Fuad Ahmed Jabo’s mother was 70 when she died of a heart attack at their home in the Palestinian village of Tantour in Beit Jala, between Israeli-controlled Jerusalem and the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
They had called a Palestinian ambulance but delays at the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Tantour held it up. The Israeli ambulance services told Jabo that because his house fell inside a militarized zone, they would not be able to help. With time running out, Jabo and his nephew decided to carry her to hospital. They had gone just 200m when she died.
"It would have taken two minutes for an ambulance to get here from Jerusalem. It used to take me three minutes to get to Bethlehem but since the wall was finished, it takes at least half an hour," Jabo, 50, told IRIN.
The Jabos are among 80 villagers in Tantour and tens of thousands of Palestinian families across the West Bank and Gaza whose access to healthcare has been restricted by Israel’s security measures, including the wall and its strict permit system.
Work on the wall began about 100m behind the Jabos’ home in 2001. By 2005, when it was finished, the family was cut off completely from the West Bank. As West Bank ID holders, they are not covered by Israeli national insurance so cannot go to hospitals in Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem. They have to cross through a checkpoint into the West Bank to get medical help. They are also not permitted to drive on the Israeli side.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), about 1,500 West Bank ID holders have been displaced to the Jerusalem side of the wall and now face potentially life-threatening delays when seeking medical treatment.
Palestinian patients and medical staff with West Bank IDs are only allowed to enter Jerusalem through three checkpoints – Qalandiya, Az Zaytoun and Gilo. But these are often crowded because Palestinians can only cross on foot.
Israel officials say the wall was justified. "The City of Jerusalem regrets that Palestinian terror and the continued murder of innocent youth required [the wall’s] construction, which can indeed cause a decrease in the quality of life of some Jerusalem residents," Stephan Miller, a spokesman for the Jerusalem mayor’s office, told IRIN.
"But in the decision between decreased quality of life, and life, the people of Jerusalem choose life," he added.
Palestinian locals have borne the brunt.Eight-year-old Ala’ Zawahri suffers from mental and physical disabilities that require regular medical treatment. Her family home is in Um Al Asafir, a Palestinian village stuck between the Ha Homa Israeli settlement and Israel’s wall.
"When she was little, we could drive to Bethlehem or Beiht Sahur in less than 15 minutes," said her mother. "Now we have to find a taxi driver who actually comes here to drive us to Gilo checkpoint. We then cross on foot carrying Ala’ in our arms. Then we take another taxi to the clinic or hospital. All together 45 shekels [US$13] one way. Most of the time this takes one to one-and-a-half hours."
Israel’s permit system means that Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza can only enter Jerusalem with permission. In cases of emergency, it is possible to be given a permit on the same day of the request but this requires security coordination and the patient has to be transferred from a Palestinian to an Israeli ambulance. There can still be delays at checkpoints, however. According to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, of the 440 ambulances delayed or denied entry across the occupied Palestinian territory in 2009, two-thirds occurred at checkpoints into Jerusalem.
The blockade on Gaza, imposed since 2007 when Hamas took control of the region, has taken a devastating toll on the health system. In 2008, the Palestinian Ministry of Health referred 3,118 patients to East Jerusalem for treatment, against 382 in 2006.
OCHA said between January and December 2010, of the approximately 11,600 patients who requested permission to be treated outside the Gaza Strip, 78.1 percent were approved, 16.3 percent were delayed and 5.6 percent were denied.
For Jabo, who has suffered three heart attacks himself, the only solution is to move the wall or change his status: "What can I do in this area now if I get sick?" he asked. "Either that or make me an Israeli citizen with full rights to health insurance and access to Jerusalem or re-route the wall around me so that I am in the West Bank. I will not move."