Monday, August 4, 2008

'Tell us who the terrorists are if you want the doctor'

By Donald Macintyre in Gaza City
Monday, 4 August 2008

A police sapper removes a Qassam rocket launched by militants in Gaza. The Israeli intelligence service was accused of pressuring Palestinian patients seeking treatment to act as spies to find out who is launching the missiles and where


A police sapper removes a Qassam rocket launched by militants in Gaza. The Israeli intelligence service was accused of pressuring Palestinian patients seeking treatment to act as spies to find out who is launching the missiles and where

Seriously ill Palestinian patients are being pressured to collaborate with Israeli intelligence by informing on militant and other activities in return for being allowed out of Gaza for medical treatment a report says today.

Israel's domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, is playing an increasingly important role in determining whether patients should be allowed to keep hospital appointments in Israel or the West Bank, Physicians for Human Rights Israel [PHR] will claim.

PHR has collected testimony from more than 30 patients with serious illnesses, including cancer, who describe being pressured by interrogators at the main Erez terminal between Israel and Gaza. They include a 38-year-old man due for treatment at Tel Aviv's Ichilov hospital who says he was told: "You have cancer, and it will spread to your brain. As long as you don't help us, wait for Rafah crossing [the rarely open exit to Egypt]."

The report, which charges Shin Bet with "coercion" and "extortion" of patients, says this comes against a background of a sharp rise in the proportion of patients being denied permission to enter Israel for medical treatment since Hamas's takeover of Gaza, in June 2007.

The rise in refusals from 10 per cent in the first half of 2007 to 35 per cent in the first half of 2008 coincided with what PHR says is increasing restrictions in the supply of medical spare parts, fuel and electricity as part of an Israeli blockade of all but essential humanitarian supplies. This in turn has increased the number of referrals for treatment of patients outside Gaza.

The report says that, according to Shin Bet, the goal of the interrogations is "to estimate the degree of danger posed by the applicant". It adds: "In practice [the agency] collects intelligence on what it defines as security issues."

Most of those who have testified declined to give their names for fear that it could jeopardise any further chance of leaving Gaza for treatment. But one who has, journalist Bassam Al Wahidi, 28, said he was interrogated in late August 2007 during over six hours of detention at Erez, missing his appointment at St John's Hospital in East Jerusalem to save the sight in his right eye from retina damage.

He said that after arriving on the Israeli side, he was led to an interrogation room where a man speaking perfect Arabic introduced himself as Moshe. Moshe told him: "I want you to do me a favour. I will talk to the big leaders in the Israel Defence Forces and say he's a good guy. We have to help him."

He said that Moshe asked him to use his job as a journalist to go to border areas and see who was launching rockets and where, and to attend press conferences of factional military wings. He would be given an Israeli mobile chip and asked to call a number with information. If he proved himself over 10 days, he would be allowed to go through Erez "with no permit" and be allowed through for treatment at the Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv. Moshe also hinted he would get financial and other help.

Mr Al Wahidi – who had previously been given an exit permit – says he made clear that he would not co-operate, and that he would go to human rights organisations, the Red Cross and the press. He claims that Moshe, who had earlier said he was losing his patience, laughed and added: "What you are talking about does not exist in the dictionary of the IDF."

Mr Al Wahidi says that when he invited Moshe to arrest him or allow him out for medical treatment, he replied: "I will send you back to Gaza and let you live the rest of your life blind because you are stupid."

Mr Al Wahidi was indeed sent back to Gaza and has not been allowed out for treatment since. He says he has now lost the sight in his right eye and needs urgent treatment to save his left eye, and that doctors told him a month ago to stop reading or writing to ease the pressure on his left eye.

Shin Bet told PHR that three would-be suicide bombers since 2005 had posed as medical patients and denied that permits are contingent on the supply of information by a patient "except for reliable information on his medical condition." The military says that the number of those exiting the Strip for medical treatment rose from 8,325 to 15,148 in 2007. It says that the Supreme Court has ruled that "it is the state's sovereign right to determine who enters its gates and that the extent of discretion granted to the authorities is ... very broad."