Monday 7 September 2015
Gaza’s health is so poor the UN has declared that the area could become uninhabitable in less than five years
|Last month, a UN agency released figures which beggared belief. They revealed that the infant mortality rate in Gaza, which had been declining steadily since 1960, was on the rise for the first time in 50 years. It is a reversal which UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, which released the data, describes as “unprecedented”.|
“Progress in combatting infant mortality doesn’t usually reverse. This seems to be the first time we have seen an increase like this,” explained Dr Akihiro Seita, Director of the UNRWA health programme. “The only other examples I can think of are in some African countries which experienced HIV epidemic.”
Gaza is not in the grip of such an epidemic, and yet the number of babies in Gaza dying before they reach the age of one has gone up from 20.2 per 1,000 live births in 2008 to 22.4 in 2013.
The rate of neonatal mortality – the number of babies who die before they reach the age of just four weeks – has also increased. In fact, it soared by 70 per cent, from 12 per 1,000 live births in 2008 to 20.3 in 2013.
These figures were so alarming to UNRWA that the agency waited two years before releasing them, while it worked with external independent research groups to examine the data and ensure the increase could be confirmed. Sadly, they proved to be accurate. But, in the absence of health epidemics such as HIV in Gaza, the explanation is even sadder.
UNRWA carries out its survey of infant mortality rates across the Middle East every five years. The years 2008 to 2013, when this last survey was conducted, correspond directly to the siege that Israel has placed on Gaza. The tight blockade, which restricts the free movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, was imposed midway through 2007 and remains in place today – a collective punishment of the Palestinian people which contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Israel’s blockade is a likely contributor to the trend of rising infant mortality in Gaza. For the people of Gaza, being held under Israeli siege for nearly ten years now has meant the denial of proper accessto the essentials of life, including medicines, food, water, electricity for heating, lighting and cooking.
A separate UN report published last week describes what has happened in Gaza under eight years of blockade as “de-development” – a process where development is not only hindered, but actually reversed. No wonder women living under such conditions give birth to babies whose chances of survival are slim.
Gaza’s overall health is so poor the UN declares the area could become uninhabitable in less than five years if current trends continue. For this – and for the sake of the newborns who don’t live to see their first birthday – Israel must be held to account.
Israel holds Gaza under occupation and under siege, controlling five out of its six land crossings (Egypt controls the sixth), its airspace and its sea access. Neither the occupation nor the siege has any place in the modern world.
Western lobbyists are right to call for the EU to impose immediate sanctions and an arms embargo on Israel until it ends the blockade of Gaza. If Israel isn’t willing of its own accord to give those children a chance at survival, it must be forced to do so.