May 15, 2018 marked seventy years since the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”), when over 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes in Palestine by Zionist-turned-Israeli forces. During the Nakba, the Zionist movement declared the establishment of the State of Israel over most of historic Palestine. To this day, the Israeli state has prevented Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes inside Israel.
In the six weeks leading up to the anniversary, Gazans organized weekly (Friday) protests along the Israeli barriers and crossing points separating the Gaza Strip from “Israel proper.” Referred to as the Great Return March, the movement’s goal was to confront occupation forces and remind the world of the abysmal living conditions in occupied Gaza, which has been under a devastating land, air, and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt for the last eleven years. Protestors also demanded international recognition for the Palestinian right of return. Approximately 1.3 million Gazans (out of a population of 1.9 million) are descended from or are themselves refugees from what is now Israel.
On Monday, May 14, Palestinians gathered in Gaza for the last demonstration of the Return March. The event was also an opportunity to protest the formal opening of the new U.S. embassy in occupied East Jerusalem, which was taking place just 60 miles away. The embassy was relocated to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in defiance of international law and consensus over the political status of the city.
As they have done throughout the march, Israeli soldiers responded to protestors with bullets. According to Gaza’s heath authorities, 58 people were killed and roughly 2,771 injured, including 1,359 by live fire. The day is considered the bloodiest in Gaza since Israel’s 2014 bombardment of the Strip.
This deadly aftermath has underscored the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the siege of Gaza, particularly the fragile state of the healthcare sector. Only one month before the Great Return March began, medical authorities were warning of the Gaza health system’s imminent collapse.
Severe restrictions on what can enter and exit Gaza has resulted in economic de-development, food insecurity, high poverty levels, and dangerously underdeveloped water and sewage treatment systems. Medical workers cannot effectively treat those in need because essential drugs and medical supplies are unavailable, as a result of the siege. According to the Gaza Health Ministry and UK-based Medical Aid for Palestinians, at least half of all essential medicines have been at zero stock since January 2018. The World Health Organization (WHO), Palestinian Center for Human Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel have reported that general anesthetics, antibiotics, and disinfecting agents are unavailable.
The siege has prevented health facilities from bringing in or repairing equipment, including dialysis machines, scanners, and heart monitors. This is because of import restrictions on medical equipment, as well as the tools and parts required to fix existing machinery. Constant power outages also mean over-reliance on generators, which depend on fuel that is in short supply.
This already dire situation has been exacerbated by persistent Israeli aerial bombardment since the siege began, which has targeted medical infrastructure and health workers in Gaza, as well as punitive measures imposed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA has long sought to undermine the Hamas government, which controls Gaza, by periodically denying medical shipments from the West Bank, slashing public sector salaries, and suspending payments to Israel required to supply Gaza with electricity.
On Monday, Doctors without Borders in Gaza reported that the “colossal influx of injured people” was “completely overwhelming” its medical staff. Al-Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest medical center, is overburdened and simply cannot meet demand. According to the head of the hospital’s emergency department, Ayman al-Sahabani, at least 18 people died waiting to receive medical attention on Monday alone. Even basic supplies, such as gauze and saline, have been depleted.
With facilities in Gaza unable to meet patient demand, leaving Gaza for treatment is also impossible for most because of the blockade. According to the WHO, in 2017, 54 Palestinians (46 with cancer) died waiting for the exit permits necessary for life-saving treatment outside the Strip. These permits are notoriously difficult to obtain.
The siege has transformed Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, into an open-air prison. According to the United Nations, if current conditions persist, Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. The only way to end this crisis is to lift the inhumane siege on Gaza, which is a form of collective punishment prohibited under international law.