Fasting on the frontlines: Gaza's health workers persevere this Ramadan despite hunger and lack of supplies

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Via a faint loudspeaker close to the ruined Al-Shifa Medical Complex in Gaza City, northern Gaza, health staff and displaced families alike hear the sound of the Maghrib call to prayer, and eat whatever they have managed to get hold of for iftar after a long day of fasting.

They know there may not be anything for suhoor, the meal before dawn during Ramadan.

General doctor Hussam Abu Khalil broke his fast with some cheese, he doesn't know where from, and a small plate of rice handed to him by a staff member.

He says he hasn't eaten decent food in three months, but he would keep working despite everything – the bombs, the destroyed departments, and the arrests of fellow medical staff.

Famine in north Gaza

Northern Gaza is considered to be witnessing the highest levels of hunger in the Strip, as only tiny amounts of humanitarian aid have trickled in since the beginning of Israel's brutal assault.

Only extremely limited amounts of food have entered this region even when aid trucks have managed to reach Gaza City, after securing the agreement of Israeli forces and in coordination with international organisations. When this happens, people flock in large numbers to obtain a few tinned foods and flour.

"Some sheikhs have issued a fatwa saying medical teams in Gaza don't need to fast – because of working in the middle of a war, and in light of the lack of food and water. But we wouldn't feel comfortable if we broke the fast"

Almost 2,000 medical personnel are still working in northern Gaza. This includes around 200 doctors, and the rest are nurses, technicians and administrative staff.

But after Israeli forces engaged in two weeks of raids on Al-Shifa, the hospital has been left completely destroyed and hundreds are feared dead, including many medical staff. 

Over 500,000 people live in the Gaza and Northern governorates, which include the Jabalia refugee camp and other towns in the north, which have been subjected to genocidal attacks by Israeli forces.

Nonetheless, some civilians have returned to these areas, wishing to stay close to the wreckage of their homes.    

No PPE and dreams of dates

Dr Abu Khalil says: "Doctors see hundreds of cases each day, and are exposed to contagious diseases being carried by infected and sick people. No matter how we protect ourselves, we don't have [the materials] to keep ourselves safe and are working with equipment which would be inadequate even for a small health clinic.

"We are also required to work under pressure and despite the fast. Some sheikhs have issued a fatwa saying medical teams in Gaza don't need to fast – because of working in the middle of a war and light of the lack of food and water. But we wouldn't feel comfortable if we broke the fast."

He adds: "I dream of breaking my fast with dates and laban (yoghurt), or a bowl of soup, any kind like we did last Ramadan when we were on work shifts during iftar. All the medical staff are hungry, like all Gazans, and we are under work pressures, and we are trying to provide moral support to the sick and injured by staying around them all the time."

Widespread famine is projected to hit the north of Gaza in May unless there is an urgent intervention, warned a United Nations-backed food security assessment [Getty Images]
The situation in Gaza is catastrophic, with northern Gaza facing imminent famine and the rest of the Strip on the brink as well [Getty]

Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qudra confirmed to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition, that around 200 healthcare workers in northern Gaza are spending Ramadan without meals for iftar or suhoor.

They are also working round the clock while also lacking the most basic medical supplies, he adds — they didn't even have drinkable water, as Israeli forces bombed the water tanks in the hospitals, as well as targeting groundwater sources.

He says the Ministry of Health hasn't succeeded in efforts to secure the food needs (via international and relief institutions) of medical teams to enable them to continue working.

Israel blocking aid to the north

Al-Qudra says "all demands go unanswered in light of Israel's refusal to guarantee the entry of medical equipment and supplies to hospitals in the north. Medical teams in north Gaza have become physically weak from lack of food — they are treating malnutrition while facing it themselves, and the crisis has only increased during Ramadan."

Nurse Mohammed Issa (36) who was working in the orthopaedic department in the old building of Al-Shifa Hospital for more than 16 hours a day, says he could only eat one small meal daily.

Since the start of Ramadan, he has tried to divide it into an iftar and a suhoor and only drinks salty water.

"Medical teams in north Gaza have become physically weak from lack of food  they are treating malnutrition while facing it themselves"

He says many of his colleagues and friends who worked in various medical teams and paramedic crews have been killed, and he has survived what seemed like certain death several times since the current assault began.

Before he moved to Al-Shifa, he worked at the Indonesian hospital, where he was interrogated and threatened alongside many others when the Israeli army raided the hospital.

"I couldn't handle the hunger on day one of Ramadan. During the last few days, I've only been able to get hold of a tiny bit of food. I work in primary care in the department, and can't move between departments, or go down to the courtyard of the complex where the displaced are, but  I'm determined to keep fasting.

"I've worked in the medical sector for ten years. I worked during the first assault in 2014, the marches of return in 2018, the assault in 2021, and the month of Ramadan that occurred in each of these times. However, we have never been subjected to the kind of hunger we're experiencing right now."

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He adds: "The medical teams have been subjected to every kind of physical and psychological damage and enormous pressures, so whereas patients are in pain due to injury and hunger, we're in pain from hunger and exertion of the work.

"Usually, there are no gloves or clinical masks available to us, and many get infections, or they faint from sheer exhaustion or hunger. One of my colleagues fainted on the first day of Ramadan."

As Israel's war on Gaza enters its sixth month, medical teams are facing increasing challenges in their efforts to keep providing medical care.

All the major hospitals in the north have been invaded by the Israeli army, and scores of medical workers have been arrested during these raids.

Many health workers were also interrogated without being detained, while 269 doctors, nurses and administrative staff are still detained. In addition to this, Israeli forces have in numerous instances seized or destroyed hospital equipment and even stolen the bodies of deceased Palestinians.

In Kamal Adwan Hospital, in the Beit Lahia area, the situation is dire. It became the main hospital in the Northern governorate after parts of the Indonesian hospital were destroyed and the hospital ceased functioning.

Kamal Adwan is now the only hospital available to the residents of Jabalia town and camp, as well as all surrounding villages. These areas have been subjected to repeated massacres and genocidal attacks, and the majority of buildings destroyed.

A number of children have starved to death in the hospital, as did a woman in her fifties who suffered from several chronic health conditions.

Dr Ashraf Masri works at Jabalia Medical Centre, and he works also at another medical centre in the Saftawi area.

"All the medical teams in the two centres are suffering hunger," he says, adding, "I ate bread made with mixed animal fodder on the first day of Ramadan, with a can of chickpeas that I bought from those selling the airdropped aid.

"We work as surgeons in the operating theatre, and we need to focus, and make huge efforts to save dozens of lives, every day. There isn't a doctor among us who even has time to think about iftar even if this situation were to kill us, however, getting hold of food remains one of our daily fantasies.

"And the big dream is that the war ended, by any means and at any price. I am hungry like everyone else, and I have lost dozens of members of my family, among them my brother, his children, and my uncle's children — all of them are martyrs."

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He adds: "At times, medical crew workers aren't even able to push a bed with a sick or injured patient in it or to help a patient move. All that is due to the severe hunger.

"Sometimes I decide to have a nap to try to forget the pangs of hunger. However, I wake after a short time and the hunger returns. This makes all of us depressed, as we don't have many of the necessary medical supplies, nor the tools, nor even the personal protective equipment, and we are in agony because of the constant hunger."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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