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When You Have Breast Cancer in Gaza

One Out of Every Nine

by GIDEON LEVY

One out of every nine women gets breast cancer. There are doctors who say that statistic has worsened lately and now stands at one out of every eight. The disease is particularly violent in younger women and the primary growth in the breast spreads rapidly to the liver, the lungs, the bones and the brain. Is there anything worse than being a young woman with cancer whose chances are slim? It turns out that there is – being a young Palestinian woman with cancer whose chances are slim.

For 10 days now, F., a 28-year-old resident of Gaza, has been trying to get to Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer for urgent chemotherapy in the oncology department. The story of what has happened to her during these 10 awful days sounds unbelievable, even to someone who has already heard horrible stories. The reality has succeeded in superseding even what the sickest imagination could invent.

F. has been undergoing treatment at Sheba’s oncology department for many months: she has had surgery twice, radiation and chemotherapy. In Gaza, there is not a single oncology department and F. is not allowed to go to Egypt for treatment; she is one of the tens of thousands of Palestinians to whom Israel has refused to issue identity cards because they were not in the territories at the very beginning of the occupation. Without papers and without treatment in Gaza, F. is totally dependent on Israel’s good graces.

About two months ago, she was hospitalized at Sheba for several weeks and she had the chemotherapeutic drug Taxol injected into her veins, which reduced her suffering considerably. The attitude toward her at the hospital was admirable. F. was liked by everyone around her.

Israel prevented members of her family from being at her side for most of the time she was hospitalized, and she was left all by herself after the operations and during the period of radiation treatments. A handful of Israeli women, among them one of the activists of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, tried to relieve her loneliness and her suffering.

Each of her entrances into Israel was accompanied by hassles and humiliations. One time they demanded of her father a deposit of NIS 30,000 so that he could accompany her.

F. was supposed to have returned to Sheba for treatment on September 14. There was a closure and her application was refused. They promised her a permit for September 19. In the meantime, her condition deteriorated, her pain increased and her breathing became labored. She contacted the physicians’ association and begged to be allowed to return to the hospital.

At Sheba they said she should come as soon as possible. On September 14, Physicians for Human Rights applied to the humanitarian hotline of the Liaison and Coordination Administration with a request that she receive an entry permit. The permit arrived only on the following day at 6 in the evening, restricted to that same day and without an accompanying person. It was evening and F. was no longer able to travel by herself. The following day the validity of the permit had already expired.

At the association they decided to wait until Sunday, for which the permit had already been promised. On Sunday, the permit did not arrive until evening. In turns out that it was necessary to submit a renewed application. On Monday there was a delay on the Palestinian side, which was late in resubmitting her medical documents. Her changes of going out on Monday were scotched, as well.

Last Tuesday, at 3:30 in the afternoon, the telephone call came with the news that a permit had been given for the patient and her mother. F. set out for the roadblock with her mother. For hours she sat debilitated on the ground and waited. Finally she was called to go through the metal detector. The soldiers shouted to her from a distance that she had "something in her chest" and ordered her to strip in front of them. She stood there wearing only an undergarment, her mother burst out crying at the sight of her sick, humiliated daughter and the soldiers scolded her to shut up. Finally an officer came, reprimanded the soldiers and ordered F. to get dressed immediately.

F. has had a mastectomy. At 8 P.M. the Liaison and Coordination Administration informed Physicians for Human Rights that there was "a security problem" with F. The soldiers suspected her of carrying explosives in her chest. For some reason they had not arrested her, but had sent her home. Apparently it was the prosthetic breast that had set off the metal detector.

From that moment a danse macabre began, the end of which is not in sight. MK Yossi Sarid (Yahad), one of the few Knesset members who has taken an interest and tried to help, contacted the defense minister’s bureau that same evening. At the bureau they asked for documents concerning F.’s prosthesis. The minister’s adviser phoned Dr. Danny Rosen, who knows F. well, and asked about the kind of material on her body. At the bureau they also asked for a guarantee in F.’s handwriting that she would come to the roadblock without the prosthesis. This guarantee was given. Day followed day, and yet another phone call and yet another request for a form, and F. is still stuck in Gaza, her suffering increasing and her chances running out.

The Israel Defense Forces spokesman says that, "in light of a number of attempts by terrorists to enter Israel in the guise of needing medical treatment, the IDF must be extra cautious with regard to anyone who does not pass the security check, even if he has the appropriate medical documents in his possession. The claim concerning inappropriate conduct by the soldiers at the crossing point has been investigated and found to be without any basis. However, the consideration of the request by the senior command levels is still underway."

No danger of a suicide terrorist can justify such behavior. It is possible to protect ourselves against female terrorists without losing our humanity. F.’s story is not exceptional, even if part of it is particularly shocking; there are hundreds of Palestinian patients in a similar condition and every injustice always has a security excuse. There is terror, everyone is only carrying out orders and they are going by the book. But a book that prevents medical treatment to dying patients, hassles them and humiliates them, is a wicked book, and a society in which only the metal detector speaks is a sick society.

GIDEON LEVY writes for Ha’aretz, where this essay originally appeared.