On the afternoon of 22 March 2009, the Ministry of Health in Gaza took control of the Department of External Medical Treatment. Officials from the Gaza Ministry of Health demanded that the director of the Department relinquish control of all offices in the Gaza Strip. The Director, Dr. Bassam al-Badri, had been appointed by the Government in Ramallah with the approval of the Gaza Government. Overall authority for the Department was placed in the hands of Dr. Basem Na’im, the Gaza Minister of Health. In the aftermath of the takeover – which included the seizure of the Department’s stamps – approximately 30 departmental employees left their offices.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) warns of the potential consequences of this takeover, and the impact it may have on the lives of hundreds of patients who require urgent medical care unavailable in the Gaza Strip.
According to information made available to PCHR, Mr. Fayez al-Shaltouni, director general of the Health Insurance Department in the Gaza Ministry of Health, arrived at the headquarters of the Department of External Medical Treatment at approximately 13:30 on 22 March, accompanied by approximately ten other persons. Mr. al-Shatouni informed Dr. al-Badri that he had been instructed to take control of all the Department’s offices in Gaza, showing him a letter to that effect signed by Dr. Hassan Khalaf, Assistant Undersecretary at the Gaza Ministry of Health. Dr. Al-Badri did not contest the takeover, and asked al-Shaltouni to sign an acknowledgement of receipt of all the contents of the offices.
At the time of the takeover there were dozens of civilian patients waiting in the offices of the Department. They were informed that the Gaza Ministry of Health had taken control of the department in Gaza, and that all applications for medical treatment abroad should be coordinated with the Gaza Ministry. The patients expressed their complaints, and the fear that this development would negatively impact on their applications, risking their lives.
In early January, the Ramallah Ministry of Health ceased referring Palestinian patients to Israeli hospitals. This decision was taken in light of the requirement – imposed by Israeli occupation authorities – that the Palestinian Authority cover all treatment expenses. As a result, hundreds of Palestinian patients, especially cancer patients who are in need of chemotherapy, radiology and bone marrow transplants, found their treatments interrupted without any suitable medical alternatives.
PCHR, Physicians for Human Rights, Gisha and B’Tselem have protested the politicization of medical treatment. The decisions taken by the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli authorities use Palestinian patients as tools in the conflict, violating their right to life and the right to access medical treatment. The exploitation of patients, including patients with dangerous diseases, for political or economic aims is a grave violation of human rights and medical ethics.
Following this decision, Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations demanded that Israel recognizes its ultimate responsibility, as an Occupying Power, to ensure that all the civilians in the occupied Palestinian territory have access to appropriate healthcare centers, regardless of the financial cost associated with their treatment.
PCHR is extremely concerned that Palestinian patients may suffer the consequences of the political conflict between Fatah and Hamas, and calls upon:
* The Ministry of Health in Gaza Government to cancel its decision to take over the Department of External Medical Treatment. The Ministry is required to let the Director and staff of the Department return to their work immediately, in order to serve the hundreds of patients in need of medical treatment abroad.
* The Ramallah Ministry of Health to immediately cancel its decision to stop the financial coverage for the hundreds Palestinian patients who need to complete life-saving treatment in Israeli hospitals. Amongst these patients are 57 children who need to complete their long-term treatment in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Stopping medical referrals in the context of the ongoing siege of Gaza represents a death sentence. The Government in Ramallah must accept responsibility for this situation.
* The authorities of the Israeli military occupation to fulfill their obligations, as an Occupying Power, with respect to the care and protection of the Palestinian population in the occupied Palestinian territory as codified in, inter alia, the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and the two Additional Protocols of 1977.
* The authorities of the Israeli military occupation to fulfill their obligations in accordance with international human rights law, to ensure, inter alia, the right to life and the right to the highest attainable standard of health.