Although Palestinian and Israeli doctors and World Health Organization officials in the territories had intended to find practical solutions to the health problems of Gaza residents during a three-hour discussion in east Jerusalem on Monday, they ended up being bogged down by politics without agreeing on any concrete proposals.
The most-discussed issue was whether Israel is still, or no longer, occupying Gaza following disengagement in 2005.
One example of political finger-pointing came from a Palestinian psychiatrist who called the Israeli occupation the "mother of all sins," while conceding that Palestinian Authority Health Minister Fathi Abu-Moghli had carried out a "crime against humanity" by refusing to authorize the transfer of vital Israeli medications to Gaza patients and ordering personnel to strike in a Gaza hospital; he also strongly condemned Hamas for its killing of innocent Palestinians.
The event was sponsored by Bridges, the World Health Organization's monthly magazine aimed at using the subject of health to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. It was attended by Palestinian doctors and some Israeli colleagues (mostly supporters or members of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel), along with an Israel Health Ministry official and mostly foreign journalists.
Abu-Moghli was supposed to have spoken, but according to WHO Gaza and West Bank office head Dr. Ambrogio Manenti, he could not attend because he had to deal with a "public health emergency" in Gaza.
Dr. Alex Leventhal, for 15 years the Israel Health Ministry's head of public health services and now responsible for international affairs (including contacts with Palestinians), said: "I feel uneasy in this situation. I don't like such a political situation that I feel is unbalanced. There are three sides to every issue: Your side, my side and things you don't talk about. The UN and WHO agree with Israel that it is no longer the occupier of Gaza."
He added that Israeli health authorities want to help Palestinian patients. "Let us hope that 2008 will be a better year for Israelis and Palestinians, for peace and better health."
Manenti, who was clearly disappointed by the lack of agreement on practical suggestions, said the next issue of Bridges would write an article on the subject, and a task force or forum on health in Gaza could be established with Palestinian, Israeli and international government representatives as members.
He noted that 60% of Gazans are below the poverty line and suffering from high unemployment and "intolerable physical and mental isolation."
Dr. Ayad Al Sarraj, a psychiatrist and chairman of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, bemoaned the fact that ongoing violence has occurred between Palestinians and Israel since 1948 and noted that the second intifada was a "tragic episode in Palestinian life and history."
"Palestinians attacked Israeli cities. But now there is violence among Palestinians. The [internal] inhumanity is hard for us to imagine. Palestinians have been through so much brutality from Israeli forces, but now I find myself unable to understand why Palestinians are so brutal to each other."
He added that "Palestinian society is so toxic to itself, this explains why we have such a level of brutality among ourselves."
Under the Hamas regime in Gaza, people were thrown from the 15th floor and others were shot dead in the hospital... We hear some say "We wish the Israelis would come back. That doesn't mean they really mean it. But it is because the situation is so bad."
Sarraj said Gaza used to import from Israel over 9,000 types of commodities, but today, security restrictions have reduced them to 13. While Israel allows medications to get in through the few open passages, the PA's Health Ministry in Ramallah limits the import of medications and vaccinations and even ordered some 100 Fatah hospital workers in Gaza to go on strike from 11 a.m. every day, even in operating theaters. This, he declared, was a crime.
Israeli import restrictions even prevent Gazans from drinking potable water, as filtering machines have broken down due to the halting of imports of spare parts, and sea water is seeping into aquifers, he said.
"Abu-Moghli said the PA sent medications to Gaza, but that 'all were stolen by Hamas.' I donâ€št support Hamas, but I find it hard to believe," said Sarraj. Twelve of 30 kidney dialysis machines in Gaza's Shifa Hospital are out of order because spare parts have not gotten through, the Palestinian psychiatrist said.
Al Sarraj revealed that he was successfully treated for multiple myeloma (a cancer) in an Israeli hospital and was very lucky, as "I had private insurance, without which I wouldn't be able to be treated."
He urged Israelis who "love peace and respect human rights" to see the suffering of the other side. Without doing so, said Sarraj, "you can never be a whole human being. If I don't include Jews into my definition as humanity, then I am not a whole human being."
Hadas Ziv of the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said she opposed Hamas but was also strongly critical of Israeli security services for turning down many entry permits of Gazan patients to Israel. Gaza is now regarded as "hostile territory" by Israel, giving the authorities the power to delay permits "pending interrogation," she said. Her organization takes some cases to the High Court of Justice, but this body, she said, often refuses to get involved or recognizes only "danger to life" as justification for a permit and not "danger to limb." Despite the rocket attacks on the western Negev, she said, the sick in Gaza should not be punished.
Prof. Ted Tulchinsky of the Hebrew University's School of Public Health, who was for many years the Health Ministry's coordinator for health in the territories, rose from the audience "to remind us that we are in a very difficult situation of semi-warfare, incitement and rocketing from Gaza. My son teaches kids from Sderot and speaks of the psychological trauma of years of continuous rockets from Gaza, a great deal of psychological stress and damage... The Palestinian spiral of self destruction will turn Gaza into Somalia and not a content Palestinian state. No one in this room is not for peace... But we are reminded day by day that Hamas is acting to destroy the State of Israel."
Prof. Eli Richter, a retired epidemiologist from the School of Public Health who was in the audience said he and colleagues managed to eliminate lead poisoning of Palestinian children in Gaza due to paints and other sources, but that today's children are being inculcated by "toxic incitement" against Israel in their schools and society.