Gaza City – This year’s Eid has been tragic for Hanan Ghaben. Her 5-day-old baby, suffering from heart disease, died on Tuesday after he was prevented from accessing medical care outside of the besieged Gaza Strip.
For the two million Palestinians in the impoverished Strip, a difficult-to-obtain Israeli exit permit is required for them to leave and be treated in Israel or the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“What in the hell we have done to deserve all of this pain and see my own child die in front of my eyes?” Ghaben asked Al Jazeera, her voice trembling.
Typically, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), a semi-governmental body that administers the Israeli-occupied West Bank, facilitates the referral and funding of Palestinians to hospitals outside the Strip, where adequate treatment is restricted.
But in recent months, the number of medical referrals from Gaza that the PA passes on to Israel has dropped, leaving patients needing urgent care, such as Ghaben’s baby, stuck in Strip’s resource deprived medical facilities.
In less than 24 hours this week, three newborn babies died in the neonatal intensive care unit at Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital after their permits for medical treatment were either rejected or delayed.
Bara Ghaben, Ibrahim Tbeil and Mus’ab Araeer were all under the age of one and suffered from congenital heart conditions.
Ghaben said that she and her husband had applied on behalf of their newborn three times for a medical permit, but the delay in the PA’s referral process proved to be fatal.
The delay in referrals is part of the PA’s recent escalation against its rival, the Hamas government in Gaza, Hamas officials believe.
In March, the PA cut the salaries of their own employees in Gaza by 30 percent. Shortly thereafter, the Palestinian officials in Ramallah asked Israel to cut its electricity supply to Gaza by at least 40 percent, stating they would no longer pay for it.
Gaza’s Deputy Health Minister Yousef Abu Rish described the health situation as a “death sentence”.
“During the last three months, 11 Palestinian patients in Gaza died as a direct result of not being granted medical permits to treat them,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The PA is responsible for every patient’s death that could have been avoided through treatment outside of Gaza.”
Abu Rish said that in the last month, Palestinian and Israeli authorities refused to grant permits for at least 1620 Palestinian patients in Gaza, while another 1,500 were still waiting for a reply.
“The serious implications and the grave consequences of [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas’ recent punitive measure adopted against Gaza to halt transferring the patients to the hospitals in the West Bank, Jordan, and Israel appeared and started to harvest the young souls,” he said.
Testimonies and data collected by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel showed that in 2016, the number of requests for permits approved by the PA was 2,041 a month. In May and June of 2017, the number of referrals granted was just 10 a day while the average number of requests each day was 120.
As of this month, more than 1,600 patients from Gaza are waiting for PA referrals.
But the PA has rejected the claims, the latest in a rift between the two political parties vying for power in the territories.
“What the health ministry in Gaza is saying is not true,” Jawad Awwad, minister of health in the West Bank, told Al Jazeera. “The regulations are ongoing.”
“We fulfil our obligation to the southern governorate,” he said, referring to the Gaza Strip’s Hamas-run government.
“We have provided Gaza with all the services we can, from supplies to covering costs of treatment outside of Gaza.”
Health sector collapsing
PHRI also accused the PA of cutting medical supplies to Gaza by 90 percent. That, coupled with the recent decision to reduce electricity to the Strip, has put Gaza’s health sector on the brink of collapse.
Mostafa Saidem, a doctor in Al Shifa’s children’s ward, said the lack of medicine has put further strain on hospital staff whose care capacity was already resource-limited.
“About 40 percent of the needed medicines required to deal properly with the heart diseases, and other serious health conditions have run out from our warehouses, which in return cripples us as medical personnel,” he said.
Information gathered by PHRI showed that the PA’s budget to Gaza’s health ministry dropped from $4m to a mere $500,000 in May, severely hindering the operations of 13 government hospitals.
Receiving only three hours of electricity a day, and following the shutdown of the Strip’s only power plant, Gaza’s 14 public hospitals and 16 health facilities now “face partial or complete closure of essential services”, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Many have warned of the detrimental impact on Palestinians caught up between the PA and Hamas’ power play that began with the 2007 failed Fatah coup on Gaza after Hamas won elections, leading to the expulsion of Fatah from the territory and a Hamas takeover.
Robert Piper, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territory, said last week that people in Gaza “should not be held hostage to this long-standing internal Palestinian dispute”.
Dana Moss of PHRI was reported by local media as saying that Gaza patients “are held hostage to political infighting.”
Back at Al Shifa hospital, Mahmoud el-Qoun stands distraught over his daughter’s hospital bed.
Samaa, only 11-days-old, was born premature and requires specialised care that doctors in Gaza simply do not have the means to provide.
“It is awful … I’m helpless in front of my daughter’s serious health condition,” said Qoun.
“I am afraid she will become a victim just like the other children. It’s a terrible nightmare that continues to chase me.”