UNITED NATIONS - The infant mortality rate in the Gaza Strip has risen for the first time in 50 years, according to new study carried out by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which cited the ongoing blockade as possibly contributing to the trend.

“Infant mortality is one of the best indicators for the health of the community,” Dr. Akihiro Seita, Director of UNRWA’s health programme, said. “It reflects on the mother and child’s health and in the UN Millennium Development Goals it is one of the key indicators.” Every five years UNRWA conducts a survey of infant mortality across the region, and the 2013 results were released this week.

The number of babies dying before the age of one has consistently gone down over the last decades in Gaza, from close to 130 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to some 20 in 2008, it said. At the last count, in 2013, it had risen to more than 22 per 1,000 live births. The rate of neonatal mortality, which is the number of babies that die before four weeks old, has also gone up significantly in Gaza, from 12 per 1,000 live births in 2008 to over 20 in 2013.

“The rate,” Dr. Seita said, “declined quite smoothly over the last decades across the region, including Gaza. So when the 2013 results from Gaza were first uncovered, UNRWA was alarmed by the apparent increase. So we worked with external independent research groups to examine the data, to ensure the increase could be confirmed. That is why it took us so long to release these latest figures.”

Such an increase is unprecedented in Dr. Seita’s experience working in the Middle East. “Progress in combatting infant mortality doesn’t usually reverse. This seems to be the first time we have seen an increase like this,” he said, explain that the only other examples he could think of are in some African countries which experienced HIV epidemics. While the agency will carry out another region-wide survey of Palestinian refugees in 2018, because of these latest figures, UNRWA will conduct one this year in Gaza alone.

“It is hard to know the exact causes behind the increase in both neonatal and infant mortality rates, but I fear it is part of a wider trend. We are very concerned about the impact of the long-term blockade on health facilities, supplies of medicines and brining equipment in to Gaza,” Dr Seita said. The UNRWA report also highlights that the most recent survey was conducted before last year’s conflict, in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, the majority of whom were civilians, including over 550 children.

Moreover, Hundreds of police deployed in the heart of Paris on Thursday to monitor a celebration of Tel Aviv and a nearby rally against it staged by pro-Gaza demonstrators during a beach festival on the banks of the Seine river. Paris’ decision to fete the Israeli city as “Tel Aviv on Seine” for a day sparked a spat online and among politicians in a country where, with Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim communities, sensitivities to Middle East conflict run high.

For its supporters, the official event was about dialogue between cultures and celebrating famously freewheeling Tel Aviv. Critics branded the beach celebration “indecent” after the death of a Palestinian baby in an arson attack in the Israeli-occupied West Bank at the end of July. A year ago, Israeli forces devastated parts of the Gaza Strip during a two-month war with Palestinian Hamas militants who rule the territory.

But both the Tel Aviv and Gaza events, which were set to run until 10 p.m. (2000 GMT), unfolded largely peacefully to the sound of DJs and beach ping-pong. What was meant to be a festive event, however, was largely about geopolitics, with visitors saying they were there with a message. “I want to show that I won’t be told what to do,” said Odile Gaudin, who came with her daughter. She was referring to calls by some left-wing French politicians for the Tel Aviv event to be cancelled or boycotted.

“I am really sorry that today in Paris we can’t do an event that promotes the culture of Tel Aviv without it causing such a harsh and violent controversy,” said Nicolas Woloszko, the treasurer of Jewish students union UEJF. A few metres (yards) away, on another small sandy stretch of the riverbank, pro-Palestinian activists sporting “Free Palestine” or “Boycott Israel” T-shirts staged a rival “Gaza on Seine” gathering.

“This (Tel Aviv on Seine festival) is part of Israeli propaganda to try and show an Israel that is different from the bombs, soldiers, checkpoints,” said Nicolas Shahshahani, vice-president of the CAPJPO EuroPalestine Association. About 100 demonstrators later assembled in the street above Paris’ urban beach, chanting “Gaza, Gaza, Paris is with you”. There was a brief scuffle when police pushed aside some demonstrators who sat down on the road to block traffic.