Gazans' Access To Care Faulted

By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

JERUSALEM, Aug. 4 -- Israel's domestic security service requires Gazans who wish to enter Israel for medical treatment to submit to detailed interviews about their knowledge of political and militant groups, according to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, a nonprofit group based in Tel Aviv.

The Israeli security service "uses the weakness, the helplessness of the Palestinian patients in Gaza in trying to pressure them to be collaborators," said Ruchama Marton, the group's founder. In a report released Monday, the group documents 32 cases of Palestinians who said they were told that a permit to enter Israel for medical care was conditional on being willing to deliver information.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the charges in the report were "ludicrous." He also criticized the report's methodology, saying the group only interviewed Palestinians whose requests to enter Israel had been refused.

The report says that most Palestinians entering Israel are first interrogated by agents of the security agency, known as Shin Bet, at the Erez crossing. Patients are taken to an underground room and strip-searched, and their cellphones are seized so stored telephone numbers can be copied, the report said.

"At first the questions are about the patient himself," said Miri Weingarten, one of the report's authors. "Then they start to be about relatives, people in the street, people in the neighborhood. Then he's asked about power structures within military organizations in the Gaza Strip."

In one case, a Palestinian quoted a Shin Bet agent as saying: "If you want to go to the hospital, take my private cellphone number, talk to me and give me information about people." The Palestinian said that when he refused he was returned to Gaza.

Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Lerner said interrogations were not for the purpose of recruiting collaborators but to protect Israel's security.

"We're not talking about a friendly neighbor at the moment, and there are numerous cases of those who present security threats," Lerner said. "The government has documented at least 20 cases of Palestinians who tried to abuse their medical access to carry out terrorist attacks."

Lerner said that so far this year, 14,000 Palestinians, including patients and their escorts, have entered Israel from Gaza. In all of 2007, a total of 10,000 were allowed into Israel.

The Physicians for Human Rights-Israel report asserted that 35 percent of all requests to enter Israel for medical care this year have been denied, compared with 10 percent in the same period in 2007.

Meanwhile, after fighting in Gaza over the weekend between members of the Hamas movement that controls the Strip and supporters of Fatah, the faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority, Israel allowed 88 Gazans to take refuge in the West Bank town of Jericho.

An Israeli army spokesman said they went to a security compound controlled by Fatah forces.

A total of 188 members of the Helles clan, a group that supports Fatah, fled Gaza late Saturday night, after Hamas fighters attacked their neighborhood. Some of the men, including Ahmed Helles, Fatah's general secretary in Gaza, were wounded in the fighting, and 16 remain in Israeli hospitals. Eleven Palestinians were killed and more than 90 wounded in Saturday's fighting.

An army spokesman said Israel sent about 60 Palestinians back to Gaza on Sunday and Monday.

"Israeli authorities halted the process, however, as they received information that they were being arrested by Hamas and that their lives were in immediate danger," the Israeli army said in a statement.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement that the men were welcome to return to Gaza and would not be harmed.

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