Go back! You are not patients! Go back! You are not sick!”, screamed the Egyptian security officials at the Rafah border crossing, when intenational charitites tried to transfer four sick and wounded children through Egypt in order to travel to hospitals in France, on Saturday 25th January.
Officials demanded that 9 year old Iman Khadum, who is suffering from massive hematoma and nephrotic syndrome – as a result of falling down stairs in fright when a bomb landed near her home – get out of her ambulance and urinate on the ground, to prove that she really had a kidney problem – despite the fact that all the children had appropriate paperwork. Iman, being a 9 year old girl, refused, “Out of shyness”, her mother explains.
The border officials then began pounding on the ambulances, screaming at the children, and the international doctors who were accompanying them, “Why did you come here?! Why did you bring their relatives with them?!”.
This was the second attempt made by the charities PalMed and International Humanitarian Health Organisation (IHH) to take the children through the border crossing. The day before, Friday, the children were also turned away, after border officials had allowed the accompanying doctors to pass through. “On both days, it was the same result”, said Turksih IHH co-ordinator Adem Bark. “But on Saturday the behaviour of the soldiers [Egyptian border officials] was much, much worse”.
The children are now being treated in al Shifa hospital in Gaza city. Iman’s mother reports that Iman no longer even wants to go to France for treatment, because of her experiences at the Egyptian border. “She tells me, I don’t want to go to France now”, explains her mother. “She said: I don’t want to go back to them [the Egyptian border officials]”.
- Iman, in al Shifa hospital
The children who were selected to travel to France for treatment, were chosen because their cases met certain criteria – that of being children who require multiple surgical procedures. Hazem Abu Odeh, 12 years old, also has, like Iman, suffers from nephritic syndrome – but has the complication of it being steroid-resistant. 16 year old, Alaa Abu Dagan, suffers from multiple wounds to her back and abdomen; as well as fractures and a dislocated shoulder, caused by an explosion. Amira al Ghirim, 15 years old, has severe crush wounds and old, infected explosion wounds – she was found after 4 days following an explosion that killed most of her family. The only other survivor, her mother, believed Amira to be dead, and buried body parts that she thought were Amira’s.
The four children were the first wounded Palestinians to be refused passage through the Rafah border crossing since the beginning of the Israeli assault, except for the third day of the war, when patients were turned back as a result of Israeli bombardment near the border, according to Dr Hassan Khalaf, Assistant Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Health in Gaza. Theirs, however, are proving to be just the first cases in what appears to be a new Egyptian government policy of refusing entry of Palestinian patients to Egypt. Whilst all other patient-bearing ambulances were permitted through the Gaza-Egypt border crossing on Friday 23rd January, 40 patients from Al Shifa hospital in Gaza city were refused, along with the 4 children, the following day. The same 40 patients were again refused passage through the border on Sunday 25th, and a further 8 women were refused passage on Monday 26th.
Hospital and health officials are baffled as to why Egypt has adopted this new policy of refusal. “Nobody in Gaza strip can answer this question”, advised Dr Khalaf. “This is a purely Egyptian issue. And a political issue…This is part of the Egyptian policy against Gaza”.
Egyptian officials, however, claim they are carrying-out instructions from the Ministry of Health Operations Room in Ramallah (West Bank), which on 22nd January, released the following statement:
“The Ministry of Health would like to extend their sincere gratitude to all fellow countries that hosted and are currently hosting injured children who were dramatically hurt due to the vicious Israeli war on Gaza. However, the MoH would like now to provide and ensure treatment for the injured children in Gaza close to their families and friends.
A high percentage of the martyrs have been children due to their vulnerability to tolerate severe injuries, and those who were fortunate enough to survive have been treated in the hospitals in Gaza. We therefore see no more reason to refer anymore children for treatment abroad.”
Of course the MoH in Ramallah has no way to “provide and ensure treatment for the injured children in Gaza, close to their families and friends”. It hasn’t prevented them from issuing the decree, however. Dr Khalaf, whilst generous in his praise for the work of the doctors and hospital staff in Gaza’s hospitals for the ways in which they coped during the attacks, is also realistic about the types of care than can be offered to patients in Gaza. “We are not an eminent medical centre here”, he said, referring to Al Shifa hospital. “There is a level of expertise that is available in Europe and the United States that is not available here”.
It seems the Egyptian government is not just operating under instructions from Ramallah, however. Dr Khalaf advises that Palestinian patients who have been offered treatment abroad (eg. in Europe and the US) have been prevented by Egyptian officials from leaving Egypt since 11th January – long before the PA issued its ridiculous statement. Indeed, currently there are 2 children from the PalMed/IHH program who are being held in Eyptian hospitals, after having been permitted to pass through the Rafah crossing. Egyptian officials are reportedly refusing to allow them to travel on to France.
Mohammad al Ajla, 14 years old, has suffered multiple amputations as a result of explosion injuries; and Bissan Sallak, 8 years old, has multiple injuries to her abdomen, chest, diaphragm, lung and liver – also as a result of an explosion.
Currently, Egyptian authorities are claiming that only patients who cannot be treated in Egypt should be allowed to travel abroad, despite the fact that the patients in question are not citizens of Egypt, and, as such, in theory, in no way subject to Egyptian governmental decisions of this kind.
At the same time, the vast majority of Palestinian patients with white phosphorus wounds who have been transfered through the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, have been channeled into military hospitals, where they cannot be accessed by journalists or civilians. One might be forgiven for thinking Egypt is colluding in hiding Israeli war crimes.
At any rate, the actions of the Egyptian government, in refusing to allow Palestinian patients through to Egypt and further abroad, and in maintaining a closed border with Gaza throughout the siege, demonstrates an undeniable level of culpability. As Dr Khalaf remarked: “They are playing an important role in our suffering”.
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