IMAGE: DOCTOR HELPS PATIENT IN GAZA
Hatem Moussa  /  AP
A Palestinian doctor tends to a patient Tuesday at Shefa Hospital in Gaza City, where the medical infrastructure is declining.
updated 4/1/2008 4:04:20 PM ET 2008-04-01T20:04:20

Dozens of Gaza residents have died waiting for medical treatment because of delays in obtaining permits to enter Israel, combined with a crumbling health system in Gaza, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

The U.N. agency listed 32 cases since October in which Gaza residents, ranging from a 1-year-old child to a 77-year-old man, died because they could not obtain urgent medical treatment.

Six were waiting for Israeli authorities to issue a permit to enter, according to the WHO report. It said others were denied permits because they were considered a security risk to Israel — including a 65-year-old woman. A number of other patients had obtained a permit but died while making additional arrangements necessary to cross into Israel, such as getting permission for a Palestinian medical team to accompany them, the report said.

Some weren't able to leave because Israel lacked the necessary hospital beds while others died while waiting at the Erez crossing, which Gazans use to pass into Israel, it said. Israel frequently shuts down the crossing because Hamas militants fire rockets nearby, aiming for Israeli soldiers and nearby Israeli communities.

Although Israel is letting in more medical patients than ever before, it's taking longer to apply for permits, said Ambrogio Manenti, head of the WHO in Jerusalem.

Attacks feared
Israel says it needs to do lengthy checks on Gaza residents because of fears they could use illness as a pretext to carry out attacks. It has also challenged the number of cases WHO listed.

Patients with urgent cases are meant to be issued permits in less than two days, but can now take up to four days, the report said.

Col. Nir Press, head of the coordination for Gaza Strip, said it was impossible to speed up the permit process because of security needs.

"They (Hamas) use humanitarian needs to attack us. We have to check every request," Press said.

Press said last year two middle-aged mothers who applied for permits for health treatment were discovered to be plotting suicide bomb attacks.

Gaza's access to external medical care was mostly limited after Hamas seized power of the strip in June, prompting Egypt and Israel to seal their borders. Israel has only allowed in urgent medical cases, and Egypt has accepted only a trickle of patients from Gaza.

The Gaza Strip does not have much specialized medical care, and doctors traditionally transfer Palestinians to neighboring Egypt, Israel and Jordan for treatment of serious illnesses.

More and more applying
In 2006, Israel admitted 4,932 patients from Gaza. In 2007, that number jumped to 7,176, with more than half of the patients, or 4,084, being admitted between July 1 and Dec. 31, after the Hamas takeover.

Press said Palestinians should coordinate with Egypt more to allow patients in. So far, Egypt has refused to deal with Gaza's Hamas rulers, but has allowed some patients in through Israel, making the process cumbersome.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but human rights groups maintain that Israel is still technically occupying Gaza and responsible for its 1.4 million residents, because Israel controls most of Gaza's border crossings, air space and seacoast.

The report detailed the case of a 9-year-old boy with a brain lesion. Because of breakdowns and shortages in Gaza, his first CT scan was delayed. Nine days after he fell ill, an application for transfer to Israel was made, and four days later it was approved. Another day went by before Israel approved a medical team to accompany him, but the boy died that day in a Gaza hospital.

Manenti, the WHO official, said the case showed the "nonsense" of the situation. "From a health point of view, this is a tragedy. It could be easily avoided," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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