A total of 54 Palestinians died last year waiting for Israeli visas to allow them to leave Gaza for medical treatment, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said, a figure it says shows the depth of suffering imposed on people in the coastal enclave.
Only 54 per cent of 25,000 applications for travel permits were granted in time for patients to attend scheduled appointments, research from the WHO released on Tuesday found, down from 62 per cent the year before and 92 per cent in 2012.
Many people with complicated or chronic medical problems cannot get adequate treatment in the Gaza Strip, where lack of funding, facilities and Israeli restrictions on the import of equipment it fears could be seized by Hamas have left the healthcare system on the brink of collapse.
Three rounds of fighting between the militant Palestinian group, which seized control of the Strip in 2007, have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis for Gaza’s two million residents caused by more than a decade of an Israeli blockade and an effectively collapsed economy.
All medical referrals – including travel permits and payment – for Palestinians to receive medical treatment outside the Gaza Strip are handled by the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority (PA)
Strained relations between Hamas and the PA have added to a decline in the number of applications passed on to Israel by the PA last year, Hamas officials have claimed.
Last summer, three critically ill babies died after their medical permits were delayed, Gaza’s Health Ministry said.
In 2016 the average number of requests approved per month was 2,041 – but in May and June 2017, while there were 120 requests made a day, the PA granted on average just 10, charity Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI) said last year.
The Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt has also remained mostly closed since 2013, restricting access to healthcare. Before July 2013, more than 4,000 Palestinians travelled monthly via Rafah crossing for health-related reasons, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
Israel says that strict checks for medical referrals are a security requirement. In 2017, a cancer patient who claimed he was unaware of the package was caught smuggling explosives from the Erez crossing into Israel.
In a statement on Tuesday, however, HRW said that “in light of the control Israel effectively exercises over the lives and welfare of the people of Gaza, Israel continues to maintain ultimate responsibility to ensure their well-being under the law of occupation.”
“It’s unconscionable that Israel prevented so many critically ill people from accessing care that might have saved their lives,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organisation’s Middle East director said.
“Israel’s continued control over movement into and out of Gaza creates obligations to facilitate – not thwart – humanitarian access.”
In a joint statement on Tuesday, the organisation along with PHRI, al Mezan, Amnesty International and Medical Aid for Palestinians called on Israel to ease restrictions.
The PA and Cogat, Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, did not immediately respond to The Independent’s requests for comment, but both organisations have previously denied deliberating delaying referrals.