Born in Hell: The Gaza Maternity Ward

As the Israeli offensive cuts off electricity, the very youngest Palestinians pay with their lives.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters

GAZA CITY — A makeshift refugee camp around Shifa Hospital is gradually insinuating itself into the maternity ward. Just outside the rooms where convalescing mothers and fragile babies are trying to survive, other people trying to escape the heat and the bombs lie on sweaty mattresses in shaded corners.

When I went to a church Wednesday that served as a shelter for almost a thousand Gazans, the Greek Orthodox archbishop was resolutely upbeat. He said a woman had given birth there, even as shells rained down nearby. “You see,” he said, “in Gaza there is also life, not only death.”

So I came here to Shifa hospital, scene of so much shock and trauma, hoping I could find more of that joy that the priest had talked about. But no place could be more emblematic of the slow, grinding destruction of life in Gaza—and of hope—than this maternity ward.

The problem is not with the staff, who are working as hard as they can with what they have. The problem is with war all around us and its effect on pregnant women, who are delivering prematurely, and with the power supply for the incubators that keep premature babies alive, which is going or gone.

Members of the hospital staff say they are seeing 15 to 20 percent more premature births since the Israeli offensive began in Gaza more than two weeks ago. Then, on Tuesday, the Israelis hit the Gaza power plant. Many homes and institutions have their own generators, but fuel for those is running out, and without electricity to operate pumps, many people are going without water. At Shifa Hospital the generators are old and cranky and don’t always kick in right away.

In the clinic for newborns, when the power goes, the incubators for premies no longer function. The temperature soars; the oxygen stops. Doctors and nurses try to pump oxygen manually until the power goes on, but sometimes they are too late or it just doesn’t work. These tiny beings—too tiny even to open their eyes—never see the world they were born into.

Hospital staff told me that three infants have died during the power cuts.

“This morning we have had seven power cuts,” said Dr. Ahma al Moudi in the neonatal intensive care unit. As we talked I looked at three babies, their skin a jaundiced yellow, in a single incubator. “We have two, three, sometimes four kids in one machine because they break down when we lose power,” said al Amoudi.” Two of the five incubators are no longer operational.

Musharef al Akrasi, a staff nurse, says he has been working for 10 days straight. “Sometimes it takes 30 minutes, sometimes five minutes, for the generator to restart and the power to come back on,” he told me. “At night—you can’t see anything,” he said.

The Neonatal clinic for outpatients is relatively quiet compared to the maternity ward. Clearly there is a shortage of staff. Nurse Mushref al Akrasi says doctors and nurses have been unable to reach the hospital because of the fighting in their neighborhoods. The waiting room is ill-kempt, but inside its institutional blue and white walls, there is a surprising sense of tranquility. The air smells of disinfectant and fabric softener.

Outside, ambulances are bringing scores of people to the hospital emergency room from a United Nations-run school in Beit Hanoun that was hit by Israeli tank shells, according to witnesses. The bodies of men, women and children covered in blood are loaded on gurneys and rushed to surgery, but the lines are long outside the operating rooms, and the sense of panic and despair is heavy in the air.

Nearby, the Hamas deputy information minister, Ehab al Hussain, sits in a memorial tent erected for those killed in the fighting. He is a relatively young man with a trim, tight beard and receding hairline. He blames the Israelis, of course, but also the Palestinian Authority—the rivals and partners of Hamas—for the failure to keep the electricity on. There is always a political answer for tragedy in Gaza, even if there is never a political solution.