Ola al-Waheidi acted quickly when she heard that her 9-year-old daughter Mais had leukemia.
Within a few days of learning about the diagnosis in early December, Ola had undertaken the paperwork required for Mais to receive medical treatment outside Gaza. Yet Ola’s efficiency proved no match for Israel’s cruel bureaucracy.
Ola was soon informed that she may not accompany her daughter through Erez, the military checkpoint separating Gaza and Israel. Mais would have to travel without her parents for treatment.
The family then had to give the Israeli military various names, requesting that someone on the list should accompany Mais. Israel rejected most of the suggestions, before deciding that Balqis al-Waheidi, a 72-year-old distant relative with diabetes and rheumatism, may travel with the child.
Mais was granted permission to travel on 10 December. When they reached Erez that day, Ola had still not told her daughter about the arrangements.
“I didn’t know how to tell her that I wouldn’t be with her,” said Ola. “She was holding my hand the whole way, telling me to not leave her.”
“Heart torn apart”
Once she had gone through the required procedures, Ola spoke to Mais, who was in an ambulance.
Ola said that she was would be back shortly with a bottle of water. Ola then called their relative Balqis over, asked the woman to take care of Mais and walked away. Mais had not known Balqis before this trip.
“I watched her [Mais] from a short distance and she had already started to cry,” said Ola. “My heart was torn apart at that moment.”
Mais was brought to Beit Jala Hospital near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
Muhammad al-Jarusha, who heads the hospital’s department for pediatric cancer, said that Mais was “sad and bored.”
“Mais needed her mother to be with her,” he added.
Because her immunity system has been compromised, Mais has to be kept in isolation at the hospital so that the risk of infection can be minimized. She underwent a 33-day chemotherapy program.
During convalescence, it is vital that a patient’s morale is as high as possible. The forced absence of Mais’ mother had a “negative effect” on the child’s health at a crucial time, al-Jarusha said.
Ola grew increasingly distressed as she thought of how “my daughter is dying slowly and I can’t do anything, even be with her,” she said.
After Ola gave details of her family’s plight to a number of human rights organizations, she was eventually allowed join Mais.
On the morning of 31 December, Ola was contacted by an Israeli soldier and summoned to Erez. She hurriedly packed a bag and went directly to the checkpoint.
She was kept waiting seven hours, without being provided with any information until a female soldier inspected her.
“I was made to take off most of my clothes and searched for 45 minutes,” Ola said. “It was very humiliating but I didn’t have any choice. I wanted to reach Mais, whatever it took.”
Mais is still in hospital. “When I saw Mais, it was like we both came back to life,” said Ola. “We will fight her illness together.”
Mais is one of many children for whom treatment outside Gaza was essential. On average 58 percent of medicines for leukemia and other types of cancer were unavailable in Gaza during 2018.
Throughout last year, more than 1,800 patients were stopped from traveling through Erez, compared to 700 for 2017.
The ordeal faced by Ola and Mais actually took place at a time when there was a slight easing of the movement restrictions placed on Gaza’s inhabitants.
Almost 3,000 patients and people accompanying them were permitted to travel through Erez in December. That represented a 21 percent increase on the average previously recorded for 2018, according to United Nations data.
Yet even when official statistics indicate that improvements have occurred, the siege on Gaza still causes immense suffering.
It is not uncommon for Israel to deny a parent a travel permit when their child needs treatment.
Mohammad Abu Salmiyeh, head of al-Rantisi Hospital in Gaza City, argued that Israel’s practices can worsen a child’s anxiety.
“Children don’t feel comfortable if they are accompanied with elderly people,” Abu Salmiyeh said. “Children can’t talk to them about their feelings, about their fear of death or the implications of chemotherapy. Having their mothers present would reduce the stress which these children suffer from.”
According to Abu Salmiyeh, approximately 50 children from Gaza are being treated for cancer in Jerusalem and Beit Jala, without their parents being present.
About 350 children from Gaza have to visit Jerusalem’s hospitals for chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The children are usually accompanied by distant relatives on their journeys.
“I miss my family”
Since April last year, 14-year-old Musab al-Daya has traveled from Gaza to Haifa, a city in Israel, on at least five occasions so that he could be treated for lung cancer. Musab’s parents were not allowed to accompany him even once.
Even though Musab’s grandparents are both older than 50, Israel also forbade them from joining him, giving “security” as a reason. The only chaperone deemed acceptable by Israel was Muayad Hillis, 70, a neighbor of Musab’s family in the Shujaiya district of Gaza City.
“At the beginning, I agreed to go with Musab on his journey for treatment,” said Hillis. “But I found it very tough. I’m not healthy enough to take care of him. I wasn’t able to travel with him every time.”
Hillis was too unwell to travel with Musab on his third trip outside Gaza. The family contacted the Israeli authorities, suggesting substitutes for Hillis. But the suggestions were rejected, so Musab had to travel alone.
“I hope my mom can come with me – if only once,” said Musab. “I miss my family a lot, especially at nighttime. No one is as kind to me as my parents.”
Six-year-old Muhammad al-Baqa has stomach cancer. He also has a rare condition which means he needs help going to the bathroom.
Applications made by both of Muhammad’s parents to join him while receiving treatment outside Gaza have been turned down. Israel has decided that the only person who may accompany him is Muhammad’s grand-aunt, who is aged 74.
The al-Baqa family did its best to explain to the Israeli authorities that Muhammad must have a parent with him constantly. But Israel refused to budge. The parents found the experience so frustrating that they decided against sending Muhammad outside Gaza.
“My aunt is very old and she can’t deal with Muhammad’s condition,” said the boy’s father. “He needs special care. If his mother cannot travel with him, we would prefer to see him die with us beside him than to leave him alone.”
Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza.