Options for evacuating Gaza’s Al Shifa hospital limited

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The United Nations is looking for ways to evacuate Al Shifa hospital in Gaza but options are limited by security and logistical constraints, a senior World Health Organisation official said on Thursday.

One obstacle is that the Palestinian Red Crescent lacks sufficient fuel for its ambulances within Gaza to evacuate patients, WHO regional emergencies director Rick Brennan told Reuters.

There are also not enough ambulances available, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jerusalem said.

Egypt was open to having its ambulances cross into Gaza to help evacuate people as long as security guarantees and safe passage could be provided, Brennan said in an interview from Cairo.

The WHO said there were still about 600 patients including 27 in critical condition at Shifa hospital, which Israeli forces entered this week following a days-long siege, Brennan said.

“We are looking at the case for full medical evacuation but there are a lot of security concerns, there are a lot of logistics constraints. Our options are rather limited, but we hope to have some better news in the next 24 hours or so,” he said.

Those given priority in an evacuation would include the critically ill and 36 newborn babies who lost access to incubators because of lack of fuel to generate power, he said.

Plans for an evacuation had been complicated by the fact that communications with the hospital had been cut most of the time, Brennan said.

“The idea is that we would bring the majority of patients over days or weeks from Shifa,” he added.

“We’d bring the bulk of them to hospitals in southern Gaza but those hospitals are already overwhelmed as well so that’s another complicating factor. The other option is of course to bring a number of them to Egypt.”

A WHO spokesperson said that Al Arish Hospital in Egypt was likely to be the first referral hospital and it was working with the Egyptian government on “planning and establishing a comprehensive triage, stabilisation and medical evacuation system”, including providing additional medical supplies and mental health support.

Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry told a briefing in Cairo that efforts to provide medical relief for Palestinians from the Gaza Strip should be concentrated within the besieged coastal enclave.

But he added: “If we have the ability to care for these people at Al Shifa hospital, we will not hesitate.”

Other hospitals and countries could take in more patients, the WHO spokesperson said, including those with complex conditions like cancer as well as those wounded in the bombardment.

The first evacuations of patients from Gaza to hospitals outside Egypt took place on Wednesday when 27 cancer patients were flown to Turkey from Al Arish.

The risk of security incidents during medical evacuations in Gaza remains high, the ICRC spokesperson said.

She said an ICRC medical convoy delivering supplies to a separate hospital in Gaza had come under fire last week.

“It is difficult to answer how this would normally take place (medical evacuation in conflict), because this situation is anything but normal,” she said.