Twelve-year-old Amal Samouni still has shrapnel in her skull from the time Israel bombed her neighborhood in Gaza in early 2009. Amal lost 21 members of her extended family in that massacre, including her father Attieh and her brother Ahmad. As if she hasn’t suffered enough, Amal has been refused permission to travel through Israel for sorely-needed treatment.
The last time Amal was able to receive medical attention outside Gaza was in 2011. On that occasion, her aging grandmother Alia Arafat brought her to a hospital in the West Bank city of Ramallah. There, Amal underwent some cosmetic surgery on her forehead.
With her grandmother no longer able to take care of Amal, the girl’s mother, Zeinat — also known as Um Mahmoud — sent an application to the Palestinian Authority in November 2012. Zeinat asked the PA to seek the permission required from Israel to enable Amal attend an appointment in al-Maqasid hospital, which is based in East Jerusalem.
After making the request, Zeinat received a phone call from a PA official. “The official said, ‘sorry, Madam Zeinat, the Israeli authorities did not issue a travel permit for you,’” she recalled.
Zeinat had previously been informed by officials that she was not allowed to go through Erez, the crossing between Gaza and Israel. No explanation was given.
“They told me that they can only allow my mother to enter [Israel], along with Amal,” she said. “I got very sad when I heard this news. As I am Amal’s mother, it is best if I escort her. My mother suffers from health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure and is much less active than she used to be.”
After losing both her husband and a son in the January 2009 attack on the al-Zaytoun area, south of Gaza City, Zeinat and her surviving children moved into a new house, built with the help of some charities.
Amal’s shrapnel injuries do not result from the bombing in which her father was killed but one that took place soon afterwards. The Zaytoun neighborhood sustained repeated attacks during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week offensive against Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.
“After the Israeli army killed my husband and son in front of my eyes and those of my children, just tens of meters away from this new home, I managed to gather my strength and headed for a nearby relative’s house,” Zeinat explained.
“On our way to that house, while raising some white flags, my daughter Amal went to stay at the house of our cousin Wael Samouni, where more than 80 family members were seeking shelter. A large explosion ripped through that house. Following three or four days, I recall, rescue teams managed to get out the bodies of many of those killed, as well as to save several of the injured, including my daughter Amal,” she said.
Daily nose bleeds
Throughout 2009, Amal suffered from nose bleeds on a daily basis, as well as severe headaches and an ear infection. She began to lose concentration, became forgetful and encountered difficulties at school.
Amal initially received some care at a hospital in Cairo. Egyptian doctors referred her to an Italian specialist. “Right after this we were told that we should go back to Gaza as there seemed to be no treatment for Amal,” Zeinat said. Amal’s grandmother also brought her to Tel HaShomer, a hospital in Israel, for a day, “and then came back with no real treatment,” Zeinat added.
Amal is currently staying with some relatives in Saudi Arabia. She has been brought there for a holiday and possibly for some treatment.
Along with other local doctors, Gaza-based neurologist Usma al-Aklouk has followed Amal’s case for the past four years. Amal’s is one of many similar cases across the Gaza Strip.
Al-Aklouk explained that injuries caused by shrapnel lodging in the skull or brain “can be treated once the shrapnel is removed, but it is so sensitive to do such surgeries as they might cause paralysis in the person wounded.”
Human rights monitors have documented numerous cases in which Israel has refused permission to travel for medical treatment since it withdrew its settlers from Gaza in 2005. The World Health Organization recently reported that 178 applications to travel via the Erez crossing had been made by Gaza-based patients before Israel’s eight-day attack on Gaza this past November.
Just 62 of these permits were granted (“Initial Health Assessment Report Gaza Strip,” December 2012 [PDF]).
Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights in Gaza, said that the Israeli authorities frequently tell patients who request permission to travel that they do not meet the criteria that would allow them enter Israel.
“We in right groups are not aware yet of what those criteria are,” he said. “I believe that Israel is dealing with Gaza from a security perspective, despite the fact that most of those wishing to enter [Israel] en route to the West Bank or Israel are either urgent medical cases or Gaza traders. We cannot find any concrete justification for such Israeli measures.”
Abu Shammala added that “in some of the complaints we have received, we found that some Gaza residents, who were escorting their own relatives for treatment, have been exposed to blackmail by Israeli intelligence services at the Erez crossing. Israeli intelligence personnel often ask patients or those escorting them to collaborate with the security services, in return for a smooth entry through the crossing.”
Meanwhile, Zeinat Samouni remains determined to find suitable treatment for her daughter. Noting that the name Amal means “hope” in Arabic, Zeinat said: “After losing my husband and son, I just hope that Amal will be able to make a recovery.”
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.