MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Today, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel would not cause a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. That's despite a threat to cut electricity to Gaza in response to Palestinian rocket attacks.
Hamas seized control of Gaza in June and Israel has further sealed the border crossing since then. Some of the few people allowed to leave the Strip are those needing urgent medical care. Now, several human rights groups say they are troubled by charges that Israel's domestic intelligence service has tried to pressure patients into spying.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Yasser Hiya(ph) is an unemployed, impoverished father of seven. He lives with his big extended family in a small, ramshackle house in Khan Yunis in Central Gaza. He'd long suffered from weakness and fatigue, but it wasn't until a few months ago that doctors told the 37-year-old he had a small hole in his heart and urgently needed an operation. He was thrilled then when Israel and local authorities late last month granted him permission to travel to the West Bank for treatment.
But after he entered Israel en route to the West Bank, he had got a surprise. Israeli intelligence wanted to talk. At the area's border crossing, he says men in civilian clothes took him to a windowless, basement room with a table, a computer, two chairs and a one-way mirror. The problem they told him? One of your five brothers is wanted for activities with a militant group. Hiya says he told the intelligence men he knows little about his brother's activities these days and rarely ever sees him, but the officer persisted.
Mr. YASSER HIYA (Gaza Resident): (Through translator) He called me a liar and said I should know everything about my brother. And then he said, if you want us to help you, you will help us.
WESTERVELT: Yasser Hiya says he refused.
Mr. HIYA: (Through translator) He said, okay, if you don't want to help us, let your brother help you. Go and die in Gaza.
WESTERVELT: Human rights groups say they've documented at least 12 such cases recently of Israeli intelligence, trying to recruit Gazans seeking urgent medical care.
One of them is 28-year-old Basam al-Wahadi(ph), an unemployed journalist. He suffers from severe myopia and nerve damage in his right eye. Gaza doctors told him he had to have an operation soon or his retina could become detached and he'd lose sight in that eye. After getting Israel's permission, al-Wahadi headed through the border crossing. But just like in Yasser Hiya's case, armed men in civilian clothes took him into a basement interrogation room.
An Israeli intelligence officer, al-Wahadi says, told him in fluent Arabic that if he wanted to save his eye, he'd have to become their eyes on the ground in Gaza. The officer gave him two cell phone numbers and the assumed names of two contacts.
Mr. BASAM al-WAHADI (Journalist): (Through translator) He said, now you will go back to Gaza. And I told him, what are you talking about? I have permission to go to Israel for treatment. Is that the rules? The international rules? He told me, listen, in this room, you forget all about the rules, all the international rules, the agreement. Here, it's different.
Al-Wahadi says the intelligence officer offered him cash and first-class treatment at a Tel Aviv eye clinic. He told al-Wahadi to use his journalist credentials to gather information on militants, their fighting positions, weapons storage sites and any information on rocket-launching cells. Al-Wahadi says the officer was the insistent - no help, no treatment.
Mr. al-WAHADI: (Through translator) He said, tonight, you call me. You work with us for four days. If you have a good attitude and information, I'll send a report to the administration that you're a good guy and to send you down for treatment in Israel.
WESTERVELT: Al-Wahadi refused.
Mr. al-WAHADI: (Through translator) He said to me that you will never leave Gaza unless you prove you'll support us and help us.
WESTERVELT: A senior Israeli official, speaking for the domestic security agency, known by its acronym, SHABAK, refused to comment on the accounts of the two Palestinians. But he denied that the agency makes medical care for Gazans contingent on intelligence cooperation. But at least four international human rights organizations have raised senior concerns about Israel's alleged recruitment of the medically needy.
Miri Weingarten with Physicians for Human Rights tells NPR, quote, "any conditioning of urgent medical care is coercion. It's wrong and against any world standard of medical ethics," end quote.
Eyad Nasser with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza says the charges, if true, violate the Geneva Conventions.
Mr. EYAD NASSER (Spokesman, International Committee of the Red Cross): No way the health and the medical services can be bargained for any other service, reason, duty, whatever.
WESTERVELT: World Health Organization figures show that since June, about 85 percent of those in Gaza who've requested urgent medical care in Israel or the West Bank have been granted Israeli permission. But Mahmoud Daher with the WHO's Gaza office says the growing anecdotal evidence that Israel may be trying to exploit medical cases for intelligence purposes is a critical concern for the U.N. agency.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza City.
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