Those who die waiting

Israel's blockade of Gaza is costing critically ill Palestinians their lives

Late last Monday evening, after an eight-hour wait at Gaza's Erez crossing, 20-year-old Mahmoud Abu Taha's repeated attempts to leave the country finally came to an end. Not because he had given up hope of getting through, but because the colon cancer that had ravaged his body - and for which he wanted to seek medical care outside Gaza - finally killed him.

This was his family's fourth attempt to get him out - a distressing enough fact in itself, but sadly Abu Taha is not the first Palestinian to suffer this fate and he is unlikely to be the last: denial of passage for the critically ill is becoming the norm.

The Israeli siege of Gaza, which is backed by the United States and the European Union, continues to devastate the health-care system with shortages of medicine, general supplies and equipment. This exacerbates a situation already dire because of supply problems for necessities such as food, water and electricity.

Gaza's critically ill have no option but to try and leave. They must find a way of reaching Egypt, Jordan or Israel, with Israel being the closest. But reaching all three countries means first getting permission from Israel to leave Gaza. More and more often this permission is refused, and would-be patients are dying as they wait.

The Palestinian health ministry lists six critical cases waiting for transfer to hospitals outside Gaza. Most of these patients have cancer or need heart surgery. A young girl, her neck broken in a car accident, is also awaiting transfer to a hospital with a trauma unit; she too has been denied permission. Human Rights Watch said at least three patients denied exit permits have died since June, and others have lost limbs or sight.

The first attempt by aid workers, friends, doctors and family members to secure papers for Abu Taha to cross the border failed because, according to an Israeli army official, he was a "security risk". Two further attempts failed with no explanation.

After three refusals, a fourth attempt yielded the necessary papers from the Israeli army's Coordination and Liaison Administration at Erez Crossing, so the sick man could be taken to Tel Hashomer hospital in Tel Aviv, about an hour's drive away. By this time, Abu Taha had lost one-third of his bodyweight, rendering him unable to walk or stand. The shortage of vitamins, essential nutrients and medicines in Gaza had accelerated his decline, and the cancer had spread to his small intestine. The act of merely raising his head or speaking required all his energy.

On 18 October, with papers in order, Abu Taha's father Kamal accompanied his son in an ambulance to the crossing. All appeared to be proceeding well when, after half an hour's wait, the father's name was called over the loudspeaker. Mahmoud's brother Hani tells the rest: "My brother continued to wait, lying on a stretcher receiving a transfusion and hooked up to an oxygen tank in the ambulance. After two hours, the loudspeaker announced he was denied entry into Israel."

The ambulance drove Abu Taha back to hospital in Gaza while his father remained behind. A few days later, Hani received a call informing him that their father had been arrested and taken to Israel's Ashkelon prison. No reason for the arrest was given.

The father of another cancer patient experienced similar treatment. Mohammad al-Najjar recently attempted to take his 20-year-old daughter to Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, where she had previously received treatment. He says that an Israeli army official told him his passage and that of his daughter were conditional on his becoming a collaborator for the Israeli military. He refused, and his daughter was denied entry and consequently the medical attention she needed.

Mahmoud Abu Taha died waiting for medical treatment. His death is just one example of a dismal trend whereby patients in urgent need of help become pawns in a political game.