Some 200 West Bank Palestinian and 45 foreign doctors, academics and healthcare experts will be virtual participants - via videoconference from Ramallah on Monday morning - in a two-day gathering of 500 Gaza health professionals to discuss "Siege and Mental Health, Walls vs. Bridges."
The Gaza Community Mental Health Program's Fifth International Conference will be held in cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO). Rajiah Abu Sway of the WHO's office said that only a few of the foreigners planning to come had cancelled their plans after the Defense Ministry's Civil Administration for Gaza decided last week not to approve the permits.
The organizers declared, "We protest this last-minute decision by the Israeli authorities and regard it as a deliberate attempt to stop professional communication and exchange between the international medical community and Gaza medical professionals."
About a dozen international visitors, including a handful of Jews, went to the Erez Crossing on Sunday afternoon to protest against Israel's refusal to let the foreign visitors attend the event in Gaza. Some of them held a press conference in east Jerusalem's Ambassador Hotel to voice their objection.
Civil administration spokesman Peter Lerner said admittance of foreigners to Gaza through the Erez Crossing was approved only for humanitarian cases and included the transfer of food, medications, fuel and other vital materials, as well as medical professionals - including mental-health experts. At the same time, over 11,000 Gazans were allowed into Israel for medical treatment so far this year, compared to 8,500 in 2007, Lerner said.
He added that "the main cause" for the suffering of Gaza residents was Hamas, "which continues to act as an extreme Islamic terror organization, does not recognize agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority and continues to call for the destruction of Israel."
Lerner added that the group had been holding IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit in Gaza for more than two years and did not allow international humanitarian organizations to see him.
The civil administration spokesman denounced "organizations that cooperate with terror organizations. This harms Gaza residents, and beyond the political activities that aim only to denounce Israel, it does not bring any help to Gaza residents or the whole region, because it strengthens a terror organization that exploits the conditions it has caused."
Lerner described the mental health conference in the Gaza Strip as a "political demonstration and the exploitation of science for political needs that only help the terror organization that controls it."
Meanwhile, a group of Canadian Jews called Independent Jewish Voices issued a statement attacking the Israeli authorities for preventing the foreign participants from going to Gaza. Organization coordinator Diana Ralph claimed that "the complicity of the Canadian government in supporting the humanitarian disaster of the Gaza blockade is making the situation worse."
Three members of Ralph's organization - Dr. Mark Etkin, Dr. Judith Deutsch and Dr. Jim Deutsch - had been scheduled to go to Gaza.
"Israel insists that it is a democracy, but by attempting to shut down this conference, its authorities have dealt a blow to some of the fundamental tenets of democracy: academic freedom, freedom of speech, education, and cultural dialogue," Ralph charged.
One of the British would-be participants in the conference, due to speak in Ramallah, is Dr. Derek Summerfield of South London and Maudsley, who has strongly criticized Israel over the years in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and advocated a medical and academic boycott of this country.