Cancer and war: Gaza patients stuck in Jerusalem

People from the Gaza Strip, who are being treated for cancer in East Jerusalem, have not been able to return home since the war broke out. Many don't even have houses anymore. The border crossings are closed and the road is blocked. DW reporter spoke with them

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A Palestinian boy wounded in an Israeli attack is treated after a temporary ceasefire between Hamas and Israel expired, photographed at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 1, 2023, Photo: Reuters
A Palestinian boy wounded in an Israeli attack is treated after a temporary ceasefire between Hamas and Israel expired, photographed at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 1, 2023, Photo: Reuters

Several plastic chairs, arranged in a circle at Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem. It is a meeting place for Palestinian cancer patients.

They came for radiation and chemotherapy in a part of Jerusalem that is mostly inhabited by Palestinians, but is under Israeli occupation.

The patients came days before the Islamist Hamas was to carry out mass terrorist attacks on Israel.

The people in the hospital now have to deal not only with the war, but with the disease, but also with the guilt of not being able to return to the families who live and die under the bombs in the Gaza Strip.

"Many of them feel guilty because here they have electricity, water, food," a caregiver at the hospital tells us. "Sometimes they hear from their children who tell them they are hungry. It is almost unbearable for them."

The children remained in Gaza

A hundred Palestinian patients, sometimes accompanied by some of their relatives, are stuck in the "August Victoria" hospital. The hospital was named after the wife of German Emperor Wilhelm II, who visited the city in 1898.

The clinic on the hill, overlooking the ancient Old Town, is managed by the Lutheran World Federation. Patients are accommodated in nearby hotels and guesthouses. This is the only glimmer of hope for many, because there is no hospital in the entire Gaza Strip that can help them.

One patient, who does not want to reveal his name, tells us that he was only supposed to be in the hospital for a couple of days. That's why his wife accompanied him. Seven of their children stayed with relatives.

"They want to protect me and don't tell me what the real situation is. But I am very worried about them," says this Palestinian.

He comes from the Rimal neighborhood, which is considered one of the best in Gaza City. Much has been destroyed today. He says that the relatives and children first fled to the south of the Gaza Strip at the invitation of the Israeli army, but they did not feel safe there either.

"That's why they came back, but there's nothing left at home, no bakery, no security, nothing," says the man.

Caring for loved ones

Another patient, he could be in his seventies, speaks through tears. "Sometimes for two or three days I can't reach anyone from my family. They are all scattered in different directions."

A few days ago, he was told that one of his daughters had died with her husband in an Israeli airstrike. "They told me that there was nothing left of our house. I have nowhere to go back to."

In the children's ward, Um Ahmed sits next to her granddaughter, who is currently receiving an IV. She is too young to understand what is happening in Gaza, and she is smiling, despite the needles in her hands.

They live in the Al Shati refugee camp, near the sea in the north of Gaza City, where heavy fighting took place. Since the parents were not allowed to travel to Jerusalem with their daughter, the grandmother went. "She misses her mother," says Um Ahmed.

Nothing works without Israel's permission

Leaving the Gaza Strip has always been difficult for Palestinian patients receiving treatment in East Jerusalem or the West Bank. For sixteen years, Israel and Egypt have strictly controlled who can enter or leave areas under Hamas rule.

Patients, who need treatments not available in Gaza, have until now been able to receive treatment elsewhere. However, they often waited a long time for permission from the Israeli authorities.

Patients at the "Avgusta Viktorija" hospital now have nowhere to go. Since October 7, Israel has closed both border crossings to the Gaza Strip. No one knows when they will be open.

At least three patients from Gaza have died. Israeli authorities deported their family members to Gaza, as well as several thousand workers from Gaza, who ended up in Israel on October 7.

The situation causes great concern for the hospital's medical staff. Their thoughts are directed not only to the patients in East Jerusalem, but also to those in Gaza, who can no longer come for treatment.

"We don't even know if they're still alive," says Dr. Fadi Atrash, the hospital's executive director.

Because radiation and chemotherapy must be performed regularly. According to hospital data, since the outbreak of war, over two hundred patients have missed scheduled cancer treatment.

"Sometimes we don't want to call"

In Gaza, at least 25 of the 36 hospitals are no longer working, according to the World Health Organization. Heavy fighting in the streets and a lack of medical supplies, electricity and water... many institutions cannot even take care of the wounded, let alone the chronically ill.

Medical staff at Augusta Victoria Hospital are in contact with colleagues in Gaza, especially with the Turkish hospital in northern Gaza, which also treats cancer patients, although it does not have all the resources.

"Sometimes we don't want to call them because it's hard for us to hear how another colleague was killed," says Atraš.

One patient tells us that he would go back to Gaza immediately, if only he could. "We are very grateful for the way they take care of us here, but I want to go back. I just want to be with my family."

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