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Fuel Shortages Threaten Lebanese Hospitals

After nearly four weeks of an Israeli-imposed air and sea blockade of Lebanon, shortages are beginning to affect the population. Health officials say the most immediate need is for fuel, and Lebanese hospitals could soon be critically affected if oil and diesel shipments cannot be delivered.

It is mid-day in the Lebanese capital and the streets are unusually empty. Gas stations across the city are rationing fuel and some have run out completely. Many shops and businesses are closed and there are few cars on the normally gridlocked streets.

Israel has repeatedly hit Lebanon's infrastructure during its 27-day long campaign to weaken and destroy the Hezbollah militant group. With its capacity diminished, Lebanon's power company, Electricite du Liban, is now only able to provide most areas with 10 to 12 hours of power daily. This means most homes and businesses are running on private generators. The generators are diesel powered, and the continuing Israeli blockade on Lebanon has prevented any significant fuel supplies from reaching the country.

For nearly one week, U.N. aid agencies have been trying to coordinate the delivery of 87,000 tons of diesel and oil to Lebanon to help alleviate the shortages. Two tankers have been sitting in Cyprus with the fuel, but the vessels' owners will not allow them to move without specific security guarantees.

While the lack of fuel has caused difficulties for the general population, a larger crisis looms. If the government's fuel supply runs out and it cannot supply hospitals, the hospitals will have to use their own limited reserves to function. Hospital officials say that is when the real crisis will begin, because if their facilities cannot get adequate fuel supplies for their generators and water pumps they will quickly be forced to cut back their services or even close.

"We cannot afford to have a country at war without hospitals… This is purely and simply unacceptable," said Sleiman Haroun, who is the president of the Lebanese Hospital Syndicate, which represents the country's 136 private hospitals.

Haroun says the problem for hospitals is two-fold, especially for those facilities in South Lebanon, which is now cut off from the rest of the country because of bombed out roads and bridges.

"Having enough quantities and even after we get the quantities we need to have safe corridors to get it to them [the hospitals]," he said. "What we have now in stocks even if we can distribute it, would not last for more than a week or 10 days in the South."

The American University Hospital is Beirut's largest. Dr. Nadim Cortas is the dean of the Faculty of Medicine. He says the city's hospitals are working together to form a contingency plan to consolidate their sickest patients if the crisis worsens.

"There is fear, there is concern, there is panic; but everybody is very committed and dedicated to continue to do whatever they can do until the last minute," he said.

Dr. Cortas says he hopes the fuel shortages will not reach this point, as it would have catastrophic effects on the civilian population.