One of the issues on the agenda for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians currently underway in Washington is the future of east Jerusalem. Israel says east Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1967, will remain part of its united capital while the Palestinians say it must be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
In one respect, though, east Jerusalem is already part of the West Bank through a network of six hospitals – including the well-known Augusta Victoria and Al-Makassed hospitals - which treat thousands of Palestinians each year.
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"The east Jerusalem hospitals are part of the Palestinian health system and the problems are part of the problems facing the Palestinian health system in general," Shadi Othman, the communication and information officer for the office of the European Union (EU) Representative in east Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “This contribution will help alleviate the accumulated debt.”
The Palestinian Authority refers thousands of patients each year to these specialized hospitals for treatment that cannot be obtained in West Bank hospitals. For example, St. John’s Eye Hospital is the only medical facility where Palestinians can receive eye surgery. The patients need Israeli permits to reach Jerusalem, which Israeli officials say are usually granted as a humanitarian gesture.
Most of these patients have medical insurance with the Palestinian Authority, which is then meant to cover the cost of treatment. However, with the PA is mired in a financial crisis and the debt rapidly rising, the EU stepped in and paid what amounts to about sixty-per cent of the outstanding debt.
“The EU continues to be a close and reliable partner to the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian people,” EU representative John Gatt-Rutter said when announcing the aid. “The objective of our support is to allow the Palestinian Authority to meet its obligations towards the east Jerusalem hospitals and ultimately ensure the provision of essential services to the Palestinian people. All six facilities of the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network provide quality specialized health services which are not available in Palestine. Preserving their work is important.”
The largest of the six hospitals, Al-Makassed, employs some 750 doctors, nurses and other personnel and has come close to closing several times over the past 40 years. In 2009, 80,000 cases were seen by hospital staff there.
Part of the problem is that costs in east Jerusalem are higher than those in the West Bank. For example, the PA pays Al-Makassed about $5,000 for open heart surgery while the cost of the surgery at the hospital is closer to $7,000. That difference eventually adds up to millions of dollars.
Palestinian Minister of Health Jawad Awwad said the hospitals also play an important political role in the Palestinian battle for Jerusalem.
“The Palestinian government headed by Rami Hamdallah has received directives from the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to pay great attention to the medical organizations in the holy capital,” Awwad said in a statement that was carried by the Ma’an News Agency. “It is to give support to those opposing the practices of Israeli occupation crippling different institutions in Jerusalem.”
The Israeli government has long clashed with the Palestinian Authority over symbols of Palestinian control in Jerusalem. In 1988, Israel closed the Orient House, the PLO Headquarters in east Jerusalem. More recently in June, Israel ordered the Hakawati Theater closed during a week it was supposed to sponsor a puppet festival. A police spokesman said the theater was closed “because its activities were under the sponsorship of the Palestinian Authority.”
When it comes to medical care, however, Israel actually facilitates the entry of tens of thousands of Palestinians into east Jerusalem. The bigger issue, however, is whether these hospitals will be able to survive without ongoing infusions of cash from the international community.
“The PA is having a difficult economic situation and this is reflected in the hospital as in other issues,” said Shadi Othman of the EU. “This requires a long-term solution from both the hospitals and the PA.”
Article written by Linda Gradstein, courtesy of The Media Line
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