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.

Mohammed Omer

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.