Associated Press Writers
¶ GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Hundreds of Palestinian patients have been trapped in the Gaza Strip, unable to travel abroad for crucial treatment for cancer and other diseases, because of political infighting between Gaza's militant Hamas rulers and their Palestinian rivals.
¶ Eight Gazans who were waiting to travel abroad have died since the crisis began in March, when the dispute shut down a medical referral committee that helps sick residents find treatment outside of Gaza, according to the World Health Organization.
¶ Others are hanging on, waiting. Ten-year-old Ribhi Jindiyeh, a lymphoma patient, lies in bed at home, skinny and jaundiced, too weak to move. He underwent chemotherapy last year in an Israeli hospital, and when he returned home in January, he seemed better. But in March, he began urinating blood.
¶ Gaza doctors can't find the problem and give him infusions every two days to keep him alive.
¶ "Nobody here knows why he is losing so much blood, but nobody can refer us to a hospital abroad, either," his mother, Nevine, 38, said.
¶ Another son, 4-year-old Yehia, was diagnosed with lymphoma in March.
¶ "I want everybody to help my son _ Israel, Fatah, Hamas, whoever," Nevine said. "If they can't help a sick child, who can they help? They should all pack up their bags and go home."
¶ On Monday, there was hope for a resolution. Hamas health minister Basim Naim announced the restoration of the referral committee, which Hamas' rival, Fatah, had controlled but Hamas shut down in March.
¶ The committee would resume coordinating medical treatment abroad. But Hamas has reservations and has asked mediating independent health workers to find new committee members both sides can agree on, said senior health official Yousef Mudalal.
¶ That raises the possibility of a new dispute.
¶ The split between Hamas and the Fatah movement of U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which controls the West Bank, can have a devastating impact on Gazans' lives.
¶ Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007 after routing forces loyal to Fatah and systematically started taking over government agencies in the tiny Mediterranean territory.
¶ On March 22, Hamas officials took control of the Fatah-run medical committee, which referred about 1,000 patients a month with life-threatening illnesses to Israel and Egypt. Hamas officials said the committee was rife with corruption and needed reform.
¶ In response, the West Bank government, which funds medical treatment for Palestinians abroad, froze most patient transfers.
¶ Gaza patients cannot travel abroad without committee coordination because of a border blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt since the Hamas takeover. The two countries only recognize the West Bank administration as the legitimate Palestinian government.
¶ Rights activists say the political differences are jeopardizing people's lives.
¶ "They are playing with the lives of people and their pain. There's a complete absence of responsibility," said Khalil Shaheen of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
¶ The Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights, working with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, has managed to get 35 patients out of Gaza for treatment since the committee collapsed, said Ran Yarom of PHR. But the groups say they don't have the resources to do the committee's job.
¶ The crisis compounds the challenges facing Gaza's medical system. Hospitals use aging equipment and suffer from low medicine supplies.
¶ And in late January, the West Bank government halted payments for medical care in Israel, saying the treatment was too expensive. Fatah health officials said they would only pay for Gaza residents to obtain cheaper medical care in Egypt.
¶ In Gaza City, 12-year-old Mohammed Zibdeh, a brain cancer patient, waits for a permit to travel, breathing with the assistance of a ventilator device in his throat. Last year, doctors in an Israeli hospital worked to shrink his brain tumor with chemotherapy. Now Zibdeh has constant headaches, and his father, Riyad, 48, fears the tumor is growing back.
¶ "I can't help him, and he might be dying before my own eyes," he said.