Dozens of Top Doctors Urge Israel to Let Cancer Patients Leave Gaza for Treatment

Around 45 women waited 6 months or more to be treated in Israel in the last year, says rights group. Delayed treatment, oncologists charge, could lead to worsening of disease and death

Palestinian cancer patients take part in a protest to demand to travel for treatment, in Gaza City, December 22, 2016.
Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto

Thirty one leading oncologists from hospitals around Israel called on the Health Ministry and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to authorize female cancer patients in the Gaza Strip to enter Israel and the West Bank for urgent, life-saving treatment.

The doctors’ demand comes in the wake of what they say are increasing difficulties these women have been experiencing in obtaining ongoing medical care, due to tighter Israeli restrictions on exit permits from the Strip.

For the past decade, since Hamas wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, Israel has severely restricted the passage of people and goods coming in and out of the enclave. The Islamist organization has occasionaly use the Strip for attacks on Israel, such as those taking place at present. For its part, Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza as well, also restricts movement in and out of the Strip.

While male cancer patients who reside in Gaza encounter their own set of problems obtaining treatment, the plight of Gazan women cancer patients has drawn particular attention. According to Physicians for Human Rights, over the past year, treatment for around 45 of these women has been significantly delayed. Some have had to wait 6 months or more to obtain permission to leave the Strip, and only after public pressure was exerted on the authorities, says Physicians for Human Rights.

Currently, the organization notes, 14 female cancer patients have been denied exit permits by the coordination and liaison authorities at the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel. This include seven women suffering from breast cancer, four with thyroid cancer, and three women who have been diagnosed with growths in their spine, lungs or kidneys.

“There is no doubt that the prospects for recovery and the success in easing the suffering of cancer patients are better the earlier that diagnosis and treatment are provided," the Israeli oncologists wrote in their request to the authorities. "On the other hand, there is also no doubt that delaying diagnosis and treatment can lead to what could be the preventable progression of the disease and death."

The doctors added, “There is no justification for delaying the patients’ requests for many months since any delay has critical significance in terms of their recovery and their lives.”

Among the specialists who signed the statement were heads of hospital departments and other senior physicians. They include Dr. Eyal Fenig, who heads the radiation unit at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva; Dr. Ella Evron, director of the breast cancer department at Assaf Harofeh Hospital at Tzrifin; Dr. Abed Agbaria, who heads the oncology department at Assouta Hospital in Haifa; as well as colleagues at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer and the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya.

Referring to the flare-up of violence along the Gaza border in recent weeks, Dr. Bella Kaufman, a senior oncologist and member of the PHR board, said: “Against the backdrop of the current violence along the Gaza border, the story of the women cancer patients actually demonstrates the extent to which Israel’s policy regarding the Palestinian population in the Strip is breaking all records of insensitivity."

"These cancer patients need immediate treatment, some in order to save their lives, and preventing it is not reasonable by any ethical, humanitarian or international standard – whether it is due to endless bureaucratic reasons or ‘security’ pretexts, which can always be raised. Israel must demonstrate a basic moral commitment [to these individuals] and immediately allow the patients to leave to get medical treatment.”

On Monday, the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, which is chaired by Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman, was due to hold a hearing on the effects of Israel’s blockade of Gaza on women living there, among them female cancer patients.

The announcement that the hearing was to be held provoked protests from Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and MKs Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) and Merav Ben-Ari (Kulanu), who called the move a provocation and asked why the committee was not dealing with the distress of Israeli women living near the Gaza border.