Gaza under Attack: Palestinian cancer patients barred from family, home—or from treatment
Amid Israel's escalated response to the Hamas attack, Gazan patients are stranded in a Jerusalem hospital, or can't reach it for scheduled therapies
A few plastic chairs arranged in a circle serve as a meeting point for a group of Palestinian cancer patients at the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem.
They left Gaza for medical treatment a few days before 7 October, when Hamas-led militants from the strip launched their attack on southern Israel.
Now, they are not just fighting cancer but also feelings of guilt at not being able to return and be with their families while the Israeli retaliation in Gaza escalates.
"We understood that they are extremely anxious and nervous, and that we need to do more than just provide a place to stay, and food. They need to talk about what is going on, what they are going through," said one of the social workers at the hospital, who didn't want to be identified by name.
"Many feel guilty because here they have electricity, water, food and everything, and sometimes they hear from their children [in Gaza] that they are hungry. This is really killing them."
Cancer patients had to leave kids behind
About 100 Palestinian patients and their relatives are stranded at Augusta Victoria Hospital.
Located on a hill overlooking Jerusalem's Old City, the hospital was named after the wife of German Emperor Wilhelm II, who visited the city in 1898. It is run by the Lutheran World Federation and provides specialised cancer treatment, such as radiation therapy, which is not available in Gaza or in the occupied West Bank.
The patients are currently lodged in hotels and guesthouses nearby.
Abu Jamal, who didn't want to be identified by his real name, was only supposed to stay for few days before returning to Gaza on 8 October. He came with his wife, leaving their seven children with relatives.
"They don't always want to tell me how things really are in order to protect me, but I am worried sick about them," he said
Abu Jamal is from al-Rimal, an affluent neighbourhood in the centre of Gaza City that has reportedly been heavily damaged. When the Israeli military dropped leaflets at the beginning of the war telling residents in the north to go south, his family complied.
"My family went to the south, but they didn't feel safe there either. They came back, but there is nothing there anymore, no bakeries, no safety, just nothing."
Gaza: "Nothing left to go back to"
Another patient, who is in his seventies and didn't want to share his name, could barely speak without crying. "Sometimes," he said, "I can't reach my family for two or three days. They are all dispersed in different places."
He said he dreaded hearing bad news when he calls them. Just a few days ago, he was told that one of his daughters and her husband had been killed by an Israeli airstrike.
"There is nothing left of the house, they told me. There is nothing left to go back to."
In the children's ward, Um Ahmed sits next to her granddaughter Samar, a toddler, who is hooked up to a drip for chemotherapy. The child, who is too young to understand what is going on back home, smiles bravely.
Her parents live in the Al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp in Gaza City, an area near the sea in northern Gaza, where there has been heavy fighting. They were not allowed to travel to Jerusalem, so her grandmother came instead. "She misses her mum," says Um Ahmed.
Gaza blockade making cancer treatments difficult
It has always been difficult for Palestinian patients at Augusta Victoria Hospital to get out of Gaza, as Israel and Egypt have tightly controlled the movement of people in and out of the Hamas-ruled territory for the past 16 years.
Patients needing specialised treatment unavailable in Gaza could be granted treatment in Israel. But they had to apply for a permit from the Israeli authorities to leave through the Erez crossing, the sole pedestrian passage with Israel.
Some were referred to the occupied West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem, others to hospitals in Israel. It was a lengthy bureaucratic process. Permits, if granted, were given for the patient and one accompanying relative.
Now, their path home is entirely blocked: Israel has kept both its border crossings — the Kerem Shalom crossing for goods and the Erez crossing for pedestrians — shuttered since 7 October. It is unclear whether and when they will reopen.
At least three patients from Gaza have died. Their relatives were deported back to Gaza by the Israeli authorities, just like several thousand Gazan workers who happened to be in Israel on 7 October.
The situation is of great concern to medical staff. They are not just worried about their patients stranded in East Jerusalem, but also about those in Gaza who won't be able to come for treatment in future.
"Our patients are chronically ill. They need continuous, long-term care," says Dr Fadi Atrash, chief executive officer of Augusta Victoria Hospital.
At least 39 patients from Gaza have missed their radiation therapy sessions at the hospital since 7 October because they were unable to travel. Another 180 have been forced to forgo chemotherapy.
"We don't even know if they are dead or alive," says Atrash, adding that no treatment "bluntly and directly… means death, because this is cancer. If you don't start treating it in time and in the proper way, the risks of dying from cancer are great."
Majority of Gaza hospitals forced to close
At least 25 of Gaza's 36 hospitals are no longer operational, according to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report.
Heavy fighting around hospitals and the shortage of supplies, electricity and water have rendered many health facilities unable to provide assistance to the injured, let alone patients with chronic diseases.
Medical staff at Augusta Victoria Hospital are staying in touch with their counterparts in Gaza, mainly at the Turkish Hospital in northern Gaza, which also used to treat cancer patients.
"Sometimes we try not to call because we don't want to hear the news of another colleague [being] killed," said Atrash. "And simply because we know they are working in a very difficult situation, with no supplies, no electricity, no water, not enough food to cope with this high number of casualties. But also because we are losing our colleagues and this is very heartbreaking."
Abu Jamal said that the patients, despite the risk and their own health struggles, would rather go back sooner than later.
"We are really thankful how we are being taken care of over here," he said. "But I want to go back. I want to be back with my family."