Israel arrests and expels Gazan patients seeking treatment in the West Bank

Police operations against people with diseases as serious as cancer have taken place on the streets, hotels, and even in hospitals in East Jerusalem

Abdallah Nabil
Abdallah Nabil, a 24-year-old Gazan, in the Ramallah hotel where he is staying after being detained and expelled from Israel.Álvaro García
Trinidad Deiros Bronte (Special Correspondent)
Ramallah (West Bank) -

What may have been Abdallah Nabil’s only chance of surviving his colon cancer vanished on October 9. The 24-year-old had run out of tissues, so he decided to go and buy some, leaving the Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem — the Palestinian part of the Israeli-occupied city — where he was awaiting surgery to remove the tumor. On his way back, he ran into “an Israeli settler accompanied by some children,” who started beating him, he says. Hospital security called the police, but when Israeli officers arrived and saw on his ID card that Nabil was from Gaza, they told him: “You are a Hamas terrorist” and arrested him, he recounts in a modest hotel in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he is staying.

“I told the policemen I was in the hospital for cancer, but they wouldn’t even let me pick up my medical documents,” he says. This emaciated young man recounts how the officers took him to a police station where they beat him up, causing him to “bleed internally.” He was then taken to a checkpoint leading to the West Bank and expelled. In the occupied Palestinian territory, where the autonomous administration of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) manages health and education, among other things, he was admitted to another hospital, where he spent three days.

In Gaza, even before the war, only the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital treated oncology patients, even though the enclave is home to 2.3 million people. Now this center is one of at least 25, out of a total of 35, according to the United Nations, rendered inoperable by the bombardments in which nearly 15,000 people have been killed, according to the Strip’s health authorities. But even that hospital did not have the means to treat cases like Nabil’s.

Since it imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2007, Israel has banned the import of radiotherapy machines, among other equipment, because it believes that they could be used for military purposes. As a result, many Gazans have to ask for permission to leave the territory to go to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. The most important is the Makassed, financed with Palestinian and Arab funds, where the PNA pays for the treatment of patients from Gaza and the West Bank, as was the case with Nabil.

Nabil was not the only Gazan patient detained in Jerusalem in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on October 7, in which 1,200 Israelis were killed. According to testimonies gathered by this newspaper in Ramallah, the Israeli police arrested other patients or their companions in a hotel and even inside the Makassed hospital itself. Aseel Abu Rass, spokesman for the NGO Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, confirms that Israeli police officers carried out a “raid” on the hospital complex on November 2.

Nisreen, 39, was taken away handcuffed with plastic cable ties, she says, while sitting on an armchair near where Nabil is showing a video of a colonoscopy on his cell phone. This Palestinian woman does not want to have her picture taken, nor does she want to give her last name. She is afraid. Nisreen was in the hospital waiting to begin treatment for sequelae in a knee resulting from breast cancer she suffered in 2012. “It was about 10 a.m. when the policemen came in. They were looking for Gazans. They arrested nine of us women and took us to the police station near Salah Eddine Street in Jerusalem,” she recounts.

“The mother of a baby who was admitted was allowed to go back to the hospital. The rest of us were interrogated for 12 hours. They kept asking me what kind of treatment I was undergoing. They thought that our stay in the hospital was a cover-up.” After being questioned, she continues, the Israeli police took them to the Zeituna checkpoint and expelled them into the West Bank. The PNA sent a car to pick them up, Nisreen explains, and put them up at their own expense in the same hotel where Nabil lives. In her office in Ramallah, Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila says that on another occasion, the Makassed Hospital contacted her ministry to say that they had to take charge of 20 patients from Gaza, otherwise “they would be arrested.”

At the same time, Israel arrested and expelled thousands of Gazans who until then had been working in the country and who were caught outside the Strip when the war began: 1,000 of these arrested workers are still missing. Among those detained, Physicians for Human Rights is aware of at least one sick child and his father. “Unfortunately, we have no information on whether or not they have been released,” says Rass.

