Lives of 36 babies in Gaza hospital at risk despite Israeli incubator offer

Sources at Al Shifa Hospital say no sign of concrete plan

By Reuters

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This photo released by Dr. Marawan Abu Saada shows prematurely born Palestinian babies in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. — AP file
This photo released by Dr. Marawan Abu Saada shows prematurely born Palestinian babies in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. — AP file

Published: Tue 14 Nov 2023, 7:41 PM

The lives of 36 babies at Gaza's Al Shifa Hospital were hanging in the balance on Tuesday, according to medical staff there who said there was no clear mechanism to move them despite an Israeli effort to supply incubators for an evacuation.

Three of the original 39 premature babies have already died since Gaza's biggest hospital ran out of fuel at the weekend to power generators that had kept their incubators going.

The Gaza Strip has been under a total Israeli blockade since Hamas launched an attack on Israel on October7. An Israeli ground incursion since then has brought fighting to streets around the hospital in the centre of Gaza City in the north of the strip.

The 36 babies, who weigh less than 1.5 kg (3.3 pounds) and with some as small as 700 to 800 grammes, were now lying side-by-side on ordinary beds, exposing them to infection and without any individual adjustments to humidity levels and temperatures, staff said.

"Luckily they are still 36, we didn’t lose any of them overnight," Dr Ahmed El Mokhatallali, a surgeon, told Reuters by telephone from Al Shifa. "But still the risks are really high ... We have still the risk of losing them.

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Israel's military said earlier on Tuesday it was coordinating the transfer of incubators into the Gaza Strip in a step to allow the evacuation of the babies. It posted on social media an image of a soldier unloading incubators from a van.

'Reach babies without delay'

The military also posted a video showing Shani Sasson, a spokesperson from an Israeli Defence Ministry liaison office that deals with Palestinian civilian affairs, standing in front of incubators and saying a formal offer of help had been made.

"Extensive efforts are underway to ensure that these incubators right here behind me can reach the babies in Gaza without delay," she said in the video.

An Israeli official involved in those efforts, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said three available incubators had been provided by Israeli hospitals.

"The intention is to enable the safe evacuation of newborn babies. To our understanding, Shifa does not have the necessary transport incubators for that," the official said, adding the incubators were on standby outside Gaza for any agreed handover.

Images published by the military showed standard transport incubators, said Arthur Edelman, a professor of paediatrics and neonatology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"They are battery-operated, which would allow for a couple of hours of running time. They also have the option of plugging into an ambulance power source," he said.

No mechanism

The military did not say what steps it would take to make an evacuation possible, amid intense air strikes and ongoing fighting in the vicinity of Al Shifa hospital.

A spokesman for Gaza's health ministry, which is under Hamas control, said there was no objection to evacuating the babies but said there was no mechanism to do this.

Many of Gaza's hospitals, like Al Shifa, have also shut down because of a lack of fuel and supplies, or are already crammed full of patients and those wounded in the fighting.

"We have no objection to have the babies moved to any hospital, in Egypt, the West Bank or even to the occupation (Israeli) hospitals. What we care most is about the wellbeing and the lives of those babies," Gaza health ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al Qidra said, speaking by telephone from the hospital. "So far there is no clear mechanism."

Israel says the hospital is not under siege and says its forces offers exit routes to those inside. Medical staff and officials in the hospital say those trying to leave have come under fire. Reuters could not independently verify the accounts.

Al Shifa's Mokhatallali said he was aware of efforts to rescue the babies but did not know the details.

"Someone asked us to get the names of the babies and how many there are. But no actual steps on the ground. So we don't know how serious these efforts are to evacuate these babies," he said.

Audio recording

The Israeli military posted an audio recording of what it said was a conversation between a senior officer from Israel's Coordination and Liaison Administration and the director-general of Al Shifa Hospital, speaking in Arabic, subtitled in English.

In it, the official talks about depositing an incubator at the hospital gate, without giving details of how or when that would happen. The director-general says that would help, adding that four respirators for children are also needed.

The official says he will see what he can do to help. The director-general responds that all the wards and staff inside the hospital need help.

Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas after the group's fighters rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking around 240 hostage, according to Israeli numbers. Its counteroffensive has killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza so far.

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