Israel has found a new reason to prevent gravely ill Palestinians from leaving the Gaza Strip for medical treatment. Patients who have a relative who has moved to the West Bank, without obtaining an Israeli permit to do so, are banned from exiting the Strip.
Until recently, Israel had been banning patients in Gaza from leaving the Strip for medical treatment in East Jerusalem and the West Bank if they had relatives who are members of Hamas. In August, in response to a petition, the High Court of Justice ordered the state to cease this practice. But Israel is continuing to ban patients from leaving Gaza for critical medical treatment, now on the grounds that they have a relative who moved to the Palestinian Authority area in the West Bank without obtaining Israeli permission to do so.
Since the beginning of the year, the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights has been receiving more and more complaints from patients who said they were told explicitly that their request to leave Gaza was rejected on the grounds that they had a relative who had moved to the West Bank.
Some patients were led to believe that if they wanted to receive the life-saving treatment, or treatment that is not available in Gaza, their relatives must return to the Gaza Strip first.
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Israeli sources told Haaretz that this was a political decision.
Since the second intifada and, in particular, since the Gaza disengagement in 2005, Israel has defined residents of the Gaza Strip who have moved to the territory of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as “illegals.”
Since the 1990s Israel has made clear that it reserves the authority to decide whether residents of Gaza can move to the West Bank, including who and how many. This is a blatant contradiction of the Oslo Accords, according to which both sides view the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a single territorial entity.
In 2009, the Defense Ministry issued very strict regulations for “settling permanently in the West Bank,” granting permission to do so only in extreme humanitarian cases such as orphans under age 16, seriously ill people and elderly individuals who require nursing care. The number of people who have settled in the West Bank on the basis of these criteria is nil. On the other hand, the deteriorating economic and environmental situation in the Gaza Strip, the high unemployment rate, especially among young people (about 70 percent) and the abysmal conditions of living in a closed enclave have prompted many Gaza residents to not only try to emigrate (in particular to Turkey) but also to move to the West Bank.
They left Gaza with permits from the Israeli liaison office, which were granted for one day and for a specific purpose, often on humanitarian grounds. Some stay a while in Ramallah or other West Bank cities “in order to taste a life in which there is electricity 24 hours a day and drinkable running tap water,” as one person who gets a one-day exit permit every few months for medical needs, told Haaretz. Others never return to the Strip.
Those who choose to stay in the West Bank are highly restricted in their movements, usually confining themselves to the city in which they reside, lest an Israeli soldier or police officer at one of the army checkpoints discover that they are from Gaza and order their immediate deportation/return. While living in the West Bank they find some work to help support their families in the Strip or to broaden their own horizons
That is what Yusef Nijm’s daughter did in 2015. In July 2017, Nijm, 62, asked for the help of the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) after Israel’s District Coordination and Liaison office delayed granting him an entry permit to Israel to continue his treatments at Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem. Thanks to PHR’s intervention, he received such a permit in September 2017, but in March of this year he was once again denied permission to leave Gaza for a scheduled operation. On the day of the surgery, a soldier who was on duty at the liaison office told PHR by telephone that Nijm’s permit had been delayed because he has a daughter who is an “illegal” residing in the West Bank. But in response to a letter from Ghada Majadli of the NGO, the officer in charge of public inquiries at COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) refuted this. He wrote in mid-April that the telephone response “was incorrect and we are sorry about it.” Nijm left for treatment in June, but died a few weeks ago.
In contrast to Nijm, A.S., aged 27, received a detailed written answer about why his request was rejected. A.S. requires an orthopedic operation on his knee, which he is supposed to undergo in Ramallah. Staff of the Palestinian Civil Committee told him verbally that his exit was not approved because his brother has lived in the West Bank for three years – after he was accepted for studies at the security academy in Jericho (which trains cadets for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces). The public inquiries officer in the Israeli liaison office confirmed this and wrote in response to PHR’s inquiry: “After examining the request, the authorized bodies decided to refuse it because of a suspicion that the resident would exploit it for the purpose of illegal residency.” This is because A.S. “has a relative who is living today illegally in Israel or in Judea and Samaria,” she wrote.
H.K., 67, received a verbal response that the reason her request was rejected was connected to her son, who is “illegally” residing in the West Bank. H.K. suffers from Crohn’s disease and serious and accompanying secondary complications – including a stroke and hematological diseases. Lacking proper treatment in the Gaza Strip, she was referred to the Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem and Ramallah. Intervention by PHR led to the granting of one entry permit at the beginning of 2018, but since then all of her requests to leave Gaza for treatment have been rejected, or are still under examination by the security services, she was told.
F.N., a 28-year-old woman who was scheduled to undergo an urgent kidney operation in East Jerusalem in April, received a permit to leave only at the beginning of October – and even that permit was granted only after an inquiry by Haaretz. F.N. is raising four children on her own. Her request for an exit permit was initially rejected on the grounds that her husband, from whom she is separated, lives in the West Bank without a permit. She was required to bring an official document confirming the separation or divorce, but such a document would also require her to give up her home which is registered in her husband’s name, and where she lives with her children – or to financially compensate him. Both these options were unrealistic for her. The delay in her treatment led to a deterioration in the functioning of her kidneys.
A similar case involves N.S., who has a her two-year-old son and is separated from her husband, with whom she almost never speaks. He has lived in Ramallah for the past two years and doesn’t even know his son. The boy needs diagnostic neurological tests in a hospital in East Jerusalem. She was led to understand that her exit permit was not granted because of a fear that she would join her husband in Ramallah.
The Israeli Liaison office suggested she find another person to accompany her son, to which she replied that she was still breastreeding, and that her husband was planning to marry another woman.
PHR argued in a letter to COGAT that making the granting of an exit permit for medical treatment conditional on the return of relatives from the West Bank and using the patient as a hostage in this way is unacceptable and a form of collective punishment.
COGAT responded that “the state of Israel is a sovereign state which has the right to determine who will pass through its gates. The entry into Israel of Palestinians who are residents of Gaza is not a given right, and is allowed in accordance with the existing policies and is subject to a security check and legal guidelines.
“In accordance with the guidelines of the court and on the basis of existing policies, Gaza residents get exit permits in cases in which they are in need of life-saving treatment which is not available in the Strip.
“The District Coordination and Liaison office in Gaza has the authority to allow the entry of Gaza residents into the state of Israel. The criteria of being an illegal resident or having a relative who is an illegal resident in Judea and Samaria or in Israel is taken into account when the request is examined. Each request is examined on its own merits.
“It should be emphasized that the Gaza Strip is controlled by the terror organization, Hamas, which takes advantage of the civilian steps that Israel allows for the residents of the Strip, for the purpose of terror.”
“Despite this reality, Israel acts to prevent a deterioration of the civilian and humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.”