“Collective punishment” of Gaza cancer patients denounced by human rights organisations

Many medical specialties and treatments – such as radiotherapy for cancer and some cardiac surgery – are completely unavailable in Gaza, meaning that patients must be referred to hospitals elsewhere in the occupied Palestinian territory (East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank) or abroad to receive adequate care. Despite the continued deterioration of the humanitarian and healthcare situation in Gaza after 11-years of illegal closure, Palestinian patients are still being denied exit to travel outside for treatment at an alarmingly high rate.

The latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that, in June, 10% (201) of all patient exit permits were denied by the Israeli authorities, and a further 27% (718) received no response to their application by the date of their hospital appointment. Overall, just 59% (1,305) of such permits were approved, meaning that hundreds of patients did not get to care which was available to them outside of Gaza.

A response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the Israeli Ministry of Defense by Israeli human rights organisation Gisha explains some of these denials. The data released shows that in the first quarter of 2018 alone, 833 exit permit applications from residents of Gaza (including, but not exclusively, patients) were denied by Israeli authorities for the stated reason that “first-degree relative is a Hamas operative.” The data showed that this is a significant increase on last year, when 21 applications were refused on such grounds. 

In a joint statement Gisha, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights and Adalah allege that this appears to be a result of a decision made by Israel’s Security Cabinet last year, which orders “several operative measures to serve as leverage over Hamas with respect to returning captured and missing persons” including “cancelling exit from Gaza for medical treatment to relatives of Hamas members.”

Cancer patients were among those denied care, including Nivin Gaboub (40) and Faida Ebid (40), both of whom needed radioiodine therapy for breast cancer at the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, and Amal Jama (33) who needed surgery for a brain tumor.

The organisations called the policy “a breach of international law” and urged Israel to “immediately put an end to this unacceptable practice, which increases the suffering and despair of Gaza residents, and allow patients access to life-saving treatment that is unavailable in the Strip.” They further stated that “the solution to the crisis in Gaza cannot be found in further collective punishment and abuse of the civilian population, but rather in opening the crossings and enabling Gaza’s recovery.”

On 5 August, the organisations petitioned Israel’s High Court on behalf of seven Gaza cancer patients who were denied access to treatment in East Jerusalem on the grounds that their family members are alleged to be “Hamas operatives.”  The State Prosecutor’s Office subsequently informed Gisha that six of the women would not be allowed to enter East Jerusalem, but would be instead permitted to go to the West Bank for treatment – despite the fact that the radiotherapy and surgical treatments they need are unavailable there – or to go abroad, which the women cannot afford. One woman was reportedly told that she was in fact not a relative of a Hamas member, and told she could resubmit her application.

Gisha’s attorneys, Muna Haddad and Sigi Ben-Ari, stated that this decision means the“continued prevention of essential and very urgent medical care to save [the women’s] lives”.”

The accessibility of healthcare is a fundamental element of the right to health. As the occupying power, Israel has an international legal obligation to ensure humanitarian assistance to the population under its control, including access to medical care.

You can read our report and infographics on barriers to the  accessibility of healthcare in the oPt here.