Medical conditions caused by political decisions
Israel’s and the West’s assault on Palestinian children
By Rich Wiles*
6 September 2007
Rich Wiles shows how Israel’s criminal policies, and the Bush-and-Blair-inspired sanctions against the Palestinians, are causing lasting damage to the physical and mental wellbeing of Palestinian children.
On Christmas Eve in 1952, a Swiss priest called Father Schnydrig was on his way to Mass at the Church of the Nativity. He had come to Palestine to celebrate in the birthplace of Jesus. He walked past a huge area filled with tents and saw a man attempting to bury a child. This was Dehaishah Refugee Camp. The man was digging in the mud to create a makeshift grave for his own son. His son had literally frozen to death. Father Schnydrig began to question his own place in Bethlehem and wondered how he could be in the city to celebrate the birthplace of Jesus whilst children were suffering so much within a kilometre of the church. Upon returning to Europe he began to fundraise and soon opened Caritas Children's Hospital in Bethlehem. In 1978, Caritas opened a new building: it now has excellent facilities. Conditions at the hospital have improved greatly from an initial 14 beds in the mid-1950s to being able to treat over 34,000 babies and children in 2006. Life has also changed greatly in Bethlehem over this time. Dehaishah's refugees now live in houses instead of tents. Bethlehem itself is now an occupied city.
Earlier this year a man walked into Caritas Hospital carrying a small baby in his arms from a refugee camp. The child's feet were blue, they were frozen: this time the child's life was saved.
Palestine in 2007 is geographically hardly recognizable from Palestine in 1952. Go back a further five years and “historical Palestine” still existed. Now only around 12 per cent of “historical Palestine” is accessible to Palestinians. Caritas cannot even cater to all of this 12 per cent . Children from Jenin, Nablus, and other cities in the northern section of the West Bank cannot get to the hospital due to travel restrictions, checkpoints and the series of Bantustans which the occupation is dividing the country into. Because of this Caritas can only treat children and babies from the southern West bank, the areas around Bethlehem and Al-Khalil (Hebron). Despite this massive reduction in its catchment area, last year saw the largest ever number of patients treated at the hospital.
The effects of the occupation are varied and widespread. Children injured by the Israeli occupation forces (IOF) are not brought to Caritas as it has no emergency casualty unit; instead they are taken to state hospitals in Bethlehem. But saying that, a very high percentage of all children in the hospital have conditions which in some way relate to the political situation.
Walking around the hospital it is hard not to be impressed by the facilities and the standard of care, but another very striking thing is the size of most of the children. Children suffering from serious malnutrition are regularly brought into the hospital, but as I am taken around the hospital by some of the many dedicated staff they begin to explain to me about FTT – Failure To Thrive. The majority of the children at Caritas are not from the cities of Bethlehem or Al-Khalil but from the refugee camps and villages in the area. The environmental and social conditions in these areas are much lower than inside the cities. Poverty levels are higher, and subsequently diet suffers, heating is insufficient through the winter, and access to clean drinking water is also a major problem. One tiny child catches my attention as her huge brown eyes gaze at me inquisitively. After covering myself with a face mask, a gown and gloves to prevent spread of infection, a doctor takes me over to meet her:
"Lama is from Al-Khadr village. She is 10 months old but has the growth parameters of a baby less than four months old. Her mother had no milk to feed her with, so she simply couldn't grow. Her parents haven’t been here in a month now."
A lot of the children are suffering from gastro-intestinal problems, which can manifest itself as sickness and diarrhea. Such problems are common in children worldwide but in Palestine, as in many parts of the unprivileged world, children are dying from such conditions. Parents do not have the money to pay for hospital care so are often delaying going to hospital until it is almost too late. And, as another doctor explained, in some cases it is too late by the time children reach the hospital:
|A few months ago a man brought his son in. They had no money at all and felt ashamed to beg for help, so they put off seeking treatment, hoping the condition would improve with time. Eventually, the family got very desperate as their child deteriorated and they took him to a government hospital. When they got there the hospital couldn't treat him as all doctors were striking, and they were sent here. The child died within a few hours of getting here; it was just too late.|