RAMALLAH, West Bank – The presence of three words on a letterhead – "State of Palestine" – is keeping Palestinian patients from being transferred from the Gaza Strip to hospitals in East Jerusalem or Israel, officials on both sides acknowledged Wednesday.
Israel informed the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday that it would no longer accept the patients if the transfer letter issued by the Palestinian Ministry of Health contains those words.
Palestinian authorities expressed surprise, saying the phrase had been used on official documents since late 2012, when the United Nations upgraded the Palestinian Authority's status to that of a nonmember observer "state" rather than "entity."
Palestinians took that as an acknowledgment of statehood. Israel, along with the United States, strongly opposed the U.N. action and does not recognize the existence of a Palestinian state.
The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said in a statement Wednesday that the Israeli military agency that oversees government activities in the occupied territories informed the Palestinians of the new policy on transfers.
As a result, the center said, 70 patients have been denied the right to reach hospitals in Israel or East Jerusalem. Exceptions were made for three critically ill patients, the center said.
Maj. Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Israeli agency Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, confirmed that Israel will not accept transfers that include the statehood terminology. However, he gave different data on how many people were affected. He said 50 patients had been turned away since the policy was applied, and 10 had been allowed into Israel.
"On Sunday [the Palestinians] filed a range of requests … on a document that said 'State of Palestine.' On the spot, we returned it to them, saying they should refile the request on appropriate paperwork," Inbar said.
Israel says the letterhead should say Palestinian Authority, as recognized by Israel in the 1993 Oslo agreement.
The World Health Organization issues a monthly report on referrals of Gaza patients for treatment in Israeli hospitals, or in Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem or the West Bank.
It said that an average of 1,500 patients get referrals for treatment outside the Gaza Strip each month because treatment is not available in Gaza hospitals, but some are either denied an exit permit or their application is delayed, causing them to miss an appointment.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights expressed concern for the health of patients who are denied the right to get treatment in specialized hospitals outside the Gaza Strip. It called the Israeli measure "a blatant violation of international humanitarian law" and "a cruel punishment."
It accused Israel of using the predicament of Gaza patients to score a political point, saying healthcare for the ill should remain a purely humanitarian act.