expressing the deep despair Palestinians feel faced with the climate of lawlessness and violence in the occupied territories.
The toll that violence and unmet health needs in Gaza are taking on the lives of civilians – more than half of them children – has become a subject of concern for the United Nations humanitarian agencies working in the Palestinian territories. In Gaza, the situation now amounts to a public health and human rights emergency.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the targeting of Gaza’s critical infrastructure, in particular the destruction of Gaza’s only power plant during a recent Israeli assault has triggered a chain reaction of lack of power, scarcity of fuel for generators and water shortages, all of which has hampered the functioning of the health system and negatively affected people’s health.
Over 150,000 children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders, a situation affecting both Palestinian and Israeli children. As Atar Oman, a clinical psychologist and member of IMUT, an organisation of mental health workers for peace has declared, “Terror knows no limits and breaks all lines of defence.”
Some 50 % of Palestinian children report personal experience of conflict-related violence, or have witnessed violence affecting a member of their immediate families.
There is a significant rise in the number of child consultations for diarrhoea, a clear sign of the decline in water quality and food safety.
On a recent visit to Gaza, Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that “massive” violations against civilians have taken place in the Gaza Strip. The lack of accountability for human rights violations in Gaza leaves the local population with no one to turn to when there is a breach, she told journalists.
As a result of the present crisis 70% of Gaza’s population lacks food. The World Food Programme, stressing the “the growing number of poor in Gaza are living on the bare minimum and face a daily struggle to cover their daily food need.” has been forced to increase the number of Gazans receiving monthly aid to 220,000 persons, from the previous 160,000 – including poor farmers and fishermen.
According to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), large tracts of agricultural land have been damaged as a result of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)’s ground incursions. Access and movement in and out of Gaza are still compromised. Closures of key points of passage have markedly affected the ability of Gazans to obtain essential medical care not available in the territory.
According to Unicef, some 840,000 Palestinian children living in Gaza bear the main consequences of the IDF’s continuous shelling and assaults. At the same time, shortages and closures make it practically impossible to deliver good health care. Destruction of the main power plant, water shortages and water contamination create the conditions for outbreaks of communicable diseases, of which children are the main victims.
Nor have women been spared, particularly in their need for life-saving services such as surgery and emergency obstetric care. From September 2000 to August 2006, 68 Palestinian women gave birth at checkpoints, which can explain the death of 34 newborns and four mothers among them.
“Civilians are caught in the middle of a vicious circle of action and reaction, exemplifying how disproportionately they pay the price” Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, observed last June.
To break this cycle of violence and death, real humanitarian concerns prevail over narrow political practice. While not ignoring Israel’s legitimate security concerns, closures should be lifted so that Palestinians may seek critical medical care, particularly in emergency situations. At the same time, funding of the Ministry of Health in the occupied Palestinian Territories needs to be increased so that basic medical services may be provided and its personnel paid.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been fueled by hateful, destructive actions from both parties. However, as usual, those who suffer the most are the most vulnerable. Relations between Palestinians and Israelis are enmeshed in a vicious cycle of violence that it is necessary to break with positive actions. It is time to replace the language of hate with the language of compassion and co-operation; it is time to break the vicious cycle of terror and destruction.
Dr Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.