“I was 5 months pregnant with my son when I noticed that something was growing in my upper right arm. I went to the hospital, where they told me it had to be removed. A part of it was removed and tested. It turned out to be cancer”, says Sabreen Okal (27), sitting down on a plastic stool in her modest home in Jabaliya refugee camp. Sabreen is a mother of 5 children, 4 girls and 1 boy.
She continues: “The tumour was removed from my arm through surgery, after which I had to go through 6 chemotherapy treatments. I was very sick during the treatment and was unable to eat for 10 days. I’m still not able to use my right arm fully, as the nerves around the wound are still healing.”
Despite treatment, the cancer returned and Sabreen underwent another surgery last October to remove the tumour from her arm. She says: “My doctor told me that I also need to undergo radiation therapy in a specialized hospital in Jerusalem. He explained that tumours will spread throughout my body if I don’t have radiation therapy. He prepared the necessary paperwork for me so that I could go to a specialized hospital in Jerusalem for this treatment on 20 December.”
In order to travel from Gaza to the hospital in Jerusalem, Sabreen and her mother-in-law, who is due to accompany her, need to cross through the Israeli-controlled Erez border crossing. “I was told that, according to standard procedure, I had to go for an interview with the Israeli intelligence service before passing through Erez. When I arrived at the crossing on 20 December, they first had me wait in a room for 3 hours. Then I was questioned about issues that have nothing to do with my illness. They asked me if my husband was affiliated with Hamas. After the investigation, they put me in a small room for 3 more hours before they sent me back home. They didn’t allow me to go to the hospital and I don’t understand why.”
On 7 January, PCHR sent a letter to the Israeli authorities operating the Erez crossing, requesting that Sabreen’s application be reconsidered. Two weeks later, the border officials responded saying that they would look into Sabreen’s file. To date, Sabreen has not received permission to cross the border to reach the hospital.
It is impossible for Sabreen to understand why she is being denied life-saving access to medical care: “What I need in order to survive is the radiation treatment, yet I am being denied such treatment. Can you tell me why I’m not allowed to go to the hospital? Regardless of my nationality and religion, I should be seen as a human being, as a patient who needs treatment. Cancer can happen to anyone. If the soldier in the border, who bars my way to the hospital, had cancer, or one of his relatives did, he wouldn’t let a minute pass before taking action. I have been waiting for 2 months now.”
While she is being told to wait, Sabreen can feel the cancer grow inside her body. “I have pain in my arm. I feel that my body is not the same as before.” Showing a bump on her hand, she says: “I can feel there is cancer growing here. This disease I have is dangerous. I cannot wait, you can see that. You know what will happen to me eventually. Who will take care of my children? Who will raise them?”
As days pass, Sabreen’s despair grows. “I feel psychologically exhausted. All I am being told is that I have to wait. But for how long do I have to wait? This is inhuman. I’m afraid something will happen to me.” Having experienced the danger of cancer in her past, Sabreen worries about what could happen to her. Her brother died of cancer when he was 17 years old.
Due to her dire financial situation, Sabreen cannot afford to travel abroad, for example to Egypt, for medical treatment. “My husband is a construction worker, whose salary is insufficient and uncertain. We don’t have money for anything. The rooms of this house are empty. The ceilings are leaking, and the refrigerator was a gift from a charity organization. The hospital in Jerusalem is my only option.”
When two of her daughters (Raghad, 9, and Malak, 6) come home from school, Sabreen talks with motherly pride about how well her girls are doing in school. “The teachers always tell me how clever they are. They are doing well in all the classes and make me very proud of them. They started saying their first words when they were 9 months old.”
Sabreen tries to protect her children from the harsh reality of her illness. “I try to live my life as normally as I can and I tell my daughters that I’m not ill. One day, my 6-year old daughter Malak came home from school crying. Someone had told her that I have cancer and needed to go to Jerusalem for treatment. She still asks me about it, but I tell her that I am doing fine. My children are too young to understand what cancer is.”
“I pray for Allah to give us patience, and give us our lives back. I want to live my life normally, and be able to raise my children.”
Since June 2007, when the closure of Gaza became near-absolute, 64 patients have died as a result of being denied the possibility to leave Gaza for medical treatment, or because of the lack in medicines caused to the closure. Among those who died, there were 18 women and 16 children. On a yearly basis, PCHR assists on average 23 patients in their application for a travel permit, facing many delays, rejections, and other obstacles.
As the occupying power, Israel has an obligation under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which recognizes everyone’s “right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” As a result of the protracted illegal closure of the Gaza Strip, the local healthcare system suffers from chronical shortages in medical supplies and treatment facilities. The Israeli-imposed closure of the Gaza Strip amounts to a form of collective punishment, which is a violation of article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. As it inflicts great suffering on the civilian population of Gaza, it also amounts to a war crime, for which the Israeli political and military leadership bear individual criminal responsibility.
thanks to: pchrgaza.org