Palestinians: The Crisis in Medical Care

Nothing is changing,” says Dr. Jamil Suliman, a pediatrician and now the director of Beit Hanoun Hospital in Gaza. On a quiet January morning, he shows me a clean and well-equipped emergency room, modern X-ray facilities, a pharmacy, and a basic yet functioning laboratory. Dr. Suliman oversees a medical team of more than fifty doctors. But the outlook for the health and well-being of his community, three quarters of whom live in accelerating poverty, is not good.

Beit Hanoun sits close to the border of Gaza, a twenty-five-by-five-mile strip of land that is one of the most densely populated and impoverished regions in the world today. As a meeting point between Asia and Africa, Gaza has been fiercely fought over for centuries. With the dismantling of Israeli settlements on the strip in 2005, this tract of land is now wholly Palestinian. Yet its people have hardly any control over their lives, their movements, or their economy. And so Gaza’s troubles have not receded.

Gaza exists in a cage. I entered through the Erez checkpoint at its northern tip. Armed Israel Defense Forces and bored young military conscriptees control the cylindrical steel turnstiles and electric gates that greet visitors. After walking through a three-hundred-meter camera-laden concrete tunnel, one exits into a landscape of bombed homes, blasted roads and bridges, and fields torn apart by armored vehicles. The debris of Palestinian life lines the road into Gaza City. Vans loaded with young Palestinian members of armed militias pass by freely. Men carrying Kalashnikovs stand at most street corners in the center of the city. Gaza feels like a lawless place under permanent siege.

Gaza is also a land of children. Sixty percent of its 1.5 million people are under eighteen. Children spill out of every home onto dusty and dirty alleyways. They drive donkey carts that carry everything from people to bananas. Children weave their bodies and bicycles between the cars that engorge Gaza’s narrow city streets. Young smartly dressed Palestinian girls carry their clipboards to and from school. (With families often having as many as seven children, the demand for schooling is high. Teachers run several classroom shifts daily to meet the rising need.) Early each morning, one can watch children standing in shallow boats on Gaza’s beautiful Mediterranean shoreline, pulling in their nightly catches.

In a survey completed by the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, over 90 percent of children below the age of eleven experience severe anxiety, nightmares, and physical expressions of stress, such as bed-wetting. Half fear that their parents will not be able to provide essential family necessities, such as food and a home. Forty percent have relatives who died during the second intifada, which began in 2000.

Many of these relatives live on as “martyrs,” Palestinians who have died fighting the Israelis. The faces of these young men and women are remembered on billboards and posters covering the walls of almost every building in Gaza, including hospital clinics and Ministry of Health …

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Letters

The Palestinian Medical Crisis: An Exchange June 14, 2007