Blocking EU aid to Palestine endangers the lives of hundreds of cancer patients

The survival of hundreds of Palestinian cancer patients is compromised by the lack of adequate medication to treat them at the referral cancer center in Jerusalem. The cause of such hardship is the blockade for months of aid from the European Union, more than 200 million euros that the Palestinian Authority (PA) should have received in 2021. But the European commissioner responsible for that item, the Hungarian Oliver Várhely, has kept it frozen as a pressure measure to force the Palestinian authorities to modify the textbooks used by schoolchildren for understanding that they include anti-Semitic content. Sources from the European Commission indicate that the Hungarian’s veto could be overcome in a matter of days, coinciding with the visit this week to Israel and Palestine by the president of the organization, Ursula von der Leyen.

The European Commission plans to present a proposal this Monday that would release the 212 million euros pending from last year, plus an additional item of 10 million euros to alleviate the current economic crisis that is hitting many countries in the area. The decision, according to community sources, will not include any type of conditionality, beyond the usual one related to the good management of the funds. Brussels hopes that the proposal will receive the approval of the representatives of the 27 member states that sit on the committee in charge of approving it.

The possible unlocking comes after the intervention of Von der Leyen, according to the sources consulted. The president of the Commission had tolerated the attitude of the Hungarian commissioner, despite the fact that the lives of hundreds of patients were being put in danger and the Palestinian Authority was condemned to the risk of economic collapse. But Von der Leyen begins a tour this Monday that will take her to Israel, Palestine (on Tuesday), Egypt and Jordan, and the imminent delivery of the long-awaited aid may facilitate her dialogue in the area because the situation has become dramatic for the Palestinians. .

The Augusta Victoria hospital, located in the eastern part of the Holy City, has stopped treating more than 500 patients referred by the Palestinian Ministry of Health due to lack of funds. Hundreds of other cases diagnosed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have not even been referred. The EU is the main international donor financing the PA. Without the transfers from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, deprived in turn of European income, and without the direct subsidies that the centenary Augusta Victoria hospital receives from Brussels, its chemotherapy rooms are almost empty at the top of the Mount of Olives.

Dr. Yusef Hamamreh, director of the oncology day care center, describes the desolation experienced in one of the usually busiest floors. “On a normal day, there would be about 90 patients here, now there are less than 30 ″, he explained at noon on Thursday. 40% of the patients come from Gaza and the rest from the West Bank. At the control desk of the plant he shows what he calls a “black list”, some thirty names on one of the sheets of a bulletin board. You will have to call all of them shortly after to inform them that they will not be able to start treatment because their medications “have not arrived”. They are available in hospitals and laboratories in Israel, but if the invoice is not paid immediately, they are not delivered to the Augusta Victoria pharmacy, he admits.

“These restrictions (on European aid) punish terminally ill patients who are deprived of life-saving medicines,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the NGOs with increased presence in Palestine. Egeland, a diplomat with a long career in humanitarian services, for which he was responsible for the UN in the Syrian war, denounces that “the Palestinians are paying a cruel price for political decisions taken in Brussels.”

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At the back of one of the chemotherapy rooms, 19-year-old Aya Sarahin huddles in a corner as she begins her first three-week cycle to fight sarcoma, a cancer that in her case mainly affects the bones. She is accompanied by Rachida, her mother and that of her three sisters and her three brothers. “I also want to start a family, like her,” whispers the young woman, who has also started her studies to train as a nutritionist in Hebron, somewhat sleepy in an armchair. “We come early every day on a hospital bus,” she says, surrounded by other patients from the same city in the southern West Bank. All her hopes are concentrated in this room in the Germanic imperial style. “Without a budget for advanced medication, we can only apply the most traditional chemotherapy, which responds better to tumors such as sarcoma,” admits Dr. Hamamreh. “We are going to cure Aya,” he promises.

Mirwat Fajuri, from Beit Laya (Gaza Strip), receives the third cycle of chemotherapy for a sarcoma with metastases, on Thursday the 9th at the Augusta Victoria hospital in Jerusalem.  Beside her, Dr. Yusef Hamamreh, director of the cancer care center,
Mirwat Fajuri, from Beit Laya (Gaza Strip), receives the third cycle of chemotherapy for a sarcoma with metastases, on Thursday the 9th at the Augusta Victoria hospital in Jerusalem. Beside her, Dr. Yusef Hamamreh, director of the cancer care center, QUIQUE KIERSZENBAUM

Before Mirwat Fajuri, 50, who has come to undergo a third cycle from Beit Laya, in northern Gaza, the oncologist’s diagnosis does not seem so optimistic. Her problem is more logistical – keeping him hospitalized in Jerusalem for three weeks, despite the restrictions that Israel imposes on patients coming from the coastal strip – than medical. “I was diagnosed with the disease in October 2021, but I couldn’t start chemotherapy until last March, when permission from the military arrived,” explains Fajuri, covered in a baseball cap that does not hide the loss of all his hair, while observing the head of the service. “We are going to try to make his disease chronic: a sarcoma that has already metastasized to the lungs and liver,” explains the specialist doctor. For the rest of the Palestinian patients, who require more complex treatments, he has no answer now.

“At the end of last year, the Palestinian Authority owed 70 million euros to the hospital for the oncology patients it has referred, but the EU has not received the funds since last fall, nor the 13 million annual item earmarked for health centers in Jerusalem,” says Sieglinde Weinbrenner, a nurse, veteran aid worker and Jerusalem delegate of the Lutheran World Federation. This non-profit organization has been managing the Augusta Victoria Hospital since 1950, founded in 1910 after a visit to the Holy City of Kaiser William II. “Nobody seems to do anything to remedy it in Brussels,” laments the German Weinbrenner. “Ursula von der Leyen is also a doctor, she knows what it means when cancer patients do not have the treatment they need, or when their sessions are interrupted or suspended. She knows how stressful she is, which impairs the chances of healing, ”she states in an impromptu message to the president of the Commission.

The EU is the largest donor of resources to the Palestinian Authority. European funds contribute to finance from the salaries of civil servants, doctors or teachers to pensions. But the position of the European Neighborhood Commissioner, the Hungarian Oliver Varhély, has dried up that financing channel for months. The Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán, who appointed Varhély, has also stood out for its veto of any EU resolution protesting or condemning Israel.

Palestinian patients from Hebron (West Bank), on Thursday the 9th in a chemotherapy room at the Augusta Victoria hospital in Jerusalem.
Palestinian patients from Hebron (West Bank), on Thursday the 9th in a chemotherapy room at the Augusta Victoria hospital in Jerusalem. QUIQUE KIERSZENBAUM

“It is outrageous what patients are suffering from the politicization of EU aid to the Palestinian Authority. I am a citizen of Europe and I believe in the European ideal, but this situation is completely unacceptable, heartbreaking. Patients are moving from the first stage of cancer evolution to the fourth… in which they no longer have so many options. People are dying for this, ”Weinbrenner stresses in the face of debts that are suffocating the Palestinian health system, and by extension, his hospital. “Recently I had to talk to the family of a patient in her 40s who no longer has a future due to lack of means to treat her cancer,” she reveals. “Sometimes I spend the day crying.”

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