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Gaza's widening humanitarian crisis

Palestinians walk by the buildings destroyed in the Israeli bombardment on al-Zahra, on the outskirts of Gaza City.(Ali Mahmoud/AP)
Palestinians walk by the buildings destroyed in the Israeli bombardment on al-Zahra, on the outskirts of Gaza City.(Ali Mahmoud/AP)

More than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed so far in the Israel-Hamas war.

Food and water are scarce. The health care system in Gaza has collapsed.

“Children are being orphaned inside the hospital,” Maria Abi-Habib, investigative correspondent for the New York Times, says. “They’ll come with their families, their parents on the brink of death and then they’ll watch their parents die.”

Amid reports that Pres. Joe Biden is pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a “tactical pause,” international pressure for a broader ceasefire is rising.

Today, On Point: Gaza’s widening humanitarian crisis.


Maria Abi-Habib, investigative correspondent for the New York Times.

Hiba Tibi, country director for CARE International in the West Bank and Gaza.

Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.

Also Featured

Saaed Al-Madhoun, Gaza resident and humanitarian coordinator for CARE International.


Part I

Saaed Al-Madhoun lives in Gaza. After some effort, our producer Dan Ackerman was able to connect with him last night over an unstable WhatsApp connection.

(Beep beep)


DAN ACKERMAN: Yes. Hello. (Ineligible)

AL-MADHOUN: Unfortunately, I have a very poor internet connection due to the current situation and the current circumstances. But if you are hearing me well, I can describe you a little bit about the humanitarian situation currently in Gaza. Are you? Are you here? Are you hearing?

CHAKRABARTI: Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th. It’s been just over one month since Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza began. Saaed told us that his first, most urgent need was to try to keep his children safe and calm. His oldest child is 12. The youngest, one year old. So every time they were overwhelmed by the sounds of bombs exploding or ambulances rushing by, Saaed tried to make a game of it for his five young children.

AL-MADHOUN: I tried to inform them, let’s try to make some games together when we are hearing bombardment. It’s like the games in the sky. Don’t worry, things will be calmed down soon. Our home is very safe. We tried to minimize the issue for them in order to be more comfortable. But unfortunately, we didn’t succeed because things are out of our hands, honestly.

CHAKRABARTI: The damage across Gaza has been extensive. Anywhere from 18% to 25% of all structures in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged. That’s up to 51,000 buildings, according to various estimates of satellite images. Among the hardest hit areas: Gaza City, in the north of the enclave, where Saaed’s family lived.

AL-MADHOUN: There was a warning that will destroy the building near to my house. So I moved directly from my house to my brother house in the same city in Gaza. After I just arrived my brother house, the building beside my original house was destroyed.

CHAKRABARTI: Saaed’s house was also seriously damaged. It was uninhabitable. Three days later, Israel ordered more than a million people to evacuate to southern Gaza. Saaed, his wife, and five children fled to his uncle’s home in Khan Yunis, near Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, where he is now.

AL-MADHOUN: In this flat we have more than 30, 30 people. Some people are sleeping on the floor. Some people said, “I don’t need to sleep. I will wake up so I can inform you if things happening, if there is any emergency situation around us.” Because to be honest, to be honest, there is no safe place.

CHAKRABARTI: Saaed says the basic necessities of life, such as water, are getting harder to come by.

AL-MADHOUN: Again, please (INELIGABLE). We are suffering at, in bringing the drinking water, because the water resources is very limited. And most of the water treatment and water bombing are operating using the fuel. And the fuel is not allowed to enter Gaza. So we are in a very hard situation in bringing water.

CHAKRABARTI: He told us that he does have a water supply now – because he’s buying it from a private company that’s charging triple the regular price.

The same goes for bread. He says Gazans in Khan Younis are going to extraordinary lengths to find food in any bakery that’s open. Many are not, because some bakeries have been destroyed, others don’t have enough fuel or power to stay open.

AL-MADHOUN: And sometimes it takes us about five hours or more in line to bring the bread from the bakery to our houses. 

CHAKRABARTI: Five hours in line to buy bread. But they can’t eat it with hot meals cooked at home.

AL-MADHOUN: We are not able to make any cooking, because gas is not available. We are bringing some of the canned food, but it is currently most of the canned food is not available in the supermarket. I am personally trying to minimize my meals to one meal in order to save things for the kids.

CHAKRABARTI: Again, because of that unstable WhatsApp connect Saaed said he’s personally trying to minimize his meals to one meal a day in order to save things for his children.

