The fate of over 100 imprisoned Gaza health workers remains unknown as media reports on deaths during interrogations emerge

By Peoples Dispatch

A report on the death of Palestinian physician Iyad Al-Rantisi serves as a grim reminder of the uncertain fate of hundreds of Palestinian health workers imprisoned by the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) since October 7, 2023. The Israeli portal Haaretz reported on Tuesday that Al-Rantisi died in mid-November 2023 while under interrogation by the security agency Shin Bet.

doctor in gaza treats child in ambulance
Photo credit: Palestine Red Crescent Society

The same day the report was published, the Palestinian Prisoner Society and Al-Rantisi’s family stated they had not been informed of the doctor’s death, nor received information about his status since he was kidnapped early in November. Al-Rantisi, 53, who headed an obstetrics and gynecology department at Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahiya, was taken during a checkpoint check, according to his colleagues.

Kamal Adwan Hospital itself was besieged and raided approximately one month after Al-Rantisi was detained. During the attack, the IOF rounded up and kidnapped dozens of people, including many health workers. Among them was the hospital’s director, Ahmed Al-Kahlout. At the time of the attack, Kamal Adwan was one of the last functioning health institutions in the north, providing a lifeline to thousands of forcibly displaced people.

The government’s media office in Gaza has called for international investigations into the arrests and executions of Palestinian health personnel by the IOF shortly after news of Al-Rantisi’s death began to circulate. Together with other agencies and organizations, the office reiterated the call to protect the rights of health workers still detained.

Belgian organization Viva Salud, a partner of Al-Awda Hospital in Gaza, echoes this call by demanding the release of Ahmed Muhanna, Al-Awda’s director, and his colleagues. Since October of last year, over 200 health workers have been detained by the IOF while on duty, warned Viva Salud. Well over a hundred of them are still detained in Israeli prisons (reports vary on how many are still detained).

The targeting of Gaza’s health system has been denounced as a strategy by the IOF to make the Strip unlivable. Persecuting, threatening, and killing health personnel is a core component of this strategy. “The arrest of Dr. Ahmed Muhanna … was because he was the general manager of the hospital. I know I can be next in line,” Mohammed Salha, Al-Awda’s acting director, told Viva Salud.

Water system defunct, causing public health, hygiene concerns

The persecution of health workers is adding to the health burden shouldered by the population, which is growing by the hour. Thousands of children are already suffering from severe hunger. In addition, water supplies are a growing concern, according to international and humanitarian organizations. The United Nations (UN) Environment Program reported that Gaza’s wastewater plants were forced to shut down, while institutions that previously relied on their own filtration systems saw them destroyed in the multiple sieges and attacks.

“We still do not have filtered water. We drink pumped-up, unfiltered groundwater,” Salha said on June 4. The attacks have made the water and sanitation systems “almost entirely defunct,” according to the UN evaluation.

Moreover, Israeli attacks have blocked Gaza’s streets and neighborhoods with an unprecedented mass of debris. By June 18, there were 39 million tons of debris in Gaza, over 100 kilograms per square meter, according to the UN Environment Program. The debris is not only blocking ambulance vehicles from reaching the injured, but it also poses a direct health risk, exposing people to various toxic particles.

UN agencies also remain worried about the escalating situation in the West Bank. The World Health Organization (WHO) previously warned about the obstructions to healthcare caused by IOF and settler attacks in this part of Palestine. In a more recent communication, the WHO pointed to the high number of denied applications for health-related travel: of the 28,292 applications received, Israel refused 44%.

Additionally, the health system is being undermined by Israel withholding tax revenues through which health services are financed. This has resulted in health workers receiving only half of their salaries for almost a year and health centers being forced to operate at limited capacity. Medicine stocks remain unfilled, with 45% of essential medicines out of stock as of June 14.