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Cancer patients, other ill Gazans await Israel’s permission to leave for treatments

A Palestinian medic helps a patient Monday to leave a Gaza City clinic run by Doctors Without Borders that was damaged in Israeli airstrikes this month. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)
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GAZA CITY — As the Gaza Strip slowly reconnected with the outside world after an 11-day battle between Israel and Hamas, patients with urgent medical needs were still waiting Monday for Israel's permission to leave the enclave for surgeries, transplants or cancer treatments that were interrupted by the fighting and are unavailable in Gaza.

Physicians, families and advocates urged that border crossings be reopened for medical cases before the most vulnerable patients become critically ill or die.

Late Monday, the Israeli military said patients with permits for medical treatments would be allowed to cross into Israel beginning Tuesday morning as part of the resumption of normal border operations, including the passage of humanitarian teams, medical equipment, food and fuel.

Gaza struggles with twin medical emergencies: A covid surge and war injuries

On the fourth day after a cease-fire ended the near-constant rocket launches into Israel and Israel’s retaliatory bombardment, more supplies of fuel and medical equipment entered Gaza through checkpoints in Israel and Egypt.

At least 10 workers from humanitarian and aid groups, who had been blocked from entering, also arrived in Gaza on Monday, according to the Association of International Development Agencies, an umbrella group in Jerusalem. But many of the groups are waiting for border openings to become more predictable before sending larger teams or specialists, the organization said, to prevent their staff members from being stranded inside the enclave.

No medical patients have been allowed to leave through the Erez Crossing into Israel during the limited hours that Israeli officials have opened the checkpoint to journalists or diplomats. That means many patients who missed critical appointments over the past two weeks still do not know when they will be able to reach their doctors.

The Gaza Health Ministry office that facilitates outside medical care was crowded Monday with patients and families trying to book appointments and secure their exit permits.

Hussein Najjar, a fisherman from southern Gaza, said his 61-year-old mother has grown weak and depressed since missing her regular chemotherapy treatment in East Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria Hospital for colorectal and lung cancer.

“Even if we get an appointment today, we don’t know when the crossing will be open and she will be able to go,” Najjar said. “She’s looking for a way to survive, and we can’t find it.”

The family’s situation was made more difficult after Najjar’s boat was destroyed along with several others when an Israeli missile struck a harbor during the bombardment, he said.

His family of seven, including his father and ailing mother, are surviving on a monthly donation of about $50 a month from Oxfam International, he said.

Gaza’s impoverished health system cannot provide many of the treatments needed by those with the most serious medical cases. There are no radiation treatment facilities in Gaza, for example, leaving cancer patients to seek that and other basic therapies in hospitals outside the enclave.

The Health Ministry said it makes appointments and processes exit permits for about 100 patients a day, 90 percent of them for hospitals in the West Bank and the rest for facilities in Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

The system is cumbersome at best, according to Mazin Hindi, the physician who runs the outside referral program. When there is a military escalation, it fails entirely, he said. Patients who need lifesaving treatments or surgeries can wait weeks for Israeli authorities to give the green light, sometimes not before it is too late.

“It’s very difficult on a human level,” Hindi said. “I feel like the patient in front of me is like my own mother, my own wife, my own child, and there is nothing I can do. I am helpless at times like this.”

The current disruption is only the latest in an inefficient treatment network that often fails patients, according to Eman Shanan, an advocate for female cancer patients. Between Israeli restrictions, the lack of financial support from Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and the personal cost of transportation, patients face hurdles to treatment that are sometimes insurmountable.

Covid-19 only made the situation worse, Shanan said. Cancer patients, who are often immune-compromised, were scared to travel for months. Seventeen thyroid patients she works with have not had treatment in more than a year because quarantine requirements in Egypt and Jordan meant they would be potentially apart from their young children for weeks.

“The war just made it worse,” said Shanan, head of the Gaza-based Aid and Hope Program for Cancer Patient Care. “Nobody is caring about cancer patients.”