As Gaza’s Hospitals Run Out of Fuel, Incubated Preterm Babies ‘Will Not Make It’
“The babies are utterly dependent [on incubators]—the only thing that will happen is they will die,” a World Health Organization spokesperson told Jezebel.In Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza, two preterm babies rely on an incubator to breathe. This photo was taken by Dr. Nasser Bulbul, head of neonatal intensive care at Al Shifa, on Oct. 21.Photo: Courtesy of Medical Aid for Palestinians In Depth Gaza
In Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza, there’s an orphaned, premature baby who was born at 32 weeks, shortly before his mother died. He’s alive solely due to an incubator that allows him to breathe, Fikr Shalltoot, Gaza director of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), told Jezebel. “The baby was saved from his mum who was dying, and sadly doctors couldn’t save her,” after “she and other family members were killed in Israel’s bombardment in northern Gaza,” doctors at Al Shifa told Shalltoot. “The little baby is the only survivor in the family.”
At Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza, a woman named Nisma Hajjaj told The National that she gave birth prematurely after fleeing Israeli attacks. Since her preterm newborn’s oxygen levels dropped, the baby is now in an incubator. “The situation here is not safe,” she said. “There is shelling all the time and the shortage of fuel threatens the life of my baby.”
According to Gaza’s Health Ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO), these two infants are among at least 130 preterm babies being incubated across Gaza’s seven neonatal ICUs. They’re at risk of imminent death as overcrowded hospitals run out of the fuel needed to power electricity generators. WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris told Jezebel that about 200 Gazans give birth per day, and they’re “giving birth in conditions that nobody should be giving birth in.” An estimated 50,000 to 84,000 women in Gaza are pregnant right now.
The health ministry declared this week that Gaza’s health system “is in a state of complete collapse.” If hospitals lose electricity, the ministry told The National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, “all will die” in the neonatal wards. Dr. Hatem Edhair, head of the neonatal unit at Nasser Hospital, said his hospital has 10 babies in its neonatal ward, half of whom are on oxygen machines. The situation is dire: “We have about 48 hours of fuel left. If the hospital runs out of fuel, half of these babies will die in less than 24 hours,” Edhair said in a statement shared with Jezebel through Shalltoot on Thursday. “They will not be able to make it without oxygen.”
Al Aqsa Hospital spokesman Abed Al Haleem Mikdad told The National on Sunday that his hospital’s neonatal ward, which holds more than 20 preterm babies in incubators, “will turn into a morgue without electricity and fuel.”
On October 7, Hamas attacks in Israel left 1,300 dead and militants took nearly 200 hostage. Since, Israeli airstrikes have killed over 7,000 Palestinians, including over 3,000 kids.
Multiple hospitals have been destroyed in the bombardment, and hospitals in Gaza have already long suffered due to the blockade, which has been in place for over 10 years. “It was always a struggle, before this current conflict,” Harris said. “People constantly needed to be referred to get care outside Gaza, which is impossible now.”
Last week, Israel allowed minimal aid (including food and medicine, but no fuel) into Gaza, which the WHO called “a drop in the ocean of need.” On Monday, the WHO and the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) were able to deliver 34,000 liters of fuel to four major hospitals in southern Gaza and to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, for ambulance services. But this is only enough fuel to maintain critical hospital functions for a little over a day. Tarik Jašarević, another WHO spokesman, told the AP this week that it would deliver 150,000 liters of fuel to offer basic services in Gaza’s five main hospitals.
In response to aid groups pleading with Israel to allow fuel deliveries, the Israeli Defense Forces on Tuesday told them, “Ask Hamas if you can have some.”
Over the past week, one frantic report after another has warned of hospitals with just one to three days left before they run out of fuel and babies relying on ventilators and incubators die. But Harris stresses that “this is not a matter of timelines, hypotheticals—at least 12 hospitals have already shut down” from lack of fuel and resources. “The babies are utterly dependent [on incubators]—the only thing that will happen is they will die,” she said. According to Harris, some of these babies are among the last living members of their families as Israeli attacks on Gaza continue.
Also in Al Shifa Hospital, another preterm baby relies on an incubator to survive. This photo was also taken by Dr. Nasser Bulbul on Oct. 21. Photo: Courtesy of Medical Aid for Palestinians
In addition to the lack of fuel and electricity in Gaza, Israel has also cut off Gaza’s water supply, forcing many to drink contaminated water including seawater. Al-Aqsa Hospital told the AP that mothers being forced to mix baby formula with contaminated water “has contributed to the rise in critical cases” in the neonatal ward, where resources are already severely strained.
Outside of hospitals Gazan women giving birth in refugee camps amid the bombardment are also in danger right now, Shalltoot says. He’s heard from a pregnant woman who reported that since being displaced from her home, she’s been “staying at a shelter and sleeping on a cold floor with barely any food or basic hygiene items.” As health facilities rapidly shutter, pregnant women are weighing “whether they can find a safe place to give birth, with the right medical care so their babies live.” Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association (PFPPA) told Jezebel last week that terror and shock from bombardment are also resulting in miscarriage and premature labor.
Over the last few weeks, hospitals in Gaza have reportedly been forced to operate without anesthesia, perform surgeries lit by phone flashlights, and disinfect wounds with vinegar. On top of this, Israel’s initial order to evacuate northern Gaza included 22 hospitals, ABC reported last week. Harris called the evacuation orders “a death sentence,” noting that, along with many other people in hospitals, preterm babies can’t evacuate.
As the head of Nasser Hospital’s neonatal ward, Dr. Hatem Edhair, spoke to the emotional toll of his work these last two weeks: “We are working around the clock, leaving our families behind, knowing they can be a target at any moment, and our families also know that we can be a target at any time,” he told Jezebel. “But we have to do our job. We need to save these babies.”