Trucks and cars have long since run out of fuel in Gaza. People move around by foot or bike. Some use donkeys to carry home whatever rations they can find. The electricity grid is down. Though Saaed says he’s lucky, because his uncle has solar panels. And that’s how he was able to charge his phone, turn on lights and speak with us.

A month into the fighting between Israel and Hamas, Israeli ground forces have encircled and entered Gaza City. And Israeli leaders are promising to complete their stated mission to eradicate Hamas.

Saaed Al-Madhoun has a unique perspective on the crisis in Gaza right now. Not only because he’s one of more than a million Gazans who’ve been internally displaced by the war. He’s also Gaza humanitarian coordinator for CARE International. And he says that even he is wondering how long will he have to make a game out of the sound of exploding bombs in order to comfort his children.

AL-MADHOUN: Honestly, I am worried, because we didn’t know when this war would be end. I feel worried because I am worried about my children, because they are not feeling safe at any time. And they have some psychosocial problem due to the current situation. But I think there is a window for hope. I feel we still have some hope in the future that this critical crisis will be ended soon.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Saaed Al-Madhoun. He spoke to us last night from southern Gaza.

More than 10,000 people in Gaza have died since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. Scores more injured. And more than 1.4 million, like Saaed, displaced from their homes. The World Health Organization is warning of rampant outbreaks of respiratory infections, diarrhea, chickenpox and scabies.

At a meeting in Paris this week there’s discussion of opening a maritime corridor to bring goods into Gaza and injured people out by boat. And separate talks are ongoing between Israel and Hamas about a possible 3-day pause in the fighting, to allow for more aid to enter Gaza and for some hostages to be freed.

How significantly, if at all, will this change the humanitarian crisis on the ground?

Maria Abi-Habib joins us. She’s an investigative correspondent for the New York Times. She’s been covering the situation in Gaza. Maria, welcome to On Point.

MARIA ABI-HABIB: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, tell us a little bit more about what you know or have seen about the humanitarian situation in Gaza now.

ABI-HABIB: The humanitarian situation is as dire as anyone can imagine. Having covered large scale offenses during the Arab Spring, for instance, Aleppo, we have seen the destruction of an entire population center, not in months, not in years. As in most major wars, like Chechnya or Aleppo or any of the ones that really come to mind over the last decade or two or three, this is the destruction of entire territory or large chunks of this territory. Major population centers, in a matter of weeks, really.

It is as bad as you think. There are at least 10,000 dead, and people say, aid organizations say, ones that we trust in every other war, have said, but it’s much more than 10,000 people, probably, because there are hundreds of people buried under rubble. We’re talking about entire city blocks just coming down with Israeli strikes, for instance.

And the Israelis will say Hamas hides among the civilian population. But others will say that’s not really true. That’s just an excuse to justify the airstrikes.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Maria may I just jump in here for a second?

ABI-HABIB: We are in a terrible situation.

CHAKRABARTI: Sorry to, I’m very sorry to interrupt there, but you’ve also reported extensively and quite recently on the health care infrastructure in Gaza. That Gazan hospitals are essentially in a state of collapse.

Can you tell me more about that?

ABI-HABIB: Sure. So you have everything from brain surgeries to actual amputation of limbs happening for children, the elderly and everything in between, without anesthetic. You have people using vinegar because they have run out of other disinfectants. You have people being operated on in some cases on tile floors because they’ve run out of hospital beds.

And then you also have doctors having to make this very difficult choice, which they get very sensitive about, because they took the Hippocratic oath, just like every other doctor in every other country in this world, to do their utmost to save people. But they are faced with this terrible choice.

We only have so many hands and we only have so many supplies, who gets what, who dies, who lives. At some point, somebody will come in with needing CPR and they’ll assess how far gone they are in cardiac arrest and say, “We don’t have the ability to resuscitate you.” So oftentimes they’re not even able to resuscitate heart patients, people who are suffering from a heart attack.

So it’s really a mixture of horrible choices. And then the strain on Gaza’s hospitals are not enough. Considering that there’s also a lot of people who have been, who’ve lost their homes and are now living inside the hospitals. There are also now these temporary orphanages.

Because there are quite a few children who are showing up, watching their kids, their parents and their siblings die in the hospital, or they show up the only surviving family member and then the hospital all of a sudden is taking care of an orphaned child waiting for extended family members to come and claim them, it’s the worst, it’s one of the worst situations I’ve ever seen as a conflict correspondent.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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