January 14, 2009

Daily Pause in Violence Insufficient; Other Crossing Points Blocked and Civilians Remain Trapped

Jerusalem/Gaza/Paris, January 14, 2009 — Despite statements by Israeli authorities, the worsening security situation in the Gaza Strip is severely limiting international humanitarian assistance in support of Palestinian emergency medical services, which are trying to cope with thousands of wounded patients. The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) calls on the parties to the conflict to allow medical personnel to enter and operate safely in the Gaza Strip to reach trapped civilians.

The shootings and bombings by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip do not allow for the arrival or departure of MSF teams, even if authorizations have been provided by Israeli authorities. The daily three-hour lull that Israel has announced is not being fully observed. And since the pause in fighting applies only to Gaza City, there is no possibility for humanitarian workers to safely use the Erez crossing point in the north of the Gaza Strip, the only area authorized by Israeli authorities for movements of staff. MSF has not been granted permission to use the Kerem Shalom crossing point, which is used for moving supplies across the border. MSF denounces this blockage and the non-choice it faces: exposing MSF teams to danger without any possible alternative.

MSF demands that Israel authorize the entry of its emergency aid workers through alternative entry points into the Gaza Strip, such as Kerem Shalom. This is an indispensable condition for providing adequate assistance to the population of Gaza.

"The people living in the Gaza Strip cannot flee and are trapped by the violence," said Franck Joncret, MSF head of mission for the Palestinian Territories. "It is critically important that outside aid be able to reach them. But as of this date, the risks facing aid agencies-both international and Palestinian-are too high, preventing assistance from being carried out. Israel and Hamas must take up their responsibility to facilitate the work of humanitarian organizations," he said.

While hospital emergency departments in Gaza face a shortage of surgeons, a five-person MSF surgical team has been on stand-by in Jerusalem for one week. Shifa Hospital in Gaza City has requested and relied on the support of MSF staff and medical supplies for more than two weeks.

"We are in regular contact with hospitals in Gaza," said Cécile Barbou, MSF medical coordinator in the Gaza Strip. "Their emergency departments and intensive care units are overwhelmed by the inflow of sick and wounded patients, especially at night. Surgical departments are working around the clock. Sometimes two operations are performed simultaneously in the same operating room. Hospital staff are exhausted."

Since the Israeli military operation began on December 27, it has been very difficult to provide emergency aid. The MSF clinic in Gaza City remains open but it is extremely dangerous for people to move about and few residents are able to reach medical facilities. Part of MSF's Palestinian medical teams are supplied with emergency kits so they can treat patients at home in the neighborhoods where team members live. They have treated more than 270 people in the last two weeks. Medications and supplies have been distributed from MSF inventories to address shortages in Gazan health facilities.

In addition, a delivery of 21 tons of MSF emergency medical supplies is underway. The cargo includes medications (analgesics, anesthetics, and antibiotics), medical and surgical supplies and logistical equipment, including a mobile hospital with two operating rooms and a 10-bed intensive care unit.

The parties to the conflict must respect aid workers and guarantee their safe entry into the Gaza Strip.

MSF has been working in the Gaza Strip since 1989. The team currently includes three international staff and 70 Palestinian staff, 35 of whom are medical workers. Regular programs include post-operative care, physical therapy, pediatric services, and psychosocial/medical support.