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Gaza mothers fear for premature babies as Israeli siege cripples hospitals

Fukhari, Gaza Strip – A rhythmic beep accompanies the mechanical ventilator as it breathes oxygen into a premature baby’s lungs. The thin tube stretching from an oxygen tank pumps life into her fragile body, as a monitor tracks the feeble thump of her heart.

Talia was born on October 6, one day before the outbreak of Israel’s latest war on the Gaza Strip, following a Hamas attack on southern Israel. Her skin has since lost the bluish tinge that had raised alarm among medics at the Nasser Medical Hospital in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, but her lungs are not strong enough yet to function on their own.

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Hospitals across the Palestinian enclave warn that fuel supplies are running dry amid Israel’s total blockade. Once the generators stop, newborn babies dependent on electric incubators for survival could die within minutes. Already, the fuel shortage has forced Gaza’s only cancer hospital to shut down.

“There is great fear and anxiety for the lives that would be lost,” Asaad al-Nawajha, a paediatric and neonatal specialist at Nasser told Al Jazeera. “We continuously appeal to provide the necessary fuel to operate the hospital’s generators and ensure the safety of children, the sick and the injured in Gaza.”

The hospital’s neonatal emergency unit houses 10 children, some born up to four weeks earlier than their expected due date. The Gaza health ministry estimates that 130 newborn babies are currently dependent on incubators across the strip.

Samar Awad, Talia’s 25-year-old mother, said the baby girl was the child she “had dreamed of,” but that giving birth to her had been far from idyllic.

“The doctor told me that there was water in her lungs and that she needed to be monitored, so I’ve been sleeping with her in the nursery,” Awad said. She has not been able to take her daughter home.

The Gaza Strip has been under relentless bombardment since October 7, when Hamas staged a surprise attack on southern Israel, killing at least 1,400 people. Israel’s bombs have since killed more than 8,700 Palestinians in Gaza, including more than 3,000 children.

Since the Israeli government issued an order to evacuate the northern part of the enclave, the southern districts of Khan Younis and Rafah have been flooded with internally displaced families.

Air strikes have been continuing in the southern Strip despite Israel’s relocation order. Alongside the gut-wrenching fear that a bomb might kill her husband and three-year-old son as they huddle with relatives in Khan Younis, Awad is gripped by the anxiety that the machine that keeps her baby alive might go silent.

“I’m terrified the hospital will run out of fuel,” she said. “I want this war to end, and for my daughter to be home with her brother and her father, who miss her very much.”

The United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, estimated that 50,000 pregnant women have been caught up in the conflict in Gaza, with more than 160 deliveries every day.

About 15 percent of births are forecast to result in complications. “These women need to have access to emergency obstetric care, and that becomes even more challenging with trauma cases coming in and the health system being on its knees,” Dominic Allen, the UNFPA representative for the State of Palestine, told Al Jazeera.

As part of the UN, the UNFPA has been calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. “There needs to be a space and time to ease the human suffering that we are witnessing in Gaza,” Allen said. “Humanitarian aid and supplies must be allowed through.”

At least one-third of hospitals in Gaza  — 12 out of 35 — and nearly two-thirds of primary healthcare clinics  — 46 out of 72 — have shut down since the start of hostilities due to damage or lack of fuel, increasing the pressure on the remaining health facilities that are still operational, the UN has found.

Israel has allowed a few aid trucks in via the Rafah land crossing with Egypt in recent days. But it has barred the entry of fuel. It classes diesel as a “dual use” good that can be used for military as well as civilian purposes — even though Israel closely monitors all fuel that enters the Gaza Strip, all the way to the final delivery point.

At al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the largest medical compound in the Palestinian enclave, medical staff have described working conditions as “catastrophic”.

“We lack basic necessities for life and are struggling with a severe water shortage,” Nasser Fouad Bulbul, head of the premature and neonatal care departments, said.

As fuel runs out, desalination plants have also shut, leaving hospitals largely unable to ensure the most basic hygiene norms. The UN says that only three litres of water a day are currently available per person in Gaza for basic health requirements including drinking, washing, cooking and flushing the toilet – far lower than the recommended minimum daily amount of 50 litres.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Gaza’s water facilities are currently pumping five percent of their pre-war daily output, with infant deaths to dehydration a growing threat.

As resources dwindle, the needs are greater than ever. Bulbul said he had noticed an increase in premature births in recent weeks, which he attributed to “fear and terror”.

“We do not know what to do as we are facing a severe shortage of medical supplies, ventilators and essential life-saving medicines,” he added.

Yasmine Ahmed, a midwife at al-Shifa, said most of the babies at the hospital were the only survivors from their families. “There is no one to take care of them and there is the threat that the electricity could cut out, so they would [also] lose their lives,” she said.

For parents who long to hold their newborns in their arms, every day is filled with nerve-racking uncertainty. Lina Rabie, a 27-year-old mother from Khan Younis, struggled for years to conceive a child. Her son was finally born a week before the war began.

“He was born on the first week of the eighth month [of gestation] and doctors told me his life was in danger,” Rabie told Al Jazeera. Marwan, who takes his name from his paternal grandfather, has since been placed in an incubator at the Nasser hospital.

“Every second the war continues, my heart burns with fear for my child and for all children,” Rabie said. “I hope the war will end and my son will recover, then I’ll be able to hug him any time I want.”

(Ruwaida Amer reported from the Gaza Strip, and Federica Marsi from Milan, Italy)

Source: Al Jazeera

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