Humanitarian workers in Gaza on Thursday said their daily experiences struggling to take care of pregnant people and babies demonstrate why a four-day pause in fighting is far from sufficient to save the lives of the blockaded enclave’s most vulnerable residents, including newborns who have begun to die from preventable causes.
As Israel’s blockade continues to keep Gaza authorities from providing clean water, food, sanitation, and heat to homes and hospitals, babies aged three months and younger “are dying of diarrhea, hypothermia, dehydration, and infection,” said Oxfam International.
Juzoor, an organization partnering with Oxfam in northern Gaza, said premature births have increased by 25-30% since October 7 when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza in retaliation for an attack by Hamas.
More premature babies born in #Gaza due to stress, trauma.
Some displaced mothers have had to give birth without basic hygiene.
— Oxfam International Media Team (@newsfromoxfam) November 23, 2023
The group has been supporting about 500 pregnant women in 13 shelters — where a total of 35,000 people are living — and many have gone into labor prematurely as they have the ongoing trauma of “walking long distances in search of safety, running away from bombs, and being crowded into shelters with squalid conditions.”
Humanitarian workers are struggling to adequately care for thousands of people who have taken refuge in shelters, with waste piling up due to a lack of sanitation services and up to 600 people sharing one toilet.
Sally Abi Khalil, Middle East regional director for Oxfam, said the fact that the crisis has reached a stage where babies are dying of preventable illnesses is “abhorrent.”
“Last month we lost at least one baby in every shelter, it’s heartbreaking,” said Umaiyeh Khammash, director of Juzoor. “Access to hospitals is extremely dangerous and virtually impossible, so many women are having to give birth with little or no maternity support in shelters.”
As Common Dreams has reported, more than 50,000 Gaza residents are facing Israel’s onslaught while pregnant, and more than 5,500 are expected to give birth within a month. Juzoor estimates that 30% of women will face pregnancy complications that require extra medical attention, putting their babies at greater risk — particularly in the first 28 days of life, when newborns are most vulnerable.
Khammash expressed fear that the group will soon be entirely out of food for residents.
“The absence of fuel has affected hospitals in the north and the shelters where we operate,” he said. “There is no light, there is no heat. Now winter is coming and it’s cold. It is really a disaster for everyone, but especially for expectant mothers.”
Some women have given birth in recent weeks in repurposed classrooms surrounded by dozens of refugees, without qualified medical personnel present or any capacity for providing “basic hygiene,” Khalil said.
“I don’t think there is anyone anywhere in the world that would disagree that is simply inhumane,” she added.
Oxfam is working to provide the Juzoor shelters with hygiene kits and food, while 60 health professionals have been mobilized to work with thousands of displaced people.
“But the ongoing violence, siege, and acute shortages of fuel and clean water severely hinder these efforts,” said Oxfam as it called on officials to go further than negotiating only a four-day “humanitarian pause.”
“Oxfam is urgently calling for a full cease-fire and unimpeded humanitarian access in order to restore vital services and provide desperately needed medical support particularly to pregnant women and newborn babies,” said the group.