During the early afternoon of the 24 October, an Israeli tank stopped at the intersection in front of the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, Palestine, turned is tower towards the entrance of the hospital and opened fire with is machine-gun. Bullets hit the entrance shed where the French and the Holy See flags where flying. Bullets struck through the main door hitting the walls in the area around the telephone operator, others crashed through the second door and missed employees and patients who where standing there. Thank to God nobody was hurt.
During this incident, the new Palestinian Governor and the Mayor of Bethlehem, together with a delegation, who where looking at the damage of the previous days, where trapped with the staff of the hospital for more than an hour.
The area around the Hospital has been in the last days the scene of fierce fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinian fighters. On many occasions the Israeli tanks have taken position on Paul VI Street in front of the hospital, and have fired shells on the surrounding buildings. The death toll in the Bethlehem area has reached 17 in the last five days, and the injured are numerous.
During the evening of Sunday 21st October, a tank fired into a building across the street from the hospital causing a fire that ravaged three floors. The civil defence fire department took more than one hour to arrive on the scene because of the continuous presence tanks. Fire was threatening the oxygen depot of the hospital, just behind the walls across the street. The Hospital’s Director of Administration had to make urgent calls to the international and local authorities, including the Consul General of France and the Mayor of Bethlehem before the fire fighters could approach the area.
During that night, the Hospital grounds received hits from heavy shelling. Several windows were damaged. The Hospital’s buildings were rocked many times during the night. A heavy cloud of dust settled everywhere causing patients and staff to panic.
On October 22nd a shell entered the laundry building causing heavy damage. Shrapnel shattered the windows of the Intensive Care Neo-natal unit, the nursery and patients’ rooms. Another shell hit the chapel. Several bullets and shrapnel pieces broke into different parts of the hospital. Two shells and many bullets hit the Saint Vincent Guest House causing extensive damage to the building. Two members of staff collapsed but nobody was seriously injured. The babies in the NICU had to be evacuated in their incubators to a safer room.
On October 23rd, the Jerusalem Patriarchs accompanied by the clergy, and the European Consuls marched from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in a sign of solidarity and protest. In Bethlehem, businesses are closed and the streets are deserted during most of the time apart from the Palestinian fighters and the Israeli tanks.
The staff working shifts had to be rescheduled changing the night shift to 4pm for safety reasons. Consultants on call and a maintenance man spend the nights at the hospital. The staff has to brought to the hospital and taken home. A large Order of Malta flag has been raised on the hospital’s minibus, hoping that it will be respected. Patients have had difficulty reaching the hospital and a few arrive in ambulances. Since the beginning of the year, this general situation has led to a drop in the number of deliveries from an average of 276 for the same period of last year to 158 this year.
A comparative study of the activity in September 2000 and September 2001, shows a 42% drop in the number of admission in Obstetrics and Genecology, and a 33% drop in the neonatal department. The number of deliveries dropped by 43% and the outpatient consultations by 53%.
The Holy Family Hospital is run as an activity of the whole Order of Malta under the operational responsibilities of the Association des Œuvres Hospitalières Françaises de l’Ordre de Malte. Since 1990, more than 25,000 babies have been born there. The hospital provides indispensable service in the area. American and European specialists have confirmed that the hospital has a good western European standard. Due to the continuing unstable political and the very tight economic situation, the need for the hospital services has increased. The hospital in fact offers pregnant women of the region the only possibility to give birth to their babies under good medical conditions. The first goal of the hospital has been, is, and will always be to provide high quality maternity care for all who come regardless of race, religion, culture or social condition
The Hospital is run by a highly qualified team of 94 people:
– 8 specialists, and 5 resident doctors
– 45 nurses
– 6 paramedical staff
– 5 administration staff
– 25 other support staff
– 21000 deliveries with no mortality, since February 1990
– The only Neonatal ICU in Bethlehem
– Highly qualified staff
– The only hospital in Palestine recognized by the RCOG in London for training doctors
– More than 3200 deliveries during the year 2000
– More than 15000 outpatient consultations per year
A brief history
– In 1882 the Daughters of Charity bought a large plot of land in Bethlehem where they laid the cornerstone for a 80-bed hospital.
– By a Firman in 1892, the Turkish Sultan gave the Sisters of Charity the license to build and maintain the hospital in Bethlehem.
– At a later date, the Turkish Authorities gave the hospital tax exemption within the Mytilene and Constantinople Agreements signed with the French Government.
– The Holy Family Hospital opened its doors in 1895, and grew into a busy general hospital, which provided medical, surgical and maternity facilities for the people of Bethlehem for almost a 100 years.
– In 1985, the hospital was forced to close due to political and social factors associated with the Arab / Israeli conflict.
– That same year, in answer to the crisis, the Order of Malta decided to reopen one wing as a 28-bed maternity unit. It received assistance from the European Union for its renovation and equipment.
– On the 26th February 1990, the first baby was born in the new facility.
– In 1997, due to the increase in activity, an extension was added to include two extra delivery rooms, a second operating room, nine extra beds and a neonatal unit. Again, the European Union generously helped funding the equipment.
– In April 2001, the hospital received an equipped mobile clinic, which was generously donated by the O’Neil Foundation in the US. It would permit the team to bring medical and social care to the doorsteps of the patients existing in pockets of poverty in remote hillside communities, where there is a lack of basic services like running water, electricity, public clinic etc. Unfortunately, the hospital has been unable to operate this mobile clinic because of the situation.
– Due to the increase in activity a bigger and much needed outpatient facility was opened in July 2001 on another wing of the old hospital.