When 6-year-old Deema al-Shaqar from Gaza's Khan Yunis kept getting headaches and high fevers, her family finally decided in March 2018 to seek professional medical advice. Doctors concluded after lab tests that she had leukemia and referred her to the Huda Al Masri Pediatric Cancer Department, an oncology center for Palestinian children with a modern cancer ward at Al-Hussein Government Hospital.
The problem is that this hospital is in the West Bank city of Beit Jala. There are no cancer treatment centers for children in Gaza, meaning that Deema's family members must get a permit from Israel to travel — where they are searched at the Erez checkpoint — and then repeat this process for each round of Deema's chemotherapy.
While getting a permit for Deema isn't always difficult, the same can't be said about getting permits for her adult companions. Israeli military travel permit procedures are very difficult. It is next to impossible for a male who lives in Gaza to travel to the West Bank; even female adults need to be over a certain age. Deema's mother is only 32, a young age for the abhorrent policies of the Israeli security permit system. Normally, children — especially sick ones — get travel permits. Women over 45 years of age are eligible for permits in general.
Deema's 45-year-old aunt, Karima Husnai Salameh — a nurse in Gaza — was asked by the family to accompany the sick child to the West Bank. She has to apply for a permit every time.
Speaking to Al-Monitor by phone, Salameh repeated the problems all Gazans know by heart. “Traveling from Gaza is not easy. First, you need to get approval for the sick person, and then each time the person going with her also needs to get approval. Normally, only women over 45 are considered for travel permits — even if they are accompanying sick children. Her mother was once allowed, but the Israelis rejected her the second time.”
Salameh said that as a result, she and Deema's grandmother must alternate applying for a travel permit for an accompanying adult.
Medical research reported in The Lancet in 2018 pointed out that cancer is the third leading cause of death in Gaza for both adults and children.
In its monthly report, the World Health Organization reported that five child patients were denied permits to cross Erez, the military checkpoint separating Gaza and Israel, in December 2018 alone. A total of 130 children were delayed from traveling through Erez in time for hospital appointments outside Gaza during the same month.
But the travel permit dilemma for young Deema, her family and other cancer patients might be addressed now that a state-of-the-art cancer ward is about to open in a Gaza hospital.
Steve Sosebee, CEO and founder of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund (PCRF), a US-registered charity that also built and opened the Huda Al-Masri department in Beit Jala in 2013, told Al-Monitor that the new $3.5 million ward is set to open Feb. 19 and will be named after Musa and Suhaila Nasir, co-founders of the PCRF. All of the over $3.5 million raised for this new department were through private donations.
Deema will be one of two child cancer patients — both of whom have had to travel to Beit Jala in the past for treatment — to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the new ward.
“We expect the new center to reduce referrals abroad and dependency on the Israelis to issue permits. [It will] also help cut the big financial costs to the Palestinian government, which has to cover the costs of children being treated in the West Bank and Israel. It will also alleviate the separation and suffering of children and their families. In many cases, family members have to be away from Gaza for weeks at a time.”
Sosebee noted that while the physical center will be running soon, other challenges continue. “Cancer treatment without radiation therapy is fragmented and, in many cases, incomplete. The Palestinian Ministry of Health has not yet gotten Israeli permission to bring in radiation equipment. We also need permits for the staff to go abroad for training in the West Bank and Jordan in order to ensure the sustainability of this center," he said.
Deema's aunt added, “I hope that when they open the new cancer ward in Gaza, they will be able to provide the same humane care and quality assistance that we have seen in the hospital in Beit Jala. I went many times, [and] the medical team made sure the treatment is given with the aim of reducing side effects as much as possible."
The new ward, which will be part of the Palestinian-run Al-Rantisi pediatric government hospital in Gaza City (all hospitals in Gaza are administered by the Ramallah-based ministry), will need support from the Palestinian Ministry of Health as well. “Once we open the hospital, we will turn it over to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, which will be overall in charge of the longevity of the center,” Sosebee said.
Some of the problems that have regularly caused worry in Gaza have been the regular drug shortages and electricity cuts. The hospital will have emergency generators, but that will still require fuel, according to Sosebee. “The health sector in Gaza has been impacted by fuel shortages over the past several years, and we worry that may also impact our new department as well.”
Setting up a cancer ward in Gaza will ease the travel pains of hundreds of Palestinian children and their families, but this will not be the panacea for all the troubles that include medical problems for the nearly 2 million Palestinians living in the besieged Gaza Strip. On the contrary, this should be a sign to the international community of its failure to bring about an end to the unjust siege and allow Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to travel freely without having to obtain permission from the Israeli authorities.