A dispute between the two rival Palestinian governments is preventing hundreds of patients in Gaza from receiving urgent medical care abroad, officials said Sunday.
One Gaza man said he has tried unsuccessfully for the past week to get his wife transferred out of Gaza for the removal of a brain tumor. Salman Tawfik said his wife Rasha, 50, lapsed into a coma two days ago, while he was caught in a bureaucratic maze.
"No one wants to help. No one wants to hear," Iyad Alami of the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said of the politicians involved in the dispute. He said several patients are in danger of dying if they are not moved quickly.
Alami's group has been trying to mediate between the Hamas government in Gaza and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority of internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel and Egypt restricted movement in and out of Gaza after Hamas seized the territory from Abbas in 2007, leaving him with parts of the West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank are separated by about 40 km of Israeli territory.
Gaza hospitals offer only basic medical care, and patients seeking treatment abroad need a referral from a medical committee in Gaza before they can cross into Israel or Egypt.
The committee technically reports to the West Bank government, but it operates with the tacit approval of the Hamas authorities in Gaza.
Last week, the West Bank's health minister appointed a new committee, replacing one that was set up in 2009. Rival health officials in the West Bank and Gaza offered conflicting explanations of why the committee then stopped working.
Omar Nasser, a spokesman for the Health Ministry in the West Bank, said that after the new appointments, Hamas police entered the offices of the committee and expelled those working there. Ashraf al-Kidra, a spokesman for the Health Ministry in Gaza, denied there was a raid. He said local employees refused to work with the newly appointed committee members.
The committee handled about 18,000 patient cases last year, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank paid about US$42 million for their treatment in hospitals in the West Bank, Israel, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, said Nasser.
It was not immediately clear why the West Bank health minister replaced all committee members. A similar dispute between the rival governments in 2009 was blamed for the death of nine patients, including a cancer-stricken child.
"We are the victims of selfish political factions who don't care about people's health," said Tawfik, 55, the husband of the patient with the brain tumor. Tawfik said he was bounced from Hamas-loyal officials to those linked to Abbas for the past week.
Israeli officials said they have not received any requests from the Gaza committee for transferring patients since Wednesday.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel charged Sunday that Israel exploits the vulnerability of the Gaza patients, interrogating some as they cross the border.
The group said two Gaza patients and an escort were arrested after being interrogated in July. One has since been released.
An Israeli security official said one of those arrested was suspected of being a Hamas activist involved in making weapons.