Gaza: Palestinian Red Crescent Society endures enormous strain

Published: 7 January 2009 0:00 CET

As violence escalates in the cramped conditions of the Gaza Strip humanitarian work becomes even more precarious for the dedicated but exhausted staff of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society

The one and a half million Palestinian people living in the densely populated Gaza Strip continue to be subjected to an unrelenting bombardment from air, sea and land. This cramped enclave is now even more tightly packed as people scramble for the few safe areas left and risk life and limb to venture out for food or medical assistance. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), spearheads the dangerous but critical life-saving work of emergency medical evacuations on the ground. 

Emergency Care

Since the beginning of the conflict on 27 December 2008 some 200 PRCS volunteers, 60 medics and 120 medical staff have been actively involved in providing round the clock emergency care in Gaza Strip. According to the latest PRCS records, more than 1,332 persons, plus 342 fatalities, have been evacuated by PRCS ambulances since the beginning of the Israeli military operation.

The widespread insecurity is severely hampering the capacity of the PRCS to carry out its life-saving work on the ground. On 4 January for example PRCS volunteer, Arafa Abdul Dayem was killed while on duty after an airstrike hit a location in Jabaliya. The volunteer, with other medical personnel from Al Awada hospital, was trying to evacuate a number of injured people when a second airstrike hit the same location. Two other medical personnel were badly injured in this incident.

Most recently, three PRCS medical teams have been caught in cross fire while carrying out their humanitarian work and four ambulances have been caught in the crossfire. In one typical incident on the evening of the 5 Jan, a PRCS ambulance - which had been requested by the Israeli military to remove injured people from a location inside Gaza - was fired upon and forced to return to base without completing its humanitarian mission.

Humanitarian Space is shrinking

Because of such incidents the PRCS has been forced to evacuate some of its premises for safety reasons often in areas where humanitarian needs are greatest.

PRCS ambulances and medical teams have no access to certain locations mainly Al Zaytoon, al Atatra, Al Daoun, Al Migraqa, Al Sifa, and Al Dahdouh areas. The PRCS, with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is working hard to gain entry for its ambulances and medical teams to these locations where urgent needs exist to evacuate the dead and injured.

According to PRCS medical teams most of the 45 requests (up to 05 January) to coordinate safe and secure access with the Israeli authorities had failed, with only three such cases proving successful.

Plight of the Injured

Latest reports indicate that the coordination mechanism (for medical evacuations) with the Israeli military authorities has all but collapsed. Such a deterioration in the situation significantly worsens the plight of the injured making it almost impossible to evacuate them to nearby medical facilities. In the words of one humanitarian worker on the ground: People are literally dying as they wait.

To compound this grim scenario, sewage reservoirs which previously depended on constant running repairs are now bursting under the strain and raw untreated sewage is flowing on to the streets of Gaza subjecting the dead and injured to further indignities.

Red Cross Red Crescent reinforces humanitarian support on the Egyptian border

Many member societies of the IFRC in the region and beyond are rallying to support the work of the PRCS in its efforts to alleviate the suffering of Gaza’s population. Additionally, the IFRC is working closely with the Egyptian Red Crescent Society (ERCS) which has been active since day one in facilitating the transport of badly wounded civilians across the Rafah border to medical facilities within Egypt. The ERCS is also preparing itself for a possible scenario that could require large scale assistance for increased numbers of people fleeing Gaza into Egypt.

Additionally, the ERCS will act as the main coordination point and conduit, supported by the IFRC, for all assistance destined for Gaza through Al Areesh and Rafah from other national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.