World Cancer Day arrived over the weekend with the great news that survival rates have improved dramatically over the past five decades to around 50 per cent. What’s more, an effective cure for all types of cancer could be less than 10 years away, according to one of the world’s leading experts on the disease. In a decidedly upbeat message, the former head of the World Health Organisation’s cancer programme, Professor Karol Sikora, predicted that advances in genetics means doctors will soon be able to prescribe medicines targeting each individual’s cancer.
This is wonderful news for all cancer patients; all, that is, except those who live in the Gaza Strip, especially women with breast cancer. This is now the biggest killer of Palestinian women in the besieged territory, not least because the heartless Israeli authorities refuse to let them pass through checkpoints for life-saving treatment.
Ironically, there was a lot of backslapping in Tel Aviv just a few months ago when a fighter jet was painted pink as part of a global campaign to show solidarity with breast cancer patients. The Israelis even held self-congratulatory press conferences to promote the pro-women stunt, but they failed to mention the neglect shown towards Palestinian women with breast cancer.
A medical revolution may well be just around the corner, but there’s little or no hope for the women of Gaza. However, it’s not just Israel to blame for their plight. Not one word of condemnation has emerged from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his luxury surroundings in Ramallah.
He really has no excuse for his silence; no one should know the pain of a cancer diagnosis more than Abbas, for his late brother Omar underwent treatment for cancer in Tel Aviv’s Assuta Medical Centre. Although he and his wife lived in Qatar, he would travel for regular treatment to the private Israeli hospital. Tragically, the 76-year-old died last year.
In January, the women of Gaza who have endured their cancer so bravely went on hunger strike in protest at the Israel authorities’ ban on issuing travel permits which would enable them to receive treatment. Their plight was reported by MEMO.
Dozens of female cancer patients in Gaza are affected and yet there has been little compassion shown by the Palestinian Authority. Those who held a protest outside the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Gaza were accused by senior health official Bassam Al-Badri of simply “seeking media attention”. His offensive and patently false accusation was directed specifically at these courageous women who are banned by red tape from seeking treatment abroad.
Such an attitude is shameful; men like Badri should be highlighting the women’s plight, not criticising them. Statistics from the National Centre for Monitoring Cancer in Gaza show that there are 1,283 breast cancer patients in the coastal enclave; that’s around 18 per cent of all such patients in Gaza.
In 2015, 748 patients applied to the Israeli occupation authorities for a travel permit to receive treatment in Jerusalem or West Bank hospitals. Of these, the Israelis deferred 293 applications, rejected 74 and ignored 219. Last year, 548 breast cancer patients applied for travel permits, with 287 rejected for no reason and 125 others turned down for “security” reasons.
In doing this, Israel is in “flagrant violation” of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans the punishment of individuals for crimes they did not commit personally, as well collective punishment. Who can deny that the women of Gaza who happen to have breast cancer are being punished simply because they are Palestinians? The inaction and silence of the male-dominated PA should be viewed with the same contempt as the Israelis responsible for such a cruel policy.
Meanwhile, the hospitals in Gaza continue to suffer from “chronic shortages” of vital drugs and medical equipment as a direct result of the siege enforced by Israel and Egypt.
Last October, Mahmoud Abbas was hospitalised in Ramallah briefly while doctors performed a cardiac catheterisation, which involved the insertion of a thin plastic tube into his heart. Afterwards, the 81-yearold Palestinian president said, “Thank God everything is fine; I had the surgery; it was easy and I’m leaving now.”
While no one would wish illness on any elderly person, let alone a president, Abbas might wish to consider how so very different his fortunes could have been if he lived in the Gaza Strip and was a woman. The women of Palestine are the bedrock of society and the mothers of the upcoming generation; without them there would be no future for Palestine. That may well be why Israel treats them and their difficulties with such disdain. It is no excuse for Abbas and his officials at the PA, though. They need to review how they treat their most valuable citizens. Educate a woman and you educate a family, it has been said, famously. So what happens to the families if you contribute to the unnecessary and early deaths of the women of Palestine? Think about that, President Abbas, when next you are on a hospital trolley recovering from your own, no doubt well-funded and resourced, treatment.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.