Doctor Firas Eleyan is the second of three Palestinian doctors to be granted a new permit allowing him to drive his car into Jerusalem, a change which will drastically effect his -- and many other doctors’-- working life.
“I think it’s a substantial step…the daily cost just to come to work by cab is more than $18 each way – more than half of my monthly wage. Now it takes me 15 instead of 30 minutes each way.” Eleyan, who has worked at Hadassah Hospital for eight years and previously trained as an oncologist in Russia, said he knew of 16 physicians who were granted the new permits and of more who were currently going through the application process.
Eleyan admitted that his Palestinian friends were shocked when he told them that Israel would allow him to drive through the check points to get to the hospital where he works. “We were trying for years to get this. It was very difficult. Sometimes when we would leave [work] late at night we would be waiting as long as two hours to get a cab home from the check point, sometimes during bad weather.”
“Now I have time to attend more social events in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, more time for my family and friends,” says Mohamed Said, another doctor who until recently could easily spend up to two hours traveling from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. With the introduction of the new permits his daily commute could be reduced to around 45-60 minutes a day. “Such a permit helps me a lot by saving time for my private life and for my patients, too,” he told The Media Line.
Mohamed, 32, from Bethlehem studied medicine in Romania for seven years and admits that he was shocked when he saw the level of restrictions imposed on Palestinians’ movements when he returned to his hometown in 2010. His commute from Bethlehem to Jerusalem would take him through two different checkpoints and would take four times longer than the distance warranted, Mohammed explained. Said, whose expertise is in the treatment of malignant tumors, says that he feels Israelis treat all Palestinians as terrorists, even those who are working in Israeli institutions.
One hundred doctors are the first of those Palestinians permitted to enter the city with their vehicle, an historic change which will see Palestinian-owned cars driving in Jerusalem for the first time since 2000. This list will be followed by more, Said assured The Media Line. All doctors who contribute to saving lives, not just specialists, will be able to apply for a permit to drive to Jerusalem.
“Job vacancies are limited in Bethlehem and Hebron so working in Jerusalem is considered a good option. We have a lot of graduate doctors in the West Bank. If I couldn’t find a job in Palestine or in Jerusalem I would seek work somewhere else in the Arab Gulf.”
Several sources within the Palestinian medical profession and Ministry of Health told The Media Line that the decision to open up access was taken without consulting with them. Ibrahim Hummed, head of the Hebron Doctors Syndicate, informed The Media Line that his association had not been approached by any Israeli officials. He said that doctors from the West Bank had been asked directly by their employers to apply for a permit to take their vehicles into Israel. Palestinian cars have been banned from entering Israel for "security reasons" since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, he noted. It has taken 15 years for them to return. “Those that get a chance to work in Israel will benefit from better wages and good health insurance from their employer,” according to Hummed. “Wages in Jerusalem are better than those provided by the Palestinian Authority – double or triple the amount.”
Dr. Hummed’s comments were corroborated by Mansour Asaad, who explained that, “We did not receive any official paper or announcement, and we didn’t even participate in any Israeli-Palestinian health committee talks.” Asaad, the General Director of the Ministry of Health in Bethlehem, told The Media Line that, “What we have is an Israeli announcement by the chief of COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) Yoav Mordechai. We heard about it from the Voice of Israel in Arabic and then later in the Israeli media, the Jerusalem Post. We didn’t hear about it from any official ministry, like the Civil Administration or the Presidency headquarters.”
Asked about the procedure, Kobi Gertswolf, head of the coordination branch in the Civil Administration, denied the PA had been left out of the loop. He said that the access for doctors was just one part of a raft of changes which were aimed at improving the lives of Palestinians, and included granting entrance to Israel without requiring permits for up to 400,000 residents of the West Bank each day.
Using the Biblical names for the West Bank, he told The Media Line that, “The Civil Administration branch is very aware of the life and economic situation in Judea and Samaria and is looking for new measures to facilitate easing the situation on the ground for Palestinian residents. In the last period we approved increasing the number of employees allowed to work in Israel and the minimum age for men and women to enter Israel. Last year, $1.2 million was budgeted by the Civil Administration to be used for several activities in Judea and Samaria for Palestinian residents. They found projects which included giving electricity to villages; we conducted studies for Palestinian investors in Israel to help them with procedures for doing business in Israel; and we created agricultural projects, like the strawberry project in Qalqilya.”
Gertswolf stressed the significance of the decision to allow doctors to drive their cars into Israel saying, “In the last 15 years, no Palestinian car had permission to enter Israel. Despite the security situation it’s a very big deal to let Palestinians enter Israel with their cars so that (the doctors) can get to the hospitals. We hope that this activity will succeed. We will check in a few months to see with the goal of increasing the number.”
“It was a political decision -- the government sent letters informing us of its verdict to give permits to the doctors,” says Dr. Hasher Salmon, Deputy Director of Hadassah University Hospital in Eini Kerem. “There was an application that the hospitals had to submit. The doctors simultaneously requested access.” The majority of doctors who requested a permit were granted one, explained Dr. Salmon.
It was at a meeting of the Civil Administration, chaired by its head, General David Menachem, and attended by representatives from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, that the decision was agreed upon, a COGAT spokesperson told The Media Line. The agreement focused on 100 doctors who matched certain criteria and worked in Israel, of which 17 have begun traveling into Jerusalem on the new permits. According to COGAT, the number of Palestinians with work permits for Israel had been increased by 15,000 up to 53,000. In addition, permits for Palestinian businessmen had been increased up to 20,000.
For his part, Dr. Firas Eleyan simply hoped that the new permits will make his life easier. He acknowledged that there were obstacles for the implementation of the new rules. Many of the police and army personnel who man the checkpoints the doctors must travel through are unfamiliar with the new permits and this is a problem, he said. He has one friend who, after being stopped and searched while trying to use his new permit, had decided he will delay traveling with his own car until the military has grown accustomed to the new process.
A second issue of concern for the doctor was the registration plate on his car. He feared what might happen if someone mistook him for a terrorist who had slipped his vehicle into the city. “We have to drive our cars with Palestinian green plates into Jerusalem. I was hoping for a yellow Israeli plate. It is dangerous for me. And it is dangerous for people who see me.”
But this did not deter Eleyan, who said he was delighted and hoped that the changes will lead to an improvement in the economic situation and an opening up of the borders of the West Bank. “This is wonderful, my car can go anywhere. I’m grateful to Israel for this.”
Rafa Mismar contributed to this article from the West Bank
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