Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland medic who worked in Palestine warns of devastating health impact on civilians

Dr Emma Keelan, an Ulster Hospital consultant who has previously worked in the West Bank, is staging a rally at Belfast City Hall on Friday.
Dr Emma Keelan, an Ulster Hospital consultant who has previously worked in the West Bank, is staging a rally at Belfast City Hall on Friday.

A medical consultant at the Ulster Hospital who has previously worked in the West Bank has spoken of the devastating health impact the Israel-Hamas war is having on civilians.

Speaking to the Irish News ahead of a ‘Healthcare workers for Palestine’ rally at Belfast City Hall on Friday, Emma Keelan (37) said medical colleagues from her time in Palestine are still battling to care for patients despite losing entire sides of their family.

Having travelled to work as a volunteer medic with Physicians for Human Rights for several years, most recently in May 2023, she fears that the breakdown in healthcare could ultimately cost more lives than the ongoing violence.



Smoke rises following Israeli bombardments in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)
Israeli airstrike on Khan Younis Smoke rises following Israeli bombardments in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman) (Mohammed Dahman/AP)

On Thursday, medics in the southern Gaza town of Rafah said an Israeli airstrike killed 16 people, half of them children.

Since the Hamas attacks of October 7, Israel’s relentless retaliation has claimed over 24,000 lives and around 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million population have fled their homes, with the UN stating a quarter of the population are starving.

At Friday’s vigil, Dr Keelan said those attending will protest against war crimes, read out the names of 374 health workers that have died in Palestine and hold a minute’s silence.

“What we’re asking for is a ceasefire and to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza to basically try and prevent the impending public health crisis that is unfolding there because of forced starvation, the lack of sanitation and clean water,” she said.

Dr Emma Keelan during her last visit to the West Bank.
Dr Emma Keelan during her last visit to the West Bank.

During her last visit to the West Bank in May she said a lack of medication already made it a struggle to treat common conditions like diabetes.

“Our clinics would offer free medication, but we were very over-subscribed and each village may only be visited once or twice a year.”

As well as the mass displacement and loss of life in Gaza, she said Palestine’s medical workforce had been devastated.

“They’re now down to 13 hospitals (from 36) which are only partially working. Their future workforce is also affected as medical students have been murdered as part of this onslaught,” she said.

“There’s a rise in illnesses like diarrhoea, meningitis and chicken pox. We’re also hearing reports of children who should be getting dialysis, cancer treatment and treatment for Type 1 diabetes.

“So people are starting to die now of complications from illnesses they were already diagnosed with from before.

“That’s only going to get worse.”

A Palestinian woman flashes a V-sign towards Israeli troops during an army raid in the Tulkarem refugee camp on the West Bank (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Israel Palestinians A Palestinian woman flashes a V-sign towards Israeli troops during an army raid in the Tulkarem refugee camp on the West Bank (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser) (Nasser Nasser/AP)

Although not the main focus of the fighting, she said healthcare in the West Bank has also suffered greatly in recent months due to supply routes shutting down, an economic collapse and thousands of arrested people unable to access proper healthcare in often violent open-air prisons.

Before the fighting erupted, she explained that around 500 humanitarian aid trucks had been allowed into Gaza each day, but this dropped as low as 200 a day during the “semi-ceasefire” in November.

“What we need is for our government to stand up. Even if the International Court of Justice finds Israel guilty of genocide, they’re going to continue on unless we hold them to account.”

While the overwhelming scale of the humanitarian crisis plays out in the media, Dr Keelan said it was also impossible not to worry about the friends she had made in Palestine.

“We have several friends that have lost entire sides of their family in Gaza,” she said.

“It’s very hard whenever you’re talking to them, and yet they keep going and advocating. We keep showing them the marches and vigils we are going on and they are getting something from our solidarity.

“That’s the least we can do to support them.”

The Health care workers for Palestine rally at Belfast City Hall takes place at 6.30pm on Friday.