Children among cancer patients fearing being sent back to Gaza by Israel | Gaza

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Cancer patients from Gaza, including children, are living in a state of limbo in a hospital in East Jerusalem after Israeli authorities threatened to send them back.

The Guardian was given access to the Augusta Victoria hospital, where at least 22 patients from Gaza in urgent need of advanced cancer treatment are living in fear of deportation. As with numerous others, they received authorisation prior to Hamas’s 7 October attack to receive medical care outside the strip, due to the inadequate facilities in Gaza.

Following the outbreak of war, however, the Israeli defence ministry body responsible for overseeing civilian affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories, Cogat, has urged hospital officials to provide a list of patients deemed fit for discharge to be returned to Gaza.

“I arrived here in Jerusalem with my son Hamza on 27 September last year,” said Qamar Abu Zoar, 22, originally from Jabalia. “Hamza, who is four and a half years old, has a brain tumour and needs treatment that he couldn’t receive in Gaza. While we were here, the war broke out. And since then, we have been stranded in this hospital, while my other two younger children are in the north of Gaza with my husband.”

Two of her brothers and her father were killed during Israeli airstrikes on Gaza between December and January. Abu Zoar, who has been using a chair to sleep in next to her son since last September, said that while she would like to return to Gaza to embrace her other children, she knew that Hamza could not receive the radiation therapy he needed there, with hospitals in the territory in dire crisis.

“The hospitals in Gaza are overwhelmed with hundreds of wounded due to the conflict,” she said. “Here, I know that Hamza can receive the care he needs.”

She said that although Hamza cannot speak due to his illness, he has improved since being transferred, but that his condition remained critical.

At the end of the corridor of the paediatric oncology ward is Ali, an eight-year-old who arrived at the hospital with his mother in September from Rimal, a neighbourhood on the coastline of Gaza City.

“Ali has leukaemia,” said his mother, who preferred not to be named. “In Gaza, they had misdiagnosed. We were supposed to stay for only a month when we arrived … but then the conflict broke out.”

Adult patients, many of whom are elderly, are instead stranded in a hotel next to the hospital, visiting the facility for chemotherapy cycles. Some come from cities in the strip razed to the ground by Israel. If sent back, they risk ending up in the north, where the threat of famine is highest.

According to the United Nations, fewer than a third of hospitals in Gaza are even partially functioning. The Palestinian Authority’s health minister, Mai al-Kaila, told Al Jazeera that the more than 2,000 cancer patients in Gaza were living in “catastrophic health conditions as a result of the ongoing Israeli aggression on the strip and the mass displacement”.

Qamar, 22, originally from Jabalia, with her son Hamza, hospitalised at the Augusta Victoria hospital with a brain tumour. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Some patients have asked to join their families in schools designated as shelters to die among them because they know hospitals in Gaza won’t be able to treat them, Subhi Sukeyk, the director of the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship hospital, told Al Jazeera. The only cancer treatment hospital in the strip went out of service on 1 November after it ran out of fuel, health officials said.

Last week, just hours before Cogat was preparing to send about 10 patients back to Gaza, the Israeli supreme court halted the order issued by authorities, in response to a plea by the non-profit organisation Physicians for Human Rights. A decision from the court is imminent, although the exact timeframe remains uncertain. The government has until 21 April to present its case.

Physicians for Human Rights said in a statement: “Returning residents to Gaza during a military conflict and a humanitarian crisis is against international law and poses a deliberate risk to innocent lives. All the more so when it concerns patients who may face a death sentence due to insanitