Gaza: “Facilities and healthcare workers are being targeted.”

24 Jan 2024

Dr Natalie Thurtle,  an emergency physician working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) since 2008, has recently returned from responding to the healthcare needs in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Dr Thurtle is very familiar with the region and was previously MSF’s medical coordinator for Palestine between 2020 and 2021. 

After the escalation of violence on 7 October and the subsequent increase in needs in Gaza, the Australian doctor was asked to return to Palestine and join the MSF team there.

The situation is very confronting because it's this relentless, destructive force where everything that people have been working for; their families, their homes, like everything, is just being taken and sort of razed  to the ground.

Dr Natalie Thurtle
Emergency physician

Over the last three months, MSF has been responding to the growing healthcare needs in Gaza and the West Bank, where nearly two million Palestinians are displaced and facing relentless bombing.

Our teams are witnessing an unprecedented and indiscriminate destruction of healthcare infrastructure, leaving civilians and healthcare workers with no protection. Vital structures are being systematically targeted leaving no safe space.

Following her return, Dr Thurtle shared with Jennifer Tierney, MSF Australia and MSF New Zealand executive director, what she saw on the ground  during the five weeks she spent in Palestine. 

As the violence in the Gaza strip and the West Bank continue to escalate, hospitals and medical facilities are overwhelmed and under fire. Currently there are only four hospitals that are fully functional out of 40  in Gaza (as of January 2024).

Very few humanitarian spaces are being afforded to MSF and other humanitarian organisations responding to the huge health needs. The few hospitals that are functioning are overwhelmed, with lots of patients arriving every day with war wounds. Additionally, hundreds of internally displaced people, who are not patients, are swarming hospital grounds looking for safe shelter.

MSF teams have shared that they have seen tanks surrounding a hospital and snipers shooting through the windows of Al Awda hospital, injuring a surgeon in December.

I don't think we've ever seen anything like what's happened during this conflict, and it really has been, for me, unprecedented as a humanitarian worker in conflict zones to see this relentless and indiscriminate destruction of the healthcare infrastructure in Gaza. Facilities are being targeted; healthcare workers are being targeted.

Dr Natalie Thurtle
Emergency physician

Children have been exposed to extreme trauma, some have lost whole families,  and many have been left recovering from life-changing injuries that will need multiple operations and extensive ongoing care that simply isn’t available right now. The mental health impacts of this extreme trauma at an early age are  yet to be seen. 

MSF’s mental health teams in Al-Shaboura clinic in the south of Gaza, as well as in Hebron, Nablus and Jenin in the West Bank, have been addressing the psychological toll of the war and forced displacement.

Violence in the West Bank

While the situation in Gaza is being widely reported worldwide, the same cannot be said for the West Bank, where over 6,000 Palestinians remain.

Dr Thurtle shares how for the last three years the situation in the West Bank there has been quite tense and unpredictable. “There's a huge increase in settler violence, people being attacked, live ammunition being used in the West Bank and Israeli incursions into camps,” she said.

“In Jenin, it's particularly complex. There are very frequent incursions into the camps there. The [Israeli] forces have been inside the hospital there, and MSF teams have witnessed that. It’s very tense. It's very difficult for people to access healthcare and their basic needs, or for emergency needs created by violence.”

Palestinian woman holds her daughter

Aliyah*, a Palestinian woman holds her daughter. She lived for 25 years in the old city of Hebron, one of the most restricted areas within the West Bank. Palestine, 14 December 2023. © Laora Vigourt/MSF

In Gaza and the West Bank people are not able to move around easily or travel, making it difficult for patients to access much needed healthcare. Medical staff are also very restricted in their movements, due to insecurity and personal situation related to the conflict. Often teams are not able to travel to the remote sites where we provide health services.

“And one of the things that MSF is doing is trying to support the population in situ with pre-hospital provisions, upskilling of non-medical personnel in basic emergency first responder treatments. That can be lifesaving because the access to definitive care is consistently delayed and blocked,” says Dr Thurtle.

Regardless of the challenges faced to deliver healthcare, MSF teams are continuously adapting and shifting to respond to the growing needs.

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