Missions of mercy face occupiers

Mamduh, a teenage Palestinian leukaemia patient, gingerly clambers onto a plastic chair balanced atop a luggage cart for a ride through an Israeli checkpoint and out of Gaza for cancer treatment.

    Ambulance crews run the gauntlet taking patients for treatment

    The 15-year-old boy wears a cap to cover a head made bald by chemotherapy and is too sick to walk unaided.


    But Israeli authorities will not let him pass the fortified Erez crossing into Israel by ambulance or private car for security reasons.


    "This is our first experience with this," his mother said. "It's very difficult ... Last time, we came in an ambulance."


    Israel, with a web of checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip it says serve to contain Palestinian fighters, says it plans to ease friction with the Palestinian population by introducing new training and technology to speed up security clearances.


    A Palestinian ambulance at an 
    Israeli army checkpoint 

    It says the changes will apply to an initial seven roadblocks and focus on avoiding hold-ups to civilians or their goods without clear cause and on smoothing passage of ambulances or anyone in need of medical care.


    But Gazans, whose shortages of medical equipment make access to outside hospitals essential, laugh at talk of improving roadblocks - a hallmark of Israel's occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, seized in the 1967 Middle East war.


    Idle ambulances 


    The Palestinian Health Ministry says its ambulances have not been allowed to freely pass from Gaza to Israel since early February, and that seriously ill patients must cross by foot.


    "Our patients go to the West Bank and Israel by themselves in bad condition," said Muwaiya Hasanein, head of emergency for the health ministry, as rows of white ambulances emblazoned with red letters sat motionless outside his office.


    The Palestinian Health Ministry says its ambulances have not been allowed to freely pass from Gaza to Israel since early February, and that seriously ill patients must cross by foot.

    "Our nurses carry canisters of oxygen on their shoulders and families take children in their arms and carry them."


    Israeli security sources said patients may pass by ambulance through Erez into Israel for critical emergency cases, and two ambulances are on standby on the Israeli side to help the sick.


    But they said Palestinian Authority vehicles had been barred from crossing Erez, except for emergency cases, since a failed 6 March assault on the checkpoint by Palestinian fighters, some of whom were linked to President Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement.


    Israel says it has had to restrict ambulance passage because the vehicles have often been used to bypass security checks at roadblocks.


    Israel says ambulances have been
    used to bypass security checks

    That, it says, has left soldiers with no choice but to search vehicles for armed men and explosives.


    Palestinian medics deny the charges.


    A doctor from Gaza City's Shifa hospital pointed to the elderly cancer patient he was helping into a wheelchair at Erez.


    "Could someone like this man be a danger to them?" Doctor Muhammad Sbeih asked. "He is not a danger to them. It is not a justification."


    Hasanein said that at least 45 Palestinians have died at roadblocks in Palestinian areas after being prevented from reaching timely medical care since the start of a three-and-a-half-year-old Palestinian uprising.


    Roadblocks and curfews


    In a 2003 report, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said more than 70% of West Bank Palestinians reported facing difficulty reaching clinics and hospitals due to roadblocks and curfews.


    Even Red Cross ambulances are
    subject to checks at roadblocks

    For the sick, the crossing at Erez is a daunting one. Some patients are too ill to attempt the journey.


    "They stay here to await God," Hasanein said, adding that Gaza hospitals were in dire need of medical supplies.


    "Many die in the intensive care unit in Gaza and the surgical department."


    Patients at Erez - headed for treatment in Jerusalem or the West Bank - must pass a Palestinian police post into a long transit hall, and through revolving gates and a metal detector, before they reach the Israeli side for more checks.


    Some of the patients walk. Others are carried and some ride wheelchairs or sit on the luggage cart most of the way across.


    One cardiac patient died of heart failure after walking across Erez, according to Hasanein.


    Israel disputes that, and calls Erez a symbol of daily co-operation between Israel and Palestinians.


    Wael Qadan, director of emergency medical services for the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), said any change in the checkpoint regime for ambulances was "toward the negative".


    He said PRCS ambulances were often delayed at checkpoints, and could not pass by Erez.


    "Today, the ambulance is like every other car in the street. If they shoot at you, it is normal - like saying hello"

    Khalil al-Khatib,
    ambulance driver,
    Gaza Strip

    The PRCS has recorded 285 attacks on its ambulances since September 2000, and says 12 of its personnel have been killed.


    The ambulances have frequently operated in zones of conflict between the Israeli army and militant groups.


    "There is no respect for ambulances," said Gaza ambulance driver Khalil al-Khatib, who works for the health ministry. "Every day we have a problem."


    "Today, the ambulance is like every other car in the street," he said. "If they shoot at you, it is normal - like saying hello."



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