Israeli doctors pressure WHO, Red Cross and others to protect hostages in Gaza

As they support families of the kidnapped and missing, public health experts provide ICRC critical information on their medical conditions and necessary medications

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza since the group's murderous infiltration of Israel on October 7, 2023, protest outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv. October 14, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza since the group's murderous infiltration of Israel on October 7, 2023, protest outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv. October 14, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Public health leaders are working closely with the families of the Israeli hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza and interacting on their behalf with international health organizations in a bid to ensure the hostages’ health and safety.

Israel has so far informed families of 199 Israelis that they have been held hostage by Hamas and other terror groups since October 7, when thousands of terrorists burst through the border and ravaged Israeli southern communities, killing over 1,300 people, most of them civilians, and sparking an ongoing war.

While the international organizations are supportive, it doesn’t appear that they have taken any concrete steps to help, according to Israeli doctors who spoke with The Times of Israel.

“I think that sometimes you don’t just need support. You need actions, and it’s incredibly frustrating that the World Health Organization (WHO) is not doing enough. I think it can be much more proactive in trying to deal with the situation. It’s not enough to just write a letter of support.

We need actions,” said Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, head of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s School of Public Health.

The Israeli Medical Association released a video describing the horrific physical and psychological injuries Israeli doctors have been treating in the wake of the Hamas attack. The video also called on the Red Cross, WHO and medical colleagues around the world to demand that the Israeli hostages are cared for and safely brought home.

Davidovitch is part of the medical team led by Prof. Hagai Levine, chair of the Israeli Association of Public Health, supporting the Bring Them Home Now organization (also known as the Hostages and Missing Families Forum) formed to represent families of the kidnapped and missing.

Levine and some of the families met with the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Israel on October 13 and October 15.

“We demanded that it use all means to ensure the medical care and obtain information on the welfare of the hostages,” Levine said.

Ahead of the second meeting, the Bring Them Home Now organization compiled a database of as much medical information as it had at that point on the hostages and the missing. Although the information was initial and partial, it indicated that many of the Israelis would be in life-threatening danger without proper treatment and medications.

Supporters and family members of Israeli hostages look at images of the hostages plastered on a wall during a rally outside of the Kirya military base in central Tel Aviv on October 14, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

The database was sent to the ICRC on October 14 and followed up by an October 15 letter stating the medical conditions from which the hostages —aged nine months to 90 — suffer. These include: diabetes, cancer, heart failure, chronic kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s, stroke, multiple sclerosis, cardiac arrhythmias, hypertension, asthma, allergies, glaucoma, autism and psychiatric disorders.

In addition, the letter stated that some of the hostages were severely wounded when abducted and needed immediate medical care.

Appended to the letter was a list of 107 different prescription drugs that the hostages and missing need to take regularly to treat their illnesses and conditions.

“In addition, there is a need for baby formula,” the letter added.

To emphasize the dire nature of the situation, the letter provided examples of some of the most vulnerable cases. Among these are a one-year-old baby who relies only on baby formula for sustenance, and children aged 5, 13 and 16 with autism who need special assistance.

Keren, mother of Mia Schem, and representatives of the families of the abducted people held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza hold a press conference following the release of a video by Hamas, in which the 21-year-old Israeli woman is seen. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

There is also a 60-year-old man with multiple sclerosis who cannot walk independently and a man with severe autoimmune disease who needs treatment with biologics in the hospital to avoid a worsening of his disease and possible death. A 27-year-old woman with Crohn’s disease needs special treatment and nutrition.

Among the most elderly, there is an 85-year-old woman with a history of heart failure, kidney disease, asthma and cardiac arrhythmia, who is at high risk of developing blood clots, fluid retention and death. There is also an underweight elderly woman with Parkinson’s and dementia who must use adult diapers.

“We gave all the information we have to the International Red Cross. Now it’s mainly up to them, but you need to understand that they need to act under the umbrella of the UN and other international organizations,” Davidovitch said.

“What’s left for us to do is to continue to put pressure,” he said.

Following the October 7 devastating surprise attack on Israeli civilians, the WHO issued a statement calling “for an end to hostilities.” Several days later it condemned Israel for warning Gazans to evacuate the northern part of the Strip and also calling for hospitals in that area to evacuate.

Palestinian terrorists abduct an Israeli grandmother, later identified as Yaffa Adar, from Kibbutz Kfar Aza into the Gaza Strip, October 7, 2023. (AP/Hatem Ali)

For the Health Ministry and so many Israeli physicians who have long been active in international public health organizations, it has been extremely dismaying that WHO is not focusing on the devastating damage done by Hamas in Israel or doing more to protest the terror group’s atrocities and assist in safeguarding the Israeli hostages.

“The Israeli Ministry of Health wishes to express its profound disappointment in the World Health Organization’s Israeli efforts to reduce the risk to civilian life in the conflict zone and to Hamas atrocities and crimes against humanity,” the ministry said in an October 16 statement.

“We lament the WHO’s neglect of the atrocities that continue to be perpetrated by Hamas,” it said.

Dr. Mitchell J. Schwaber, a medical professor at Tel Aviv University, released to the media a strong letter he wrote on October 16 to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stating why he will no longer serve as an advisor to WHO in infection prevention and control at the headquarters and European regional levels.

Schwaber, who volunteered hundreds of hours of service to WHO during the COVID pandemic, told Ghebreyesus he could not accept the organization’s choice to encourage an end to hostilities after the “apocalyptic terror” wrought on Israeli citizens by Hamas on October 7.

He also addressed the subject of the Israeli hostages, writing, “Do not confuse them with prisoners of war. These are innocent people plucked by Hamas from the killing fields that they created last Saturday, ripped from the arms of their loved ones, and herded away to the terrifying unknown dungeons of Gaza. Their Hamas captors have historically, and presently, shown zero regard for the Geneva Convention.”

“If WHO wishes ‘for the immediate and safe delivery of medical supplies, fuel, clean water, food, and other humanitarian aid into Gaza,’ as well it should, it should begin by demanding that Hamas first release, unharmed, every last prisoner it kidnapped on 7 October. That, rather than condemning Israel for doing what it must to free its citizens, would be the humane statement to issue,” Schwaber wrote.

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