Friday, December 11, 2009

Palestinians Fake Cancer to Escape Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A healthy man in blockaded Gaza faked cancer, hoping the deadly disease would be his ticket out of the territory that has become an open-air prison for its 1.4 million residents.

His ploy failed, but several thousand others succeeded in fleeing this shabby sliver of land this year using bribes and fake medical reports, a sign of Gazans' desperation over growing poverty and misery under the strict border closure enforced by Egypt and Israel since Hamas militants overran Gaza in June 2007.

The blockade has few loopholes. Israel allows passage to top business people and a limited number of Gazans seeking treatment for serious illnesses. Egypt sporadically opens its border for university students and those with residency abroad.

Everyone else is stuck, even as Palestinian polls suggest nearly half the population would like to leave if they could.

Deepening the Gazans' sense of imprisonment, they must now also obtain permission from the Hamas government before attempting to leave, further complicating an obstacle-ridden path to freedom.

Those trying to bribe their way out usually approach middlemen who put them in touch with local doctors, Palestinian health officials or Egyptian bureaucrats and military officials.

Akram Ghneim, 31, an unemployed father of six living off food handouts, told The Associated Press he promised $260 to a Palestinian middleman, who obtained for him a bogus medical report saying he had cancer. Ghneim said he hoped he'd get a rare spot on the list of Gaza patients with life-threatening illnesses who are allowed to enter Israel for treatment.

Once in Israel, he planned to disappear and work illegally. But Israeli intelligence officials, who review applications, rejected him last summer, saying his cancer report was forged.

"This is what the blockade does," said Ran Yaron, of the Israeli group Physicians for Human Rights, which helps bring Gazans into Israel for treatment by lobbing Israeli defense officials.

"Most are frustrated and devastated people."

Yaron said fakers are a minority, but clog up the system for real patients who have to go through longer checks as a result.

Of more than 7,000 Gazans who crossed into Israel this year to seek medical treatment, some 500 haven't returned, said Col. Moshe Levi, an Israeli defense official.

Some stay in Israel, while others move to the West Bank, a territory controlled by Israel but partly administered by Palestinians loyal to Fatah, bitter rivals of Hamas.

One Fatah loyalist, a healthy 30-year-old woman, said she was desperate to leave Gaza after being harassed by Hamas officials.

She bribed a Gaza doctor with $100 to certify she had "whatever cancer could only be treated in Israel." The doctor then paid off a physician serving on a Palestinian committee that certifies medical reports for Israeli military officials, the woman said. She eventually succeed in reaching the West Bank and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being sent back to Gaza by the Israeli authorities.

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