Israelis Blocking Medical Care in Gaza

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Ismail Zaydah / Reuters

A Palestinian woman waits at the Erez crossing.

The Erez Crossing looks like the empty set of a sci-fi film, an alien spaceship that crashed into a field of rubble. This gleaming metal structure is the sole entry and exit point for human traffic between Israel and Gaza, a territory of 1.5 million Palestinians held by Hamas Islamic militants. Erez was built in more optimistic times, when it was envisioned that every day 30,000 Palestinian laborers, merchants and students would be flowing in and out of Israel.

Today, Erez operates in a political twilight zone. Hamas and Israel seek each other's destruction, and the devastated landscape of blasted-out buildings and shell craters around Erez bears the scars of this conflict. As one Erez security official says: "We're the last line of defense against the suicide bomber coming into Israel."

For the Palestinians, Erez is a chokepoint where only a lucky few can exit from Gaza, usually for medical emergencies. Bassam al-Wahedi, 26, a tall, soft-spoken journalist, was one of them. He had gone blind in one eye because of a retinal illness, and surgery at a Jerusalem hospital was his only hope of regaining sight in that eye. Since Gaza is denied all but basic humanitarian needs under an international boycott of Hamas, many complicated surgeries are no longer done there.

His eye bandaged, al-Wahedi set off through the innards of Erez's security maze. He fumbled along tunnels, steel doors that opened and slammed as he passed along, entered a strange cylinder that fired a whoosh of air at him before he finally reached a large hall with an Israeli soldier sitting inside a bulletproof glass booth. Al-Wahedi showed his permit, explaining that he was due in surgery at 3:30 pm that afternoon.

Next, says al Wahedi, three plainclothed Israelis with pistols and walkie-talkies led him past cages with growling dogs to a room where he was strip searched and interrogated by a man who identified himself as a captain in Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence agency. Al-Wahedi claims that his interrogator told him in fluent Arabic: "We want you to work for us." When al-Wahedi protested, saying he had nothing to do with the militants, the Shin Bet officer allegedly replied: "We issue the [medical] permits and we can cancel them. If you don't get operated on, you'll lose your sight. What good will you be?"

"I told him that we would talk after my operation, when I crossed back through Erez," recounts al-Wahedi. Nothing doing, replied the intelligence officer, who, according to al-Wahedi, handed him an Israeli cellphone SIM card and a phone number. "He wanted me to go back to Gaza and collaborate with them for two weeks, and if they liked what I did, I could come to Israel and have my eye operation with the best doctor in Tel Aviv."

For al-Wahedi, contact with any Israeli had always been traumatic. He says that his father, an ambulance driver, was clearing away wounded Palestinians after a battle when he was shot dead by an Israeli sniper. And his 16-year-old brother was killed by a stray piece of shrapnel from an Israeli rocket attack on a passing car driven by a suspected militant.

And so, at Erez, al-Wahedi says he tore up Shin Bet's phone number. "I was angry and frustrated. I knew that if I didn't have surgery immediately, even the best surgeon couldn't fix my eye," he claims. Contacted by TIME, Shin Bet denied approaching al-Wahedi to collaborate and say that he was turned back at Erez because of his involvement in "activities dangerous to the state."

Nevertheless, the Israeli group Physicians for Human Rights alleges that since last June — when Hamas took control of Gaza from its Fatah rivals loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas — at least 30 other patients seeking urgent medical help were denied passage by Shin Bet because they refused to act as informers. In the past, most collaborators worked from within Fatah, and when they were chased from Gaza last June, it was a blow to Israeli intelligence.

Yassir Abu Aayya, 37, suffering from heart troubles, told TIME he was turned back after refusing to reveal the whereabouts of his militant brother. "They told me I should go back and die in Gaza," he says. If these accounts are true, say human rights activists, the withholding of medical care for non-medical reasons is a form of torture. "This violates all conventions against torture," says Miri Weingarten, spokeswoman for the Tel Aviv-based Physicians for Human Rights. Israeli authorities deny carrying out such practices at Erez and dismiss them as Palestinian propaganda.

Last November, the Physicians for Human Rights petitioned the Israeli High Court to rule on Shin Bet's "coercion" of Palestinians seeking medical care, but in January the court closed the file without a ruling. "What we're seeing is that the High Court is willing to intervene less and less in security cases," says Weingarten, who explained that was why the court had refused to rule on their petition. Shin Bet refused to comment on the case.

Israel argues that it is no longer the occupying power in Gaza and therefore no longer has responsibility for the Palestinians living there. But many international agencies say that since Israel controls all land, air and sea access to Gaza, it cannot shirk its responsibility to Palestinians trapped inside, nor can it deny Palestinians the right to urgent medical care if they refuse to become Israeli collaborators.With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Erez