Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 29 November 2020

Secrecy around new Gaza hospital has Palestinians worried

Former US field hospital is being set up without consulting Hamas or Palestinian Authority

The Erez border crossing into Gaza, seen here from the Palestinian side, where Israel wants to establish a new hospital with Qatari funding. AFP
The Erez border crossing into Gaza, seen here from the Palestinian side, where Israel wants to establish a new hospital with Qatari funding. AFP

Israel last week allowed the entry of medical and building equipment into the blockaded Gaza Strip for an advanced hospital to be set up with no Palestinian consultation.

The American field hospital was previously erected in Syria, news outlet Al Monitor reported.

It is being set up over four hectares in the Palestinian enclave as part of a truce agreement between Hamas and Israel, with Qatari funding and under Qatari supervision, sources said.

Gaza’s healthcare system has suffered along with other public services under Israel’s blockade and is in need of assistance.

But the exclusion of Palestinian officials from its planning, the decision to build it near the Israeli border and the conditions under which it will operate have raised concerns.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank questioned the motives behind the hospital, while Gazans are wondering why it will be in the north when the real need for medical care is in southern Gaza.

"There are already enough advanced hospitals in northern Gaza, from Al Awda hospital to the Indonesian hospital to Sheikh Hamad hospital and many others," said Issa Ahmed, a social worker from the southern city of Rafah.

"Why would they build another one there?"

Wael Abu Omer, an official from the Hamas group that rules Gaza, the location was decided by Israel, the US and Qatar.

"For more than five years there has been great popular and official pressure to build such a hospital in Rafah, home to more than 250,000 people without a single decent hospital," Mr Abu Omer said.

"However, at Israel's and the [US] insistence, it will be built in the north instead."

An Israeli security source said in July that Israel wanted the hospital at an "arm's length" from the northern perimeter fence near the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing.

He said that would allow Israel to closely monitor "who is working there and who the patients are in the wards”, with troops stationed on nearby watchtowers.

Israeli soldiers fired warning shots at people who approached the building site last week, even though it stands on Gazan territory.

Hassan Ismael, one of the journalists present, said only officials from the Qatari committee for the construction of Gaza were allowed into the site.

The hospital will be independent from Gaza's health department, with some co-ordination through a third party that has not yet been decided, an official from the territory's Health Ministry told The National.

"It will be staffed with an international medical team that won't be supervised or controlled by Hamas or the PA,” the official said.

They said residents would be admitted only by referral if the treatment they needed was not available in other local hospitals.

"Why should we go through this humiliation to simply get to a hospital built inside Gaza?" asked Ibrahim Haniya, a political analyst.

"Israel and the donors are using our humanitarian needs to blackmail us into silence and passivity.

"They want the hospital to be independent and next to their border crossing to remind us that they could take it away the minute we walk out of line."

The Palestinian Authority on Thursday voiced concern that the project, "with the blessing and support of the US administration", was to "permanently separate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip".

Gazans referred for treatment in the better equipped hospitals of the West Bank are among the few Palestinians allowed to cross from the blockaded Strip to the occupied territories.

The PA fears that the new hospital will end the need for Gazans to seek help in the West Bank, further separating the two territories.

Israel built a similar field hospital near the Erez crossing in its 2014 war on Gaza, in which 2,251 Palestinians were killed and 11,231 wounded.

Israeli soldiers tried to persuade wounded Palestinians to get treatment there or in Israel rather than go to PA-controlled hospitals in East Jerusalem.

"The field hospital aims to avert international criticism of Israel's blockade," said Ali Omer, a Gazan analyst.

"It will allow Israel to further isolate Gaza and prevent patients from seeking medical treatment outside it without any consequences or outcry."

The PA also questioned the real purpose behind the hospital, after the US administration withdrew funding to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem.

"If the project was innocent and aims to serve our people, why aren’t the existing hospitals of the Gaza Strip being developed?" the authoritty asked.

"If this project was innocent, why is it being planned secretly?"

Adding to concerns is a recent report in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which said Israeli defence officials were worried that "the serious condition of Gaza’s health system – on the verge of collapse – would make it difficult for the Israeli army to fight in the Strip for long and could lead to intense international intervention".

Many Gazans now speculate that the field hospital is merely a means to address this issue for the Israeli army.

"Field hospitals are usually built in wartime," Mr Omer said. "This prompts Gazans to ask, 'Why are the US and Qatar building a field hospital now?'"

These concerns have led Gazans to call the medical centre "the war hospital", reflecting their fear that it signifies an imminent, large-scale Israeli military operation in the beleaguered enclave.

Updated: October 1, 2019 12:35 AM

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