Mohammed al-Sheikh Yousef could save his eyesight if only he could cross the border out of Gaza. He was denied a permit by Israel; he got one from Egypt, but not for someone to accompany him. And he can’t go on his own, because he cannot see very well.
"If Mohammed does not get out of Gaza for medical treatment within the next 14 days, he may totally lose his eyesight and be blind for life," Dr. Mawia Hasaneen, head of the ambulance and emergency service for Gaza hospitals, told IPS in a telephone interview.
"In the past few weeks we have received 150 appeals from people in Gaza who are in need of urgent medical care," says Ran Yaron from Physicians for Human Rights, a human rights group in Israel that campaigns on behalf of Palestinian patients to obtain exit permits for healthcare.
"We submitted 99 applications to the Israeli army on behalf of the patients, but only 15 cases were approved," Yaron told IPS. "Israel as the occupying power has primary responsibility for the health of the civilians of Gaza, because it controls the crossings. It should not use the patients as a political tool."
The emergency staff often stand by helpless spectators to suffering. "I just received a call from the mother of a 4-year-old child from Jabaliya refugee camp in the north; her son has congestive heart failure and respiratory distress," said Dr. Hasaneen. "As an official I can’t stand to watch her child dying simply because medical treatment is not available in Gaza and the borders are closed." But he has no option but to do just that.
The al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, based in Gaza, says that at least 41 Gazans died last year of causes that can be attributed to the collapse of the medical referral process. Currently, it says the condition of hundreds of Gazans is deteriorating rapidly.
For Gazans, what happens at the border crossings can make the difference between life and death. Medicines for many easily treated diseases sit across the Rafah crossing with Egypt or the Erez crossing into Israel. Patients cannot get across, and most medicines are not allowed in.
Egypt says it can only reopen the border fully with the cooperation of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority which has no control over Gaza. Meanwhile at least 750 patients in urgent need of treatment outside Gaza are unable to leave, according to medical sources in Gaza.
The Rafah crossing has been blocked for much of the time since Hamas took full control of Gaza in June 2007, after winning elections in January 2006. In the interim it had shared rule with the Fatah Party, which has its government entrenched in the West Bank.
Egypt recently opened the crossing for a few days. Ihab al-Ghousin from the de facto Palestinian Ministry of the Interior said that was "not long enough to allow people to get out and come back in." Some patients from Gaza made it across to hospitals in Egypt but could not return.
Last week, dozens of Palestinian patients in urgent need of medical treatment made it somehow to the Rafah crossing along with family members to stage a demonstration. They waved flags and held banners saying "We call on Egypt to save our lives" and "We call on all parties to exclude the Rafah crossing from political disputes."
Under a U.S.-brokered deal in 2005, the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority was given charge of operating the Gaza crossing under EU supervision. Egypt and the EU refuse to deal with the democratically elected Hamas government.
Israel refuses to communicate with the Palestinian Medical Committee set up by the Hamas-led Ministry of Health in Gaza. It wants to negotiate with a committee of the Ramallah-based Fatah government led by Mahmoud Abbas.
"The international community should demand from Israel that more coordination mechanisms are set up in order to enable Palestinian patients to get access to healthcare outside of the Gaza Strip," says Yaron.
(Inter Press Service)