Occupied Territories: Entry Denied

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Last week I left home to go to work for 6 weeks as a medical volunteer for the Palestine Red Crescent Society in the Occupied Territories. I am a Dutch general practitioner from Bangor in the United Kingdom. I work in a job share arrangement with my partner, Dr. Graham Thomas, which enables us to leave the practice during 2-3 months per year and work for disadvantaged communities elsewhere in the world.

I have worked before in Palestinian (refugee) communities, both in the Occupied Territories and in Lebanon. So has my wife Dr. Pauline Cutting who was awarded an OBE for her humanitarian work in the Palestinian refugee camps. I am a primary care doctor, but I am also an Advanced Trauma Life Support-provider (along with ALS and PALS) and I have treated war injuries on numerous occasions.

On 6.5.2002 at 3.50 a.m. I arrived on Lufthansa flight LH0690 at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Getting through passport control and security always has been an awkward process, but I had never been barred from entering.

This time things were different. After passport control came the security people with their barrage of questions. I stated my intentions truthfully: that I came to work as a doctor in the emergency department of a Palestinian hospital. I had one suitcase full of medical supplies, donated by our district hospital Ysbyty Gwynedd and medical books to bring to my Palestinian colleagues. I also had a booklet on Basic Rules of International Humanitarian Law.

But even before they turned my luggage inside out I was informed that the Interior Ministry had decided to deny me entry for security reasons. I asked if I, a 49 year old father of two teenagers, a GP from North Wales, constituted a security threat against the State of Israel. Clearly I did not, but the denial order stood.

My luggage was then subjected to intense scrutiny. I had to explain the workings of a fundoscope, a peak flow meter, a tympanic thermometer. "What’s this?", one of the security people asked. "It is an otoscope. Allow me to demonstrate." I looked into his right ear. It was full of impacted wax. I advised him to see his doctor about it.

The battery charger of my brand new digital camera was confiscated, because they didn’t have the right equipment to examine it. The handbooks of the International Red Cross on the treatment of war injuries also raised a few eyebrows.

Then I was handed over to the police and placed in a shabby holding unit at the airport, where I joined two hapless economic migrants from Poland. I studied the graffiti on the walls of the cell. Quite a few were from people who earlier had been denied entry or deported because of their activities in the Occupied Territories. The most recent message was from one Swede and four Americans. It told me of their arrest in the vicinity of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

To these writings I added my own: "6.5.02. Today I was denied entry because I came to give humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people. My duty as a doctor is to give help to those in need, irrespective of race, nationality, religion or political beliefs. That includes Palestinians."

After 10 hours in the holding cell – no phone call allowed – the police forced me to board a Lufthansa airplane that was ready to take off. I struggled to contain my emotions. The cabin crew were very sympathetic and offered me a comfortable seat. As the airplane began to climb over the Mediterranean Sea I saw the hazy coast of the Gaza strip towards the south. I should have been there, I thought, and I felt empty.

Ironically during the flight back to Frankfurt a passenger collapsed near the toilet. The cabin crew asked for my assistance and of course I agreed to help. The passenger recovered without problems from a benign vasovagal collapse.

A fax from Tel Aviv to Lufthansa in Frankfurt stated in black and white that my entry had been denied because of "political/security reasons".

Back home in North Wales I was astonished to read in the on line edition of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, dated 6.5.02, that in just over a month 2000 humanitarian aid workers and human rights activists have been barred from entering the country and that 50 have been deported according to figures from the Interior Ministry. The article states that the Interior Minister Eli Yishai, has adopted this as a policy.

The people barred from entering Israel include representatives of charities like Save the Children and CARE, three United States-funded international aid organizations, a team of Greek humanitarian workers, two Swedish doctors and even two United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Officers. And now I have been added to their numbers.

The policy to deny humanitarian aid workers access to the Palestinian population is, in my opinion, both a breach of International Humanitarian Law and an unacceptable practice for a country that declares itself to be open and democratic.

I have contacted the British Medical Association in the hope that it will take up this issue with its Israeli counterpart and that the Israeli Medical Association will publicly dissociate itself from the policy of the Interior Minister and will do the best it can to have it reversed.

As for myself, I am under no illusion that my ban on entering the Occupied Territories will be lifted soon. I am now planning to go to work for the Palestine Red Crescent Society in Lebanon for a while.