Contrary to Guardian claim, there are no Israeli restrictions on medicine to Gaza (Update)

When you come across a Guardian article about healthcare issues in Gaza, you pretty much know for certain what to expect. Regardless of the details, the story will ignore Hamas’s role completely, and inevitably leave readers with the impression that Israel restrictions are preventing vital medicine and medical supplies from reaching Gaza.

A May 18th article in the Guardian, written by Philippa Whitford (A breast surgeon and Scottish National Party MP) represents a case in point.

Whitford describes her recent visit to Gaza in the context of recollections of volunteer work she did in the territory 25 years ago, and comes to the conclusion that – despite Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 – the situation for patients has gotten worse, not better, due to Israeli restrictions.

While life inside the strip no longer involves curfews and clashes, the blockade and the threat of further repeated incursions from Israel hang over every aspect of life.

For women with breast cancer in Gaza, Israel’s and Egypt’s near-total closure affects nearly every stage of their diagnosis and treatment. Doctors in clinics and hospitals told me vital medicines, including chemotherapy drugs, were hard to procure. Several patients reported having had their chemotherapy course interrupted when drugs could not be supplied, or simply having been unable to complete the course at all.

Radio isotopes used in bone scans or for guided biopsy of axillary lymph nodes are forbidden entry into Gaza despite having no potentially dangerous application. Gaza’s surgeons are prevented from travelling out to attend conferences or further develop their skills, freezing surgical practice many years behind the rest of the world. A Harvard Medical School study has shown that five-year survival rates for breast cancer patients are as low as 30-40%, compared with around 85% in England.

Radiotherapy is completely unavailable. Patients requiring it must therefore apply to Israel for a permit to travel to hospitals in East Jerusalem. The application procedure is time-consuming, and patients must cover the cost of their own transport and accommodation.

First, the claim that Israeli restrictions on the flow of goods to Gaza represent a “near total closure” is absurd in light of the fact that tons of food, consumer goods and medical equipment are transported freely into the Palestinian-run territory on a weekly basis. Additionally, thousands of Palestinians leave Gaza each week to conduct business outside the territory, or to receive medical treatment in Israeli or Palestinian hospitals.

Also, contrary to Whitford’s suggestion about Israel’s responsibility for the shortage of chemotherapy drugs, there are no Israeli restrictions on medical supplies entering Gaza.  Thousands of tons of medical supplies arrive in Gaza each year. Further, more than 25,000 Gazans are granted permits annually to receive medical care in Israel, the West Bank or Jordan.

The only restricted items are weapons and ‘dual-use’ items, those putatively civilian items which can be used “for the development, production, installation or enhancement of military capabilities and terrorist capacities”.   Purely humanitarian supplies have never been subject to such restrictions, even during wartime.

Regarding Whitford’s specific claim that radio isotopes are forbidden “despite having no potentially dangerous application”, we contacted COGAT:

email to cogat

Here’s their reply:

cogat reply

As far as Whitford’s claim that “Gaza’s surgeons are prevented from travelling out to attend conferences or further develop their skills”, earlier this year the MFA reported that Israel routinely coordinates the movement of doctors from Gaza to the West Bank “for continuing education projects and conferences”.  Additionally, between January and June of 2015 alone, 1,300 medical professionals reportedly entered into Israel to take educational seminars.

As we’ve noted previously, shortages of medical equipment and other shortages affecting medical care in Gaza appear to be largely due to “long-standing disputes between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas“.  During Operation Protective Edge, Hamas even reportedly stole medical aid sent by the PA to Palestinians in the Strip.

Remarkably, not only does Whitford fail to note the intra-Palestinian disputes, she doesn’t mention the word “Hamas” once in her entire op-ed. The legal blockade and other restrictions were of course implemented in the first place to stop the flow of weapons to Hamas, a proscribed terror group which has fired thousands of deadly rockets at innocent civilians. 

We’ve contacted Guardian editors regarding the specific erroneous claims in Whitford’s op-ed, and will update this post when we receive a reply. 

UPDATE, May 25: The Guardian rejected our complaint, alleging that “radio isotopes used in bone scans or for guided biopsy of axillary lymph nodes” are indeed forbidden entry into Gaza. Links they provided at least suggests that such “radio isotopes” have at some point been restricted due to their dual-use capacity.  

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