By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - For many patients suffering from life-threatening diseases in the Gaza Strip, treatment in neighboring Israel or the occupied West Bank is a much sought-after option.
But Israel tightly restricts Palestinian passage from the Gaza Strip, one of its bitterest enemies. Although it exempts from the ban Gazans seeking "life-saving or life-changing medical treatment" if it is unavailable in the territory, crossing the border isn't easy.
Gaza, an enclave of two million Palestinians ruled by the anti-Israel Hamas movement, suffers from a chronic shortage of hospital beds, medical equipment and specialist physicians, says Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for Gaza's Health Ministry.
Egypt, Gaza's neighbor to the south, is an option for those seeking medical checks, not urgent surgery, and patients who are barred from entering Israel. But the Egyptian government is at odds with Hamas and keeps its own frontier with the Palestinian territory largely closed. It opens the crossing once every 40 days, for a few days each time.
Qidra said at least half those who apply for treatment in Israel or the occupied West Bank are turned down by Israeli authorities.
"Should we have the proper medications and equipment, our doctors would be capable of handling the treatment of many patients," Qidra told Reuters. "The ban not only worsens health conditions of those patients but some had actually died waiting."
Gaza human rights groups say Israeli security at the crossing with the territory sometimes question patients in an attempt to gather intelligence or recruit them as informers.
Treatment for an estimated 6,000 cerebral palsy patients poses a particular problem. Many families cannot afford the cost of care and some do not want to expose their loved ones' affliction to outsiders. Gazan healthcare providers complain the Israeli blockade deprives them of vital resources.
"The major difficulties are known, as they are mainly financial problems because of the siege," said Jamila Alewa, who runs the Saja Centre, which treats some of the roughly 6,000 people in Gaza that have cerebral palsy.
"The poor financial conditions of families (means they) cannot take responsibility for their children who suffer from cerebral palsy or provide them with medical care such as physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy."
Israel says requests for medical care are reviewed on their merits in coordination with Palestinian representatives. The country's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the group that liaises with Palestinian authorities on border crossings, said about 20,000 Gazans enter Israel per month, mainly for medical treatment.
"We see medical care as the highest priority and there is no compromise on the subject; we're doing whatever it takes to save a life," COGAT said on its website.
In figures posted on the website a month ago, COGAT said that between January 2015 and September 2016, some 200 medical personnel from the Gaza Strip participated in training courses at leading hospitals in Israel.
(Editing by Larry King)