Coalition of churches fights for Palestinian health rights

The right of Palestinians to access quality health care continues to be impaired by the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, so hospitals supported by Action by Churches Together International are reaching out in new ways to deliver health care to isolated and besieged communities.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is an active member of ACT.

A major problem, according to hospital administrators, is that the Israeli military has severely limited the access of Palestinians to health care facilities since the current intifada, or popular uprising, began in 2000.

Towns and villages are placed under curfew, earth and rubble are bulldozed into piles that block roads, and checkpoints run by Israeli soldiers regularly refuse to let Palestinians pass. Hundreds of people have died because patients traveling in ambulances or on their own were prevented from reaching clinics and hospitals.

Travel restrictions under Israel’s state of siege constitute “a flagrant breach of human rights” that “impairs the ability of the sick to reach hospitals for treatment and of ambulances to transport the sick and wounded,” according to a report by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that monitors conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Tawfiq Nasser, executive director of August Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, concurs. “Access is part of the definition of quality health care, and it’s a fundamental right for any patient to access their health care provider.”

Besides patients who can’t get to the hospital, Nasser says staff are also blocked or delayed when they travel from their home to work. “So the hospital has to expend enormous amounts of funding to try and cover for them, to transport them back and forth.”

Perched on the Mount of Olives, Augusta Victoria Hospital is run by the Lutheran World Federation. Two-thirds of the hospital’s patients come from refugee camps, and the 100-bed facility is a key referral hospital for the region. Yet patients often face an overwhelming odyssey in order to reach the hospital, at times passing through three or four checkpoints just to enter East Jerusalem.

“As a result, patients come to us, when they do come to us, much later, much sicker, much more acute, which means we have to spend more money, give more medication, practice more interventions. That makes the emergency impact us financially,” Nasser says.

Funding from ACT has been “the spinal cord” of the hospital’s operations during the last two years, according to Nasser. In addition to helping the hospital treat direct casualties of the conflict, ACT funds are used to transport patients in and out of closed regions. For some patients, like those needing kidney dialysis every two or three days, ACT funding has helped Augusta Victoria house them on the hospital grounds.

ACT has also made it possible for Augusta Victoria to send medical professionals into isolated areas and dispatch “mobile clinics” to four rural villages. A trauma surgeon supported by ACT provides critical care in the hospital in Qalqilya, a town along the West Bank’s border with Israel that has been isolated by an eight meter-high concrete “separation fence” constructed by the Israelis. Another ACT-supported physician provides orthopedic services at a clinic in the besieged southern city of Hebron.

At the Ama’ri refugee camp in Ramallah, Augusta Victoria uses ACT funding to provide a pediatrician for the United Nations-run clinic. In several besieged villages around Bethlehem, an ACT-supported midwife assists with prenatal care and childbirths.

In the overcrowded Gaza Strip, between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, another ACT-supported hospital has had to adjust its practice of medicine to the state of siege. “Before, patients came to us. Now we have to go to them,” says Suhaila Tarazi, director of the Ahli Arab Hospital, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The hospital daily buses in patients from remote villages, often just women and children since Israeli soldiers regularly prohibit men from passing through the checkpoints.

The hospital experienced the violence directly Jan. 24, when an Israeli guided missile, fired from a U.S.-supplied Apache helicopter, slammed into St. Philip’s Episcopal Chapel in the middle of the hospital complex. The hospital suffered extensive damage and an elderly patient had a fatal heart attack. Church officials noted that the complex was clearly marked with Red Cross flags.

According to Dr. Maher Ayyad, the hospital’s chief surgeon, the state of siege has left the people of Gaza and the hospital feeling isolated from the rest of the world. “Before the intifada, we had Israeli surgeons come here once a week to help out, and they often took patients with them back to Tel Aviv.

“We used to have a surgeon or a specialist come here every month from the United States or Britain, but since the tensions have grown, they are too scared to come,” he adds. “We used to send off our physicians to train and specialize in other countries, and we could refer patients to hospitals outside of Gaza. But now we watch patients die because we can’t send them elsewhere.”

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary in Central America who traveled to the Palestinian territories as a field communicator for Action by Churches Together.