The Epidemiological War on Gaza

Disease is poised to become an even deadlier second front in Israel’s assault on the besieged Gaza Strip. On November 28, 2023 Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the World Health Organisation (WHO), warned that the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza was likely to become even worse. “Everybody everywhere [in Gaza] has dire health needs now because they’re starving, because they lack clean water, and [they’re] crowded together”, she said at a UN briefing in Geneva, before concluding with an ominous pronouncement: “Eventually, we will see more people dying from disease than we are even seeing from the bombardment”.

Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza has already killed nearly 23,000 people, with 7,000 others buried under rubble and 55,000 more injured. But what Harris was pointing to was a second, quieter war front that now stands to escalate dramatically. Since October 7th, Israel has severely reduced the entry of food, water, and fuel into Gaza, successfully creating what UN health officials say “a dire human-made humanitarian catastrophe” characterised by mass hunger, thirst, homelessness, and lack of medical services. As months pass without any meaningful relief, these conditions have produced “the perfect storm for disease”, as per statement of the United Nations Children’s Fund . On January 2nd, the WHO announced that there are currently 424,639 cases of infectious diseases in Gaza. Since such official counts only represent those who were able to make it to a clinic or hospital, experts assume that the true rates are much higher. A half million infectious disease cases would still have overwhelmed Gaza’s healthcare system before October 7th, though many would have been treatable with food, water, and medical care. But today, amid an ongoing assault that has destroyed 27 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals, as well as the very foundations of the enclave’s public health—in the form of food, water, and shelter—epidemics are likely to mean mass death.

In most wars, including in Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, and Darfur, far more people die of disease and starvation than through direct military assault. Indirect health-related deaths—which are seldom discussed when reporting the death toll of a war—can outnumber direct deaths by more than 15 to 1. In Gaza, such deaths are likely to keep increasing even if there is a ceasefire, the possibility of which seems remote at the moment. Experts think a quarter of Gaza’s population—could die from preventable health causes in the coming year.

In Israel, these grim warnings have not initiated any change of course. In fact, a vocal minority on the Israeli right has even lauded the spread of disease and starvation as a way of weakening Hamas.

There is no end in sight to the humanitarian cataclysm Israel has manufactured in Gaza—and increasingly, no way to fully apprehend its true toll. It is already impossible to assess the scale of indirect war-related deaths in Gaza. There are no statistics on the number of children who have already died of hunger, or the number of people dying because they can’t get dialysis or chemotherapy, or obtain their high blood pressure medication or insulin. Nor can one fully know how many are dying from the flu or diarrhea; dying because the hospitals are beyond capacity; or dying from infected wounds because of a lack of sanitation or antibiotics.

[Contributed by Maya Rosen of Jewish Currents]

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Vol 56, No. 31, Jan 28 - Feb 3, 2024