Wounded Gaza girl .
(photo credit: AP)
The government opened a small medical clinic for Palestinians on the northern border of the Gaza Strip Sunday, amid sharp international condemnation of the IDF's wounding of civilians during Operation Cast Lead.
"We are willing to accept patients and treat them in Israel," said Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, who last week was tasked with coordinating Israel's humanitarian efforts in Gaza. "It's a humanitarian gesture, which is a normal thing to do," he said.
Herzog spoke at a press conference held near the new glass doors of the clinic, which will be operated by Magen David Adom (MDA) in the Erez terminal.
Plans for the clinic were completed within a few days in what MDA director Eli Bin said was a difficult job. Bin added that his organization viewed the undertaking as a "humanitarian assignment of the highest priority."
According to Chezy Levy, the Health Ministry's deputy director-general for medical services, Palestinians seeking services will be thoroughly checked at the border but otherwise fast-tracked into the clinic.
Israeli medical staff can treat people at the clinic and in serious cases refer them to Israeli hospitals, Levy said. The clinic, which is set up treat about 50 patients, was designed to help both wounded Palestinians and those suffering from physical ailments, he said.
A mobile intensive care unit and four regular ambulances have been stationed at the Erez clinic by MDA. The facility will be staffed with emergency specialists, pediatricians, family physicians, gynecologists/obstetricians, trauma experts, surgeons, orthopedists, ophthalmologists, otolaryngologists and other experts.
Tony Laurance, acting head of the World Health Organization's office in Gaza and the West Bank, told The Jerusalem Post he doubted that Palestinians would be allowed by their leaders to access the clinic. He added that in light of the fighting with Israel, the route to the crossing was not safe.
But within an hour of the press conference, members of the staff, who were still pasting signs to the doors of empty rooms, found themselves treating their first patient, a 68-year-old woman.
She had collapsed close to the crossing and had been brought here, a medic said as he unfolded a number of large checkered sheets pasted with red Stars of David and handed them to the woman in an attempt to keep her warm.
The woman, who spoke only Arabic, asked repeatedly for her son. She was assured that his paperwork was being processed and that he could join her shortly.
But opening the clinic did not satisfy critics within the international medical community.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel charged that for three weeks, Israel had ignored its requests to evacuate the wounded into Israel proper.
"When Israel needs to correct its image, it can quickly evacuate wounded," the group said. "The decision of Israel to enable the evacuation of the wounded into Israel undermines its previous claims regarding the impossibility of such evacuation. It demonstrates the cynical use made by the government of Israel of the evacuation of the wounded for purposes of propaganda."
The organization claimed that only after the Beit Lahiya-area home of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish was shelled by an IDF tank over the weekend, killing four of his family members and injuring at least four others, did the government authorize the evacuation of injured Gazans to Israeli hospitals by Israeli ambulances and helicopters. Abuelaish worked in the past for Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba and has maintained ties with Israeli colleagues.
Physicians for Human Rights claimed that Israel had provided various reasons for its refusal, such as conditioning evacuation on written financial commitments by the Palestinian Health Ministry or insisting that evacuation was not possible without the agreement of Hamas.
The group said it hoped "the sick and wounded will indeed be permitted to leave Gaza into medical centers in Israel or any other country, and not only for purposes of propaganda. After three weeks during which we called for the evacuation of the sick and wounded and received negative responses, it is long past time for the government of Israel to do so," it said.
But according to Herzog, Palestinian patients were offered medical care in Israel throughout Operation Cast Lead, but Hamas pressured them to turn down the offer. Therefore, very few sought treatment in Israel.
Now that the fighting appears to be winding down, "it is much easier and quicker to bring people for treatment here," he said.
Levy said that in the past three weeks, some 45 Palestinians were allowed to exit Gaza through Erez for medical treatment.
The Israel Medical Association has called on physicians to volunteer to work at the new clinic.