MAP’s Director of Programmes in Gaza speaks at Labour Party Conference

This week, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) was at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool speaking to Parliamentarians, delegates and the public about the humanitarian emergency in Gaza, and barriers to the right to health of Palestinians living under occupation and as refugees.

MAP's Director of Programmes in Gaza, Fikr Shalltoot, spoke at Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East’s (LFPME) fringe event titled ‘#ExistenceIsResistance - Supporting Palestine’s Next Generation’, chaired by Richard Burden MP, who had the week before been in the West Bank on a delegation with MAP and Caabu.

Alongside Fikr on the panel were Chris Gunness, Spokesperson for UNRWA; Professor Karma Nabulsi, Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at Oxford University; and Dr. Mezna Qato, Junior Research Fellow in Middle Eastern History at King’s College Cambridge.

Fikr opened by discussing the severe movement restrictions Palestinians in Gaza face. She described her lengthy journey to get to conference, requiring a visa from the UK, a permit to exit Gaza from Israel and a non-objection letter from Jordan to fly out of Amman – a journey which took five days. Fikr stressed that, by being able to travel out of Gaza at all, she was “one of the lucky ones”. She reflected that Israel restricts the exit of all Palestinians from Gaza with few exceptions: business owners with permits, international NGO staff like herself, and urgent medical cases. “Being able to leave at all is rare for people in Gaza, and most young people have never left Gaza at all” she said. Approval of permits for members of these categories is far from guaranteed, however. With 48% of patients’ exit permit applications either denied or not responded to last year, Fikr stressed that restrictions can have serious consequences for those needing urgent medical care outside of Gaza.

Following the event’s focus on the “next generation” in Palestine, Fikr described life for young people in Gaza: “We are two million people, half are under 15 years old. More than two-thirds are refugees, expelled from our former homes and lands in what was Palestine and is now Israel”.

Starting at birth, high rates of maternal malnutrition means babies in Gaza have increased chance of low birthweight. At birth, if babies need intensive care, they will be treated in a hospital running on back-up generator power for up to 20 hours per day. Fuel for these provided by the UN is running out because of lack of funding, and switching from mains to generator power causes fluctuations which can damage equipment.”

While around the world infant mortality has declined, in Gaza deaths among children aged one year or less have not declined since 2006 – covering the period of Israel’s closure.

If a child gets ill and needs to be treated outside of Gaza, assuming they are able to get a permit to exit from the Israeli Authorities, they may have to do so without their mother or father by their side. In August 2018, almost half of all permit applications for patient companions – including parents trying to accompany their children to appointments for treatment in East Jerusalem or elsewhere in the West Bank – were denied or delayed by Israel. “This means that children’s wards in hospitals in East Jerusalem contain children going through scary treatments for diseases, such as cancer, without their parents with them,” said Fikr. “MAP – and some MPs here who have been on delegations with MAP and Caabu to the West Bank – see new-borns and neonate babies from Gaza in intensive care in Al Makassed Hospital separated for weeks and months from their mothers due to lack of a permit from the occupying power”. 

Fikr stressed the importance of thinking not only of children’s physical health, but their mental health too. An 11-year-old child in Gaza has witnessed three major Israeli military offensives. In 2015, UNICEF estimated 300,000 Gaza children need psychosocial care:

They will have never experienced a full day of electricity in their lives, and they are unlikely to have ever left the 40km by 12km Strip. They are now growing up in a place where the economy, healthcare, education, water and sanitation infrastructure are all de-developing. Unemployment among youth is 60%. They will see the daily suffering and struggles of their parents, including how serious health conditions deteriorate while Israel does not give them permits to travel to East Jerusalem for treatment. Last year 46 cancer patients died after this. Imagine watching that happen to your mother.”

Fikr also outlined the mass casualties in Gaza as a result of Israeli military’s shocking use of force against demonstrators at the “Great March of Return”, and outlined how MAP is helping Gaza’s health sector to respond to complex limb injuries.

At the event, MAP made three recommendations for the UK Government to support the health of young Palestinians in Gaza were:

  • Contribute to the UN Humanitarian funding appeal for Gaza, including for vital hospital generator fuel;
  • Prioritise sustainable development work through DfID, including skills and opportunities in the health sector; and
  • Call on Israel to lift Gaza’s closure, in line with calls by UN bodies and the ICRC, and in particular lift restrictions on the movement of patients trying to get to treatment and health workers trying to get to training and opportunities in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

MAP was also at the LFPME evening reception – see next week’s Monitor – and will have a stall and be hosting a meeting at the Scottish National Party Conference, on 8 October at the SEC in Glasgow (Confronting Gaza’s health emergency, with a focus on breast cancer: Dr Philippa Whitford MP,  with Neil Sammonds, MAP, Boisdale Room 9am).  If you are attending, see you there!