Ramallah: Thousands of Palestinians are staging round-the-clock sit-in protests against drastic cutbacks at a major hospital in the Occupied West Bank for Palestinian refugees
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is believed to be gradually shutting down Qalqilia Hospital, regarded locally as the only symbol of the Palestinian right of return.
Pressure from Israel is suspected behind the move.
Palestinians from Qalqilia and the refugee camps in the northern Occupied West Bank are now occupying the hospital’s yards in protest tents in a bid to force UNRWA to reverse its decision to close down wards from Monday, August 21.
UNRWA has already stopped admitting new patients for ear, nose and throat treatment and childbirth, with cases being redirected to an UNRWA-contracted hospital.
The relief agency said intense efforts to improve Qalqilia Hospital had not been successful over the years, and it could no longer guarantee that medical services met required health care standards.
“UNRWA’s suspicious, serious and systematic policy in Qalqilia Hospital will succeed only over our dead bodies,” Naser Abu Kishk, vice-chairman of the UNRWA area Arab staff union — West Bank, told Gulf News.
He says the hospital closure would represent a huge blow to Palestinian refugees worldwide.
The relief agency’s suspension or reduction of hospital services meant it was relinquishing its responsibilities in the Occupied West Bank, he said, and turning its back on the Palestine central cause (the right of return).
“UNRWA is the only witness to the cause of the Palestinian refugees and must be there as long as refugees are there, to provide them with essential services,” he added.
Abu Kishk said UNRWA had used the hospital’s deteriorating budget and examples of trivial mishaps as a pretext to close the facility. He claimed that UNRWA was also planning to shut down educational higher institutes in Ramallah.
“This is a systematic political plan to end the right of return after they failed to stop it up by force,” he said.
He said that if the agency’s cutback in operations and services was successful in the Occupied West Bank, the tactic would be applied to other countries such as Syria and Lebanon.
The local committee in defence of the hospital said Thursday’s major sit-in by Palestinians at the hospital would be followed by more protests the next day, coinciding with Friday prayers. Thousands are expected to join the protest from around the Occupied West Bank’s refugee camps.
The committee said Qalqilia Hospital had been providing medical services for Palestinian refugees since 1949, and cuts in its services would be catastrophic.
Major Rafei Rawajbah, Qalqilia Governor, said UNRWA’s decision to reduce its hospital services violated the basic rights of Palestinian refugees.
“UNRWA should finalise a plan to improve the hospital, not shut it off,” he told Gulf News. “We can clearly see that UNRWA comes under Israeli pressure to reduce its operations in a move carefully designed to end the cause of refugees.”
Rawajbah said a meeting of UNRWA representatives with Palestinian Health Minister Dr Jawad Awwad had failed to resolve the issue.
He called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Premier Rami Al Hamdallah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to act immediately to force UNRWA to keep the hospital functioning.
The 63-bed Qalqilia Hospital serves more than 360,000 Palestinian refugees in the Occupied West Bank. Palestinian holders of UNRWA cards (as refugees) are entitled to educational and medical services. Qalqilia Hospital is not a free facility: refugees pay 10 shekels (Dh10) for a diagnosis and 27 shekels (Dh27) per night if admitted.
UNRWA was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to five million registered Palestine refugees. Its stated mission is to help Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services include education, health care, relief, social services and micro-finance.