Number of patients from Gaza getting travel permits for medical treatment falls by 90%, says charity

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 08 May 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1039
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. 1London

    Patients are dying in the Gaza Strip because neighbouring governments are preventing them from seeking treatment outside the occupied territory, according to the Israeli medical charity Physicians for Human Rights Israel.

    More than 40 patients with cancer and cardiac problems have died in recent months after being refused permission to leave through the Erez crossing by Israel’s military and intelligence services. Permits are often withheld for unspecified “security reasons,” even though patients have been accepted for referral by hospitals in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, or Egypt.

    The Palestinian Ministry of Health estimates that about 800 patients of all ages and both sexes currently need to leave Gaza for treatment. Some were previously receiving treatment for cancer outside the Gaza Strip, but their treatment has stopped as the territory has been progressively sealed off since Hamas seized control there last June.

    There are theoretically two crossing points through which people may enter or leave the Gaza Strip: Erez, on the border with Israel in the north, and Rafah, on the Egyptian border to the south. The Rafah crossing has been closed since last June, apart from a few days in January when Hamas militants breached the wall.

    Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority controlled by the Fatah faction in the West Bank all support the closure of Rafah crossing, said Miri Weingarten, director of Physicians for Human Rights Israel’s occupied territories project.

    The number of patients applying for the organisation’s help in seeking permits to cross at Erez rose from 32 in the first five months of 2007 to 407 in the first four months of 2008. At the same time the charity’s success rate in getting permits fell from 67% to 7%, and it lost several cases in the Israeli courts. “Our illusion of legal redress is fading with every decision against us,” said the group’s executive director Hadas Ziv.

    Patients often receive transit permits that are “authorised pending interrogation,” meaning they must attend an appointment set by the Israeli security services and provide details about family and neighbours. The interrogation is often scheduled after their medical appointment. Mohammed Alhurani, aged 33, died on 2 May from a brain tumour after the Israeli army suddenly postponed his scheduled interview to 5 May.

    The youngest victim of the policy, Qusai Issa, was 4 when he died from neuroblastoma in February. He was denied permission to cross at Erez to restart treatment after being sent home for a week’s rest from an Israeli hospital. Four applications to travel with various relatives were refused on security grounds, denying him treatment for 80 days.

    The cases of at least 15 patients with cancer in Gaza have been taken up by Amnesty International, which said, “Denying passage to patients in desperate need of medical care serves no legitimate security purpose, as all patients undergo strict security checks at the crossing, and are generally gravely ill.”

    The Israeli embassy in London was unable to provide comment before the BMJ went to press, saying their responsible officials were away.

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