Just half of urgent requests by Palestinians asking Israel to let them leave Gaza for medical treatment are being approved, according to Physicians for Human Rights Israel, two and a half months after the Palestinian Authority stopped issuing such permits when it halted coordination with Israel over plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
Many patients from Gaza say that in addition to their inability to request permits from the PA, Israeli authorities have been creating obstacles throughout the process of requesting and receiving a permit.
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With the PA not handling permit requests, and an alternative coordination mechanism between the World Health Organization and the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Administration being delayed, Physicians for Human Rights has in the meantime been passing the applications along to the Israeli liaison office. The group reported that the number of requests to leave Gaza for treatment in Israel or the West Bank has increased fivefold. A position paper written by the organization stated that Israel allows submitting requests for an exit permit only in urgent and life-threatening cases, such as cancer and cardiac patients, babies and young children – while all other patients requiring a permit for nonurgent medical needs cannot even submit a request. The report also stated that only half of the requests were being approved.
Two weeks ago, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced the establishment of a temporary coordination mechanism to allow patients to leave the Gaza Strip for treatment in Israel and the West Bank. According to the plan, the UN, through the World Health Organization, is supposed to mediate between the PA committee responsible for submitting requests for permits and the Israeli authorities at the Erez border crossing. This process has been delayed, and now hundreds of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip are unable to get treatment in Israel or the West Bank. Senior OCHA officials said the delay was because of “bureaucratic reasons,” mostly involving contacts with the Palestinian groups.
Even those who received permits describe further obstacles, with some saying they were delayed for hours at the Erez crossing and sometimes even sent back home. A document from Physicians for Human Rights describes the case of a leukemia patient who was delayed at the Erez crossing for four hours and questioned while he was lying in an ambulance, in violation of medical ethics rules. Only later was he allowed to leave for treatment.
Furthermore, patients have complained that recently Israel has conditioned handling of medical exit requests on receiving the results of medical tests – like MRI, X-rays and biopsy reports – so as to examine the requests. This requirement makes things even more difficult for the patients, and in many cases causes more delays. In addition, applicants are asked to prove to the authorities that the medical treatment required is impossible to receive inside Gaza.
The Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories raised at the end of June the possibility of submitting online requests for exit permits for Gaza residents. The online form, which at first was meant only for organizations, hospitals and lawyers, was also opened to the Gaza residents, who seemingly could have submitted the request online directly to the District Coordination and Liaison Office at the Erez crossing. But so far, COGAT has not yet published information for Gazans concerning the possibility of submitting requests, and nothing has been done.
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“Every day that passes without the alternative international process being established costs human lives,” said Physicians for Human Rights. Israel, as the one who controls the crossings and decides on everything concerning traveling for treatment, is responsible for the lives of the patients until a solution is found, the organization said. It called on Israeli authorities to rescind the strict criteria for receiving a permit and to allow patients who require nonurgent and non-life-saving treatments to leave Gaza for treatment.
COGAT said that it was going above and beyond “in coordination with the relevant authorities, in the shadow of the freezing of coordination on the part of the civil committee of the Palestinian Authority and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, in order to allow even at this time the entry of residents of the Gaza Strip for the purpose of life-saving medical treatments.”
It added that it wanted “to emphasize that every request it receives is examined individually, comprehensively and in depth...” Limiting the traffic at the Erez crossing to only exceptional medical and humanitarian cases was done with the goal of “preventing the spread of the coronavirus in the region, as far as is possible,” said COGAT.