Photo Credit: Ahmad Awad / UNRWA archives
Jabalia UNRWA Medical Center in Gaza

( A UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) cited a report that found infant mortality is increasing in Gaza for the first time in 53 years, and cites the ongoing blockade of Gaza by Israel as a likely cause. Some Israel supporters are crying foul, questioning the science behind the survey, the overreach of UNRWA officials and reporters as to the scope of the survey and the assumption that the cause of infant deaths lies at the feet of Israel.

The original report states that infant mortality among Gaza refugees was at 127 per 1,000 births in 1960, and declined to as low as 12 per 1000 in the 2008 survey. The numbers, according to the survey, then began sharply rising, reaching 20.3 per 1000 in 2013.


UNRWA runs their infant mortality survey every 5 years.

The dramatically reduced numbers of infant mortality correspond to the period of Israeli administration of Gaza from 1967 to 2005, during which time, Israel built hospitals, clinics and improved the infrastructure and quality of life of all the residents of the Gaza region. The Palestinian Authority took control of Gaza in 2005, and in 2007, Hamas violently took over Gaza from the Palestinian Authority.

Akihiro Seita, director of UNRWA’s health program wrote in a press release, “UNWRA was alarmed by the apparent increase, so we worked with external independent groups to examine data, to ensure the increase could be confirmed.” He added that the blockade of Gaza was likely to blame. In addition, last year’s Operation Protective Edge not only claimed thousands of Palestinian lives, but saw the destruction of homes and facilities. The report pointed out that the infant mortality rate among Israelis is 3.5 per 1,000 live births.

Israellycool blogger, Brian of London, raises questions about the accuracy of the report and believes it is slanted, noting the UNRWA’s spokespeople’s extrapolation from a small sample of refugees surveyed to the larger general population in Gaza.

Brian of London points out that the women in the survey were refugees, and not representative of the Gaza population at large. While this wouldn’t necessarily refute the claim that the war in Gaza might have had an effect on infant mortality, and some might say it could support that argument, it might not reflect the infant mortality rates of non-refugee Gazans who weren’t surveyed.

According to the study, “The target population included multiparous mothers with at least two children born alive, who attended one of the 22 UNRWA health centers in Gaza for registration and immunization of their most recently born child.” Brian of London dismisses the report as based on too small a sample, inclined to confirmation bias, and not one that has validation from a major medical journal. Brian of London also notes that 19 of the 65 deaths mentioned in the paper were “’congenital anomalies’: this is often associated with poor genetic diversity: marrying first cousins is known to be a big problem in this society.”

The other question that needs to be asked is how responsible is Israel for the quality of neonatal care in present-day Gaza? Is there evidence that the blockade is preventing medical supplies, and not just weapons, from reaching Gazans? What is the state of health facilities designed to treat Gazan mothers and children? The UNRWA is on the ground in 22 of them, so why didn’t the report back up its assumption that the blockade and the wars are having an effect on infant mortality without a detailed examination of the resources available or lacking?

While one could readily believe that wars and blockades have a deleterious effect on the health of a population, Dr. David Stone, Emeritus Professor of Paediatric Epidemiology at the University of Glasgow, argues that in general, Israel’s healthcare has benefited the Palestinians. “The health of Palestinians has improved steadily since 1967,” he writes in an academic paper citing studies of life expectancy, infant mortality, immunization, nutrition and infant growth patterns. “While many factors, “Dr. Stone writes, “including military conflict, are acknowledged to have played a role in contributing to relatively poor Palestinian health …” he confronts arguments that Israel deliberately afflicted Palestinians with medical neglect with data showing a decrease in infant mortality and an increase in Palestinian life expectancy since 1967 under Israeli administration.


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