In December 2016, dozens of women cancer patients protested in front of the Gaza-based offices of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee, against Israel’s policy of denying permits to exit Gaza to continue life-saving treatment. The protest was held in response to a sharp drop in the rate of approved applications to exit Gaza for medical treatment; the World Health Organization reported that the approval rates for the exit of medical patients seeking treatment outside the Strip declined from 92.5% in 2012 to 77.5% in 2015. In October 2016, the rate was as low as 44%. Indeed, during the first half of 2016, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel (PHRI), which intervenes to try and secure permits for patients based in Gaza, was only able to overturn 25% of denials for exit permit, down from 62% the previous year.
This drop is in large part due to an increase in security blocks placed on individuals requesting permits to travel from Gaza, including medical patients seeking treatment not available in the Strip. PHRI reports an increase in the number of cancer patients turning to them for assistance after their permit requests were refused. Between January-December 2016, PHRI received 69 requests for help from cancer patients in need of medical treatment, compared with a total of 48 requests by cancer patients in all of 2015 and 23 requests in 2014. In other words, in 2016, the number of requests for assistance in overturning rejected applications for permits tripled in number.
Sawsan Qadih, 49, from Gaza, was diagnosed with brain cancer in June. She underwent surgery at the Musallam hospital in Ramallah that same month. She recently had an appointment to see a neurosurgeon at the same hospital, but after applying for a permit, she received an answer that her request was “under examination”. Given that it meant she would miss her appointment, the delay was effectively a rejection. In December, PHRI turned to COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) to obtain a permit for Sawsan for another appointment. No response was given and Sawsan missed her appointment again.
Iman Shnani, 47, from Gaza, one of the organizers of the demonstration, had breast cancer in 1999, and was successfully treated in both Israel and Egypt. Iman and her doctors in Gaza fear her cancer may have returned. She had an appointment at Tel Aviv’s Assuta Hospital in September, but her requests for a permit was refused. This refusal comes on the heels of another rejection received in January 2016.
Manar Naizi, 27, from Gaza is a breast cancer survivor who participated in the protest. Manar had an appointment at Tel Aviv’s Assuta Hospital in November to examine whether the cancer has spread to her lungs. Although Manar received permits to get treatment at Al-Mutala’ hospital in East Jerusalem in the years 2014-2015, this time her permit request was refused. “My situation is deteriorating, I need to understand how I should continue. The doctors tell me to do an important test, and I need to do it, I can’t take medication without understanding my medical situation. The doctors are thinking of giving me medication without doing the test as I can’t get a permit, but that could cause me great harm,” says Manar.
As of today, none of the three have received permits.
Security blocks have been applied across the board to thousands of individuals in what appears to be an arbitrary and sweeping manner and without any reasonable connection to security. The criteria for travel are already extremely narrow. Medical patients who need treatment that is not available in the Gaza Strip are being confronted with a policy that violates basic rights and threatens their health and lives.
The increased instances of refusals and revocations of permits for Gaza residents on “security grounds” represent a step-up in the tightening of Israel’s closure and a means of exerting pressure by harming the most vulnerable in the Strip, most of whom are headed for treatment in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where more advanced Palestinian hospitals are located.
Israel is thus denying Palestinian patients treatment in Palestinian medical facilities. The separation policy between Gaza and the West Bank—as has been stated quite often, not least by senior officials in Israel’s security apparatus—does not serve Israeli security interests. Consequently, it is not clear what is gained by it, other than collectively punishing Gaza Strip residents.