Health Care Breaking Down on West Bank
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The international boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government is severely affecting healthcare systems in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Medicines and hospital equipment are in short supply, and doctors say thousands of patients do not get adequate care.
NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: At the al-Watani Hospital in Nablus, patients have to bring their own sheets, blankets, pillows and even heaters. Masks attached to oxygen tanks that should be used just once and thrown away are now recycled. Hospital officials say many patients are not getting the medicines they need. Fifty-year-old Harvey Abuhasan(ph), from the nearby village of Tubas, is in the hospital with chest pains.
He says the hospital didn't have the medicine he needs, clofexene(ph), so he bought it at a private pharmacy for more than $70, a significant sum of money for him. He says there's been a serious deterioration in medical services for many Palestinians, and he's angry at the international community for boycotting the Hamas-led government.
Mr. HARVEY ABUHASAN: (Through translator) As a Palestinian citizen, I'm supposed to have these services provided to me, and for the siege to be lifted from my country. I blame the European Union. I blame Israel. And I blame America for imposing this siege around the people of Palestine.
GRADSTEIN: Medical supervisor Kamel Juwabri(ph), who runs the 25-bed cardiac unit here, says he's growing increasingly frustrated. The hospital was virtually shut down for more than three months as doctors and nurses protested the fact that they had not received their salaries. Only emergency cases were accepted. Everyone else was told to go to private hospitals, which can cost hundreds of dollars a day.
Now the government hospitals have reopened, but there are growing shortages. In the neonatal unit there are incubators, but no monitors. In the dialysis unit, several machines are out of commission for lack of spare parts. The whole hospital ran out of oxygen recently and was on the verge of closing. Kamel Juwabri says a hospital can't function like this.
Mr. KAMEL JUWABRI (Supervisor, al-Watani Hospital): (Through translator) How can Palestinian people be made victims of this situation? How can poverty become the tool of putting pressure on a political situation?
GRADSTEIN: The healthcare system in the West Bank and Gaza was struggling even before the election of the Hamas-led government almost a year ago. Some services, like radiation therapy, are not available at all in the West Bank and Gaza, and patients need to travel to Egypt or Jordan. Complex cases are often referred to Israel. A recent report by the World Health Organization says the healthcare system is almost on the point of collapse. The report says the Palestinian Ministry of Health is heavily dependent on international aid.
But since the boycott began, the ministry's budget has been drastically cut. Israeli officials insist they are not to blame. Government spokesman Mark Regev says Israel has tried to alleviate the shortages of medicine and equipment.
Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs): Israel has done everything that we can to try to make sure that there are no shortages. Unfortunately, we've seen the Hamas leadership stifling too many times in the attempt to provide medical services.
GRADSTEIN: Regev says the Israeli government offered to release more than $10 million of Palestinian customs and tax revenues Israel had frozen for the purchase of medicine and hospital equipment. But Regev said Hamas rejected the offer. Doctor Yusuf Al Muhdelo(ph), the director general of the Ministry of Health and a Hamas member, said the money Israel has frozen belongs to the Palestinian Authority, which has the right to decide how to use it.
He also said the Israeli offer required the Palestinian government to purchase medicine and equipment only from Israeli companies. Israeli human rights groups say that Israel, as an occupying power, is responsible for providing medical services in the West Bank.
Maskit Bendel is the director of the Occupied Territories Project for Physicians For Human Rights. The group sends volunteer doctors in mobile clinics to villages around the West Bank.
Ms. MASKIT BENDEL (Director of Occupied Territories Project, Physicians For Human Rights): The medical situation in the West Bank is very unstable at the moment. We can see that in our mobile clinics. We have a rise of about 300 percent in people coming just to get medications. And they had - they saw a doctor, they got the prescription, but they could not buy the medication either because it's not available or because they're too poor to buy it.
GRADSTEIN: Bendel says preliminary statistics show an increase in mortality rates last year, especially among chronically ill patients. And she warns that if something is not done soon, more Palestinians will die needlessly.
Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Nablus.
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