Gaza’s medical lifeline cut by border closures

Egyptian security forces deployed on the border between Egypt and Gaza Strip near the Rafah Crossing between Palestinian territory and Egypt, 29 October 2006. (MaanImages/Hatem Omar)

CAIRO - Hopes that the single border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt would reopen and bring relief to hundreds of Gazan medical patients have been dashed after reports of an imminent Israeli attack on the border were met by the deployment of thousands of Egyptian troops to the area.

Maariv, an Israeli daily newspaper, reported on 27 October that the Israeli government had discovered tunnels allegedly used by Palestinian militants to smuggle weapons from Egypt to the Gaza Strip. It said the Israeli government planned to attack the border region with precision-guided rockets.

In response, Egyptian authorities said they deployed at least 3,000 extra security forces to the border with Gaza on 28 October to protect what they said were up to 20,000 Egyptian civilians under threat if Israel carried out its strikes.

The Rafah Crossing Point between Egypt and Gaza has long been a vital link between the Palestinian territory’s beleaguered public health service and the more advanced facilities available in Cairo.

“We came the first time to the border [from Gaza] by ambulance and the border was closed. Aseel was really sick then,” said Sanaa Wishah, the mother of six-year-old Aseel Jamal Wishah, who suffers severe eczema across her body.

“After four days we went back to the border by ambulance and then [having crossed the border to Egypt in mid-August] we had to take five different buses. Because she was moved from the ambulance to the buses her skin condition got a lot worse.”

The journey from Rafah to Cairo is 350 kilometres. Aseel is a patient in the paediatric ward of the Palestine Hospital in Cairo, which is considered a vital part of the Palestinian health infrastructure.

“There is a great need for Palestinians to have access to Egyptian medical centres for specialities such as oncology, heart surgery, eye treatment and paediatrics,” said Dr Mohammed Zaghloul, director of the Palestine Red Crescent Society branch at the Palestine Hospital.

The Rafah border has been open for only 14 days since 25 June, when an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian militants. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent its captured soldier being taken to Egypt and to prevent militants smuggling arms to carry out terrorist attacks on its citizens.

Since then, the Palestinian Ministry of Health has referred, on average, about 230 patients per month from Gaza for treatment abroad.

According to the Referral Abroad Department in the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health, more than 400 patients approved for treatment outside Gaza since June have not been able to leave the territory at all.

At the Palestine Hospital in Cairo, the border closures are hampering doctors’ efforts to treat new patients because existing patients are staying longer than necessary in wards, according to Zaghloul.

“Last month we had more than 100 people staying in the hospital, not being treated, at a cost of more than 40,000 Egyptian pounds [US$6,900]. We need that money to treat the sick,” said Zaghloul, adding that if the border were functioning normally, the hospital would be treating 60-70 patients at a time.

Until normal conditions resume at the Egypt-Gaza border or the next ‘one-off’ opening, families continue to wait at the Palestine Hospital for a phone-call or radio broadcast to say the crossing will be open the next day, and the chance for an overnight dash to Rafah.

Six-year-old Aseel, her sister, her brother and her mother Sanaa are among those families who wait in Egypt. However, Sanaa said that her children would rather stay in Cairo than return to the violence in Gaza.

“The children say they don’t want to go back to Gaza. Only the smallest one wants to come back because of his grandfather. Aseel wants to stay in the hospital and become a doctor here,” she said.

This item comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. All IRIN material may be reposted or reprinted free-of-charge; refer to the copyright page for conditions of use. IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.