GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A U.S. charity on Tuesday inaugurated the first children's cancer department in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, bringing a much-needed service to the blockaded territory that will prevent the need for dozens of children to make the difficult journey to Israel or the West Bank for treatment, often without their parents.
The $3 million department, sponsored by Palestine Children Relief Fund, is designed to treat blood cancer and related diseases, the majority of the roughly 80 cancer cases recorded annually among children in the Palestinian enclave.
Children with leukemia and thalassemia, comprising 80 percent of young cancer patients, will now be treated in Gaza, said Steve Sosebee, PCRF's president.
"We are proud of that because now these children do not have to be separated from their families and don't have to have fragmented care which can be broken any time due to regulations of travel," Sosebee added.
Cases requiring bone marrow transplants, radiation therapy and nuclear medicine still need to be transferred outside, he said. The fund says it has an agreement with the World Health Organization to secure free movement of samples to labs in Israel or Jordan.
Israel and Egypt have blockaded Gaza, home to 2 million people, since the militant Hamas group seized power in 2007. Compounded by a power struggle between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, the blockade has devastated the economy and its collapsing health care sector.
With medical services limited, thousands of Gazans seek permits to enter Israel for medical care each year. But getting a security clearance for a travel permit is often difficult, particularly for Palestinian adults under the age of 50. In many cases, parents are blocked from joining their Gazan children on security grounds.
The World Health Organization says that 61 percent of permit applications for medical treatment were approved on time last year, 31 percent were answered too late or not at all and the rest rejected.
The new 15-bed, 2,400-square-meter (26,000-square-foot) facility is a new floor at Gaza's pediatric hospital.
In a bright, colorful playroom Sama Dughmush, an 8-year-old girl who has lost her hair due to her treatment, happily played with other children Tuesday. A leukemia patient, she has traveled more than 10 times for treatment in Israel, but was never allowed to bring her mother, father or other close relative, her family said. Instead, she went with neighbors or distant relatives cleared by Israel to enter.
In Israel it's "a problem because it's far from us and we can't communicate or see her for one or two months," said her father Hazem. "Here, this makes us and the patient happy."
COGAT, the Israeli defense body that issues the permits, said that it issued 33,000 permits to Gazan medical patients last year, though it did not have a breakdown for how many children were included.
It said children "must exit" with a parent, unless there are personal family reasons or security concerns. "In instances such as these, we enable a different family member to accompany the patient," it said. It also said it has worked over the past year to make it easier for parents of young patients to receive permits.
Gisha, an Israeli group advocating for greater freedom of movement for Gazans, said that parents under the age of 55 still struggle to receive permission to enter Israel with their children. It said that the slow and taxing permit process often discourages parents from applying for fear of delaying their children's urgent medical treatment.
COGAT blamed the ruling Hamas for the crisis, saying the militant group has neglected Gaza's health care system, while the rival Palestinian Authority has "significantly" reduced its medical assistance budget for Gazans.
Highlighting Israeli security concerns, COGAT said there have been one or two cases a month in which parents abandoned their children and went into hiding in Israel or the West Bank, apparently in search of work.