A new disturbing, yet revealing, report released by UNRWA on Saturday August 8 shows once again the toll the Israeli siege exacts on the Gaza population. In a press release, UNRWA announced that for the first time in five decades, the infant mortality rate in Gaza has reversed trend and risen, citing the blockade imposed on the strip as a factor which “may be contributing to the trend”.
According to UNRWA figures, the infant mortality rate, the number of live-born babies dying before the age of one, has consistently gone down over the past several decades in Gaza, from 127 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 20.2 in 2008. At the last count in 2013, however, it had risen to 22.4 per 1,000 live births. The Gaza neonatal mortality rate, the number of babies that die before they reach four weeks, has also gone up significantly from 12 per 1,000 live births in 2008 to 20.3 in 2013. The figures date back to 2013, and predate the last, most brutal Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014.
“The rate had declined quite smoothly over the last decades across the region, including Gaza,” said Dr. Akihiro Seita, Director of the UNRWA health programe. “So when the 2013 results from Gaza were first uncovered, UNRWA was alarmed by the apparent increase. So we worked with external independent research groups to examine the data and ensure the increase could be confirmed. That is why it took us so long to release these latest figures.”
Infant mortality is one of the best indicators of the health status of a certain community, and it can also be used as a parameter for state performance. The rate is affected by a multitude of factors that are in play before the birth of the infant, and even before the mother is pregnant; those include nutrition, availability of infrastructure, housing conditions, clean water, existence of a coherent and stable health system, how a society performs socially and economically, vaccination, education — especially of mothers — political stability, war and conflict, and other factors.
As science and societies advance, IMR usually improves — slowly, but it does improve — and the trend is usually in the positive direction. “Progress in combatting infant mortality doesn’t usually reverse. This seems to be the first time we have seen an increase like this,” Dr. Seita said. “The only other examples I can think of are in some African countries which experienced HIV epidemics.”
The increase in Gaza IMR is the outcome of a near decade of strict blockade, where calorie counts, restrictions on movement, poverty, soaring unemployment, dependence on food aid, chronic power shortages, and sewage flooding the streets have become the norm, adding to that the collective toll of three major military operations. In those assaults, more than 4,000 Palestinians were killed, tens of thousands injured and hundreds of thousands traumatized. Health facilities paid a heavy price for the indiscriminate and sometimes intentional attacks on clinics and hospitals, and on top of that, tens of thousands of houses were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands were forced into temporary, unsanitary shelters, forcing an already vulnerable population into an even more difficult place. Collectively, all of this, happening over the span of several years, in a small impoverished enclave which is said to be the most densely populated strip of land on the earth, led to mothers now having an unhealthy early life and consequently unhealthy pregnancies. In addition is has also led to a decreasing chance of infants being born strong enough to withstand and survive the collective punishment imposed on their society, and on them, since birth.
The next scheduled UNRWA region-wide survey of Palestine refugees is scheduled in 2018. However, because of the latest figures, UNRWA will conduct one this year in Gaza alone, where the impact of the latest, most destructive attack might show itself in the figures. In one case, the Al-Durra pediatrics hospital, which serves the eastern parts of Gaza city (a population of more than 200,000), was bombed early in July 2014 and it took until January 2015 to partially operate again. This was only possible with special permits to circumvent the ban on entry for construction material.
But why do Palestinians complain? Gaza IMR is still better than in a vast number of countries, including neighboring Arab countries! Well, international humanitarian law states that “To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the occupying power must ensure sufficient hygiene and public health standards, as well as the provision of food and medical care to the population under occupation”. The point of reference for comparison is not what is, but what should be. Gaza IMR is five times that in present-day Israel, while life expectancy for Palestinians is 10 years less than that of an Israeli occupier, which testifies to the troubling size of this man-made situation.
Moreover, by disrupting the slow-but-consistent improvement in IMR and health situation in the occupied lands, Israel brings billions of donor fund to waste, money which would have brought upon much a better outcome were it not the Israeli policies. If the international community will not stand against Israel for what it does to Palestinians, will donor countries at least try to stop it from wasting away their money?