Israel’s justification for arresting these Gazans is that their residence permits had expired, according to a police statement earlier this month. The Israeli authorities maintain that even the Palestinian section of Jerusalem is part of their territory: the United Nations considers East Jerusalem to be Palestinian territory occupied by Israel. “When they raided the hospital, the police did not warn the management that they were coming to check on these people allegedly in an irregular situation,” Rass continues. “They simply sealed the entrance doors, burst into the hospital and violently detained even elderly women accompanying children, and interrogated health personnel. This is unacceptable.” Even if their permits had expired, “these people had nowhere to go” because they could not return to Gaza, she points out. Some of the detainees were “parents who were accompanying their sick children, so the children were left alone in the hospital.”

The background to these arrests, Rass says, is that “the Palestinian health infrastructure is considered [by Israel] complicit in the terrorist system,” underlining the Israeli military’s sieges of hospitals in Gaza. This context, which affects all Palestinians, is even worse for patients coming from Gaza because of Israel’s blockade. Sick Gazans are faced, on the one hand, with a health system half dismantled by the 17-year blockade and, on the other, by what Rass calls a “bureaucratic hell” — the process of requesting authorization from Israel to leave the enclave and be treated outside.

Neither the criteria used by the Israeli authorities to approve these requests nor the reasons for their refusal are made public, although it is known that the main condition is security. The slightest suspicion that the patient is somehow linked to Hamas is enough for Israel to deny the request, or even not to answer it. For having a brother related to Hamas, to cite one example, breast cancer patients have died for lack of permission to leave Gaza. In 2022, according to the NGO B’Tselem, Israel denied 20,000 requests from patients and their companions. The spokeswoman for Physicians for Human Rights stresses that the blockade allows Israel to ensure that the Strip is dependent on its “aid as an occupying power. It’s like keeping Gazans submerged in water, but with their heads sticking out above the surface.”

Abdallah Abutuor,, 33, with his daughters Etaf, 5, in the center, and Malak, 13, in Ramallah (West Bank), on November 19.
Abdallah Abutuor,, 33, with his daughters Etaf, 5, in the center, and Malak, 13, in Ramallah (West Bank), on November 19.Álvaro García


Nisreen’s life is not in danger. That is not the case for Nabil, whose only chance for a cure now is to undergo surgery in Jordan. As in Gaza, hospitals in the West Bank also do not have the means to treat cases like his. The PNA has offered to pay for treatment there but the stumbling block is travel. Minister al-Kaila explains that many Gazans cannot travel abroad because they only have Palestinian passports, which not all countries recognize. Jordan grants Palestinians temporary permits but they have to provide documents that are not available to these sick people trapped in the West Bank.

Two-year-old Yusef Mohamad cries because he wants a soda. The boy has hemophilia and was also to be treated at Makassed Hospital. Yusef and his mother were not arrested by the Israeli police. They fled out of fear. Since the Hamas attack on October 7, groups of Israeli settlers “surrounded the hotel” where they were staying in East Jerusalem and threatened them, the woman recalls. On October 10, she escaped with her son in a cab that took them to Ramallah.

“The next day, the police raided the hotel and arrested 10 women who were accompanying their children, who have cancer. A day later, they allowed them to return to the hospital with the children but, the following day, they went to the hospital again to expel them,” Yusef’s mother says. Another Gazan at her side confirms this. EL PAÍS telephoned one of the 10 mothers who had been detained and expelled. The woman declined to talk.

Abdallah Abutuor, 33, looks like a pious man. He too was not detained but, like many others, he took refuge in Ramallah when the war began in his native Gaza. He remains hopeful that the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, in the Israeli part of the city, will forward to the Makassed Hospital the results of genetic tests that will identify the rare disease affecting two of his five children: girls Malak, 13, and Etaf, five.

Malak — “angel” in Arabic — smiles incessantly as she puts what is left of her hands, barely stumps, in her mouth. Malak and Etaf were born with fingers, but later “ate them.” The girls have bitten off their own fingers. Both girls’ arms are full of scars and bite wounds.

Self-mutilation is not the only symptom. Malak has the body of an eight-year-old girl. She has a prominent jaw and the bones in her arms are crooked. Her father says that the doctors told them “they could only be treated in Israel or Germany.” He still hopes that, when the war is over, his daughters will be able to seek treatment in Israel.

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