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Another long day’s journey . . .

21 December 2012

The arduous trip that Nazeeh Al Arabsi and his daughter Salsabeel have to take for her dialysis is an emblem of the health problems that face Palestinians in the West Bank. Ed Thornton reports


En route: Salsabeel Al Arabasi and her father, arriving at the Qalandiya checkpoint, where they have to queue three times a week 

En route: Salsabeel Al Arabasi and her father, arriving at the Qalandiya checkpoint, where they have to queue three times a week

TWO thousand years ago, a family, living under occupation, set out on an arduous journey. Joseph and Mary, his heavily pregnant fiancée, left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem, the town of David, to register in a census, the Gospel of Luke says.

Today, pilgrims queue patiently in the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, to enter the Grotto of the Nativity, the spot where, tradition has it, Jesus was born. The same pilgrims often make their way to Jerusalem, to retrace the footsteps of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they queue patiently again, waiting to glimpse the spot where they believe the same Jesus was raised to life some 33 years later.

About an hour's drive from Bethlehem, in a village in the northern West Bank, a Muslim Palestinian family, also living under occupation, are well acquainted with arduous journeys.

He believes that the exhaustion of travelling has contributed to a worsening of his daughter's health. It has also affected her education: on days when she has dialysis, Salsabeel does not get back home until 3 p.m., having missed most classes at school.

"Every time I go to school, I've just missed a day; so I don't know how to answer questions," she said. "And the teachers don't help me catch up with the lessons I have missed. So I don't like school."

WE FINALLY reached the hospital, after navigating various checkpoints, and changing buses several times. One of the nurses tells us that about 60 of the dialysis patients are children. "All of them come from the West Bank, which doesn't have haemodialysis facilities for children," she said.

If the children and their parents could not get through the checkpoints, she said, they missed their treatment. "It's very dangerous, because regular treatment is essential. If they don't get it, then fluid can accumulate in their lungs."

"Whatever we do, the occupation is still here, and we feel it," Mr Al Arabasi said. "We have a proverb in Arabic that people 'always wish for what they can't have'. As Palestinians, we wish we had a health system that functioned well, and included organ donation."

Many other Palestinians living in the West Bank lack access to adequate health-care facilities. PHRI attempts to address some of this need by operating mobile clinics every Saturday in villages in the West Bank.

We visited a mobile clinic in Beit Fajjar, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, less than 20 km south of Bethlehem, run by PHRI. When we arrived, a crowd of villagers had congregated outside the main building of a community centre. Inside, a team of volunteer doctors and nurses - many of them Israelis - prepared to see patients.

The volunteers included an 89-year-old Israeli nurse, Pnina Felier, who has been volunteering for 15 years; and Dr Aharan Karny, who is 64, an Israeli family doctor who served as a soldier during the Six-Day War in 1967.

Dr Karny told us that he volunteers about five or six times a year: "The people here are under the care of a system that is not developed enough, especially the primary care." It was difficult to recruit colleagues to volunteer, he said. "People are afraid that it is not safe to come over. People have the notion that we have so many problems on the Israeli side: why waste the time and energy?"

OUTSIDE, in the afternoon sun, as excitable children ran around, the director of the mobile clinic, Salah Haj Yehya, explained that Beit Fajjar's one medical centre was not sufficiently resourced to provide adequate treatment for its 15,000 inhabitants.

Mr Yehya, a Palestinian who has Israeli citizenship, said that the situation in Beit Fajjar was typical of Palestinian towns across the West Bank. The 1998 Oslo Accords transferred responsibility for health care from the Israeli government to the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, however, had limited Palestinians' access to health care, he said.

Mr Yehya's mobile phone rang frequently as he spoke; he said that he got at least 50 calls from villages each week, asking for the clinic to visit. "It sits on my conscience, because we want to help. We can't afford more than four Saturdays a month. Saturday is the doctors' day off, and this is the only day they can volunteer with us."

Over in another building, a makeshift clinic had been set up by an Eritrean nun and nurse, Sister Aziza, and her colleague, Alicia, to treat people with physiotherapeutic and dermatological conditions.

Sister Aziza - whose real name is Azezet Kidane - has worked for PHRI for three-and-a-half years. She has also lived in London, where she studied at the School of Tropical Medicine, and in southern Sudan, where she worked for ten years.

ON A short break between patients, Sister Aziza explained that she saw her work at the mobile clinic as a way to build a bridge to Muslims. "Most of the time we are the only Christians among them. We like the Church to be among these people and this beautiful event. We feel that the presence of Christianity among these people is important. . . They ask me, do I fast and pray? I say yes, different to you, but I do fast and pray."

On other days, she treats Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who have escaped from the clutches of people-traffickers in the Sinai desert. "You cannot imagine the horrible things that have happened to these people," she says. "I feel ashamed even repeating it. . . But the people need somebody to listen to them, to tell their stories and to tell others."

Sister Aziza collected the testimonies of 1300 refugees, and the world took note: Pope Benedict called for Christians to pray for those who were being mistreated, and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, presented Sister Aziza with an award for her work. But it has not gone to her head: "What is the point of me getting an award if the situation gets worse, and nothing changes?" she said.

The director of PHRI, Ran Cohen, whom we met a few days later, said that Palestinian patients trusted Sister Aziza because, as a nun, she was obviously religious.

But PHRI is not merely a humanitarian organisation doing good works, Mr Cohen said: it was a "human-rights organisation", which was controversial in Israel. "Israel has a responsibility for the health of all people as long as it is controlling the West Bank and Gaza. . . We give medical care, but it is a channel to get to know the people - to understand the problems, and to identify the issues we want to advocate for, and to work on a political level to change that. If we have a goal, it is to stop providing medical care and make sure that the government does it."

Volunteers do not have to share the organisation's political beliefs. "Some just want to do humanitarian work. This is OK as a starting point. We do not hide it that we would like them to start asking other questions: why do we need to do this work? Why don't they get it from Israel, or the Palestinian Authority?"

Sister Aziza would also like the pilgrims who queue at the holy sites to ask more questions about the situation in Israel-Palestine. "Christians come to Israel for one reason: to visit the Holy Land. But they don't see what is really happening here."


This year, Christian Aid's Christmas appeal is focusing on "Healing in this Holy Land". For more information, visit www.christian-aid.org.uk/christmas.


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