(dpa) - The World Health Organization (WHO) sharply criticized Tuesday Israel's strict security screening of seriously- ill Palestinians who seek medical treatment in Israeli hospitals, calling the policy "inhuman."
Ambrogio Manenti, the head of WHO in Gaza and the West Bank said Israel's denial or delay of entry permits to Palestinian patients "shows nonsense, inhumanity and, at the end, tragedies that could and should have been avoided."
Some 32 ill Palestinians have died in the past six months after they were either denied entry into Israel, or received a travel permit when it was too late, Manenti told a news conference in Jerusalem.
He said he called the news conference to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians who need treatment outside the besieged Strip.
Before the June take-over of Gaza by the radical Islamic Hamas movement, which coincided with a surge in rocket attacks from the Strip, Israel accepted the overwhelming majority of Palestinian requests for treatment in its hospitals.
In 2006, nearly 5,000 patients from Gaza were treated in Israel, or more than 90 per cent of the 5,470 who requested treatment, according to WHO figures.
The percentage of denials rose however to almost 19 per cent in 2007, when more than 7,000 Gazans were treated in Israel, but 1,627 patients saw their requests denied.
The denial of permits rose from 3 per cent in the beginning of last year, to nearly 36 per cent in December, Manenti pointed out.
In absolute terms, nearly 670 Gazans were nevertheless treated in Israel in December 2007, compared to an in fact smaller number, under 360, in December 2006.
Manenti presented five cases of Gazans who died recently while waiting for a permit to enter Israel, the youngest a one-year-old baby girl whose request he said was denied "for security reasons."
Nine-year-old Amir Yazji from Gaza City also died on November 19, two weeks after he contracted a brain infection. He received an entry permit, but it came to late, about a week after submission.
The application mechanism is "a nightmare," Manenti said, adding, "People have died waiting for permits."
WHO officials had contacted the Israeli authorities on numerous occasions, in each of which the Israelis "promised to help." Nothing had changed however, he complained, calling on Israel to facilitate also the movement of international health staff in and out of the Gaza Strip.
There was no immediate Israeli reaction. But Israel has in the past justified its harsh security screening of patients and their accompanying relatives by saying Palestinian militants have during the past years of Intifada (uprising) "exploited" medical travel permits to attempt or carry out attacks against it.
A 22-year-old female Palestinian suicide bomber on her way for treatment in Israel killed three Israeli security guards and a civilian at the Erez border crossing between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip in January 2004. The woman had told the guards she had a metal plate in her leg to circumvent the metal detector.
A similar suicide attack was thwarted at the Erez terminal in June 2005, when a 21-year-old Palestinian woman tried to cross into Israel using her medical travel documents, but soldiers found a bomb belt on her.