West Bankers get some medical care

Israeli soldiers stop and search Palestinian paramedics in the West Bank city of Nablus, October 2007. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)

RAMALLAH, 6 November (IPS) - After packing the ambulance with medical equipment and bags full of medicine, Dr. Jameel Mashny, Dr. Rami Habash and their nurse, Maysa Youseff, all from the Palestine Medical Relief Society (PMRS), prepare themselves for the long day ahead.

If it is business as usual, it will be a day of organized chaos. Screaming children will hide behind their mothers, elderly men will complain that they do not like the taste of their medicine — and a poor village will get desperately needed medical relief.

Next door, Israeli citizens have access to some of the most sophisticated medical care in the world.

The Israeli ministry of health runs about 480 medical centers, with one doctor for every 200 people, one of the highest ratios in the world. Every Israeli citizen has access to a fund that will cover the cost of medical treatment, no matter how poor they are.

But for hundreds of thousands of poor Palestinian villagers, accessing treatment is a struggle.

According to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), a specialized branch of the United Nations (UN) established specifically for Palestinian refugees, 46 percent of Palestinians do not have enough food, let alone the means to afford medical care.

“The biggest problem the villages face today is poverty,” Dr. Habash said, as he drove his ambulance down a small, winding gravel road. “Many people have illnesses that are curable, they just need access to medical care.”

There are only six major hospitals in the entire West Bank, and three are located in East Jerusalem. Because the Israeli wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004, severs East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, Palestinians in need of specialized medical treatment are at the mercy of the Israeli military.

According to a report published by the Palestinian ministry of health, between 2000 and 2005 at least 129 Palestinians died in ambulances waiting at checkpoints. It said 67 women gave birth and 36 newborn babies died at checkpoints. In all 1,905 ambulances were not allowed through.

The international community, and the Palestinian government too, have ignored this growing problem. Last year the Palestinian Authority (PA) received a little over one billion dollars in foreign aid, but the money has not reached the average Palestinian.

So grassroots organizations such as the PMRS have sprung up across the West Bank and the Gaza strip. According to the Palestinian ministry of health, there are now 265 medical centers run by non-governmental organizations in the Palestinian territories.

Privately funded and independently operated, PMRS aims to provide both affordable and free medical care to all Palestinians.

“One day every week PMRS will come to our village to help our people,” Khalil al-Shabba, former council leader of Jamala village told IPS. “They know that we have nothing here. We have no doctors, we have no medicine. We love them for this.”

Jamala is a small and impoverished village. It was only a 15-minute drive from Ramallah before the Israeli military closed the main road to Palestinians six years ago. That road is now used exclusively by Jewish settlers. If any of Jamala’s 1,600 inhabitants needs medical care, they must travel more than an hour by a poor gravel road.

“And if the Israelis put up a flying checkpoint it can take four hours, or we might not get through at all,” Shabba said.

Compounding the situation is the fact that most inhabitants are unemployed. The vast majority used to work in Israel, but over the past few years Israel has denied work permits to all but a few.

Doctors Habash and Mashny, and nurse Maysa are working to change all this. Every day they travel to a new village, setting up temporary mobile clinics.

As the team hurriedly unpacked and prepared their clinic in the two-room building of the Jamala village council, loudspeakers from mosque announced their arrival. It was not long before mothers and their sick children began to queue up.

The first patient of the day was a young boy with a swollen eye. Maysa handed the boy’s mother some medicine in exchange for a very small sum of money. “He had conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye,” Dr. Mashny said. “If he had not been treated he could have gone blind.”

The mobile clinics charge only three shekels (66 cents) per patient for medicine. And those who cannot afford even this are given medicines for free. “After all, we are doctors not accountants,” said Dr. Habash.

“You know, sometimes this job can be really hard, but I love it,” Maysa said. “I will never stop helping the people of Palestine.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.