JERUSALEM - 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 yesterday.The UN 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 agency's report. It said others, including a 65-year-old woman, were denied permits because they were considered a security risk to Israel. 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 were not 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, the report 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 World Health Organization in Jerusalem.
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.
Colonel 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 patients to enter 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.
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 controls most of Gaza's border crossings, air space, and seacoast.
© 2008 Associated Press