Gaza woman holds baby

A Palestinian woman holds her baby amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Gaza City on November 25, 2023.

(Photo: Omar El-Qattaa/AFP via Getty Images)

Report Details 'Horrific' Toll of Israel's Assault on Gaza Maternal Care

Human Rights Watch observed that one Israeli attack on a Gaza hospital forced staff to evacuate, "leaving babies that could not be transported alone in intensive care."

As Israel resumed its bombardment of the Gaza Strip on Friday following a seven-day pause, a Human Rights Watch dispatch showed how the assault has devastated the Palestinian territory's maternity care facilities, endangering the lives of thousands of mothers and newborns entering the world amid a spiraling humanitarian catastrophe.

HRW's Erin Kilbride and Bill Van Esveld cataloged some of the damage Israel's relentless airstrikes and blockade have inflicted on Gaza's overwhelmed healthcare centers, noting that last month "Israeli airstrikes hit al-Nasr Medical Center in Gaza City, cutting off the neonatal intensive care unit's oxygen supply."

"The attack forced staff to evacuate the next day, leaving babies that could not be transported alone in intensive care, according to Doctors Without Borders," Kilbride and Van Esveld wrote. "On November 28 during the cease-fire, doctors were able to return and found five babies dead."

The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor has called for an independent international probe of the incident, arguing that it "may amount to a horrifying execution and a crime against humanity."

The HRW researchers noted Friday that Israel's response to the deadly Hamas-led October 7 attack has "included bombardments that have repeatedly forced maternity wards and reproductive health clinics to shut down or relocate."

"Israel also cut electricity to Gaza and banned for more than a month the entry of fuel needed to run generators that powered hospital equipment like incubators, despite World Health Organization (WHO) warnings that newborns would die," Kilbride and Van Esveld observed. "Israeli military operations forced the maternity ward of Gaza's main hospital, al-Shifa, to evacuate to al-Helou International Hospital, originally a cancer facility."

"An Israeli shell later struck al-Helou, according to the WHO," they added. "Without electricity for incubators, five premature babies died at al-Shifa before survivors were evacuated on November 19, according to the United Nations. As of November 20, all evacuated babies were 'fighting serious infections' and a third were 'critically ill,' according to the WHO."

Two-thirds of the more than 14,500 people killed by Israel's latest assault on Gaza were women and children. The United Nations estimates that there are roughly 50,000 pregnant women currently in the Gaza Strip and that more than 160 babies are being delivered each day—often in facilities without adequate medical supplies or electricity.

"Put yourself in the shoes of that woman when the surgeon says to her, 'I have no anesthesia, I don't even have water or soap to wash my hands, but I'm going to try and save your life,'" Laila Baker, regional director for Arab states at the U.N.'s sexual and reproductive health agency, said last month.

Oxfam International said in a recent report that "newborns up to three months old are dying of diarrhea, hypothermia, dehydration, and infection as mothers have little to no medical support and are living in appalling conditions without water, sanitation, heat, or food."

Ammal Awadallah, executive director of the Palestine Family Planning and Protection Association (PFPPA), told HRW that the organization's only delivery center in Gaza was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on a nearby building on October 8.

"Awadallah said midwives and healthcare workers in Gaza are 'a lifeline for the estimated 180 women giving birth each day,' but attacks have forced them to provide care via telephone 'when there is connectivity,'" HRW reported. "Awadallah said a colleague was providing pre- and post-natal services in a shelter 'after her house was demolished by the bombings,' while PFPPA's social worker was 'trying to provide support' from his relative's home."

Kilbride and Van Esveld called on the Israeli government to "immediately end unlawful attacks on medical facilities and its blockade of Gaza."

"The collective punishment of 2.2 million people," they added, "is a war crime."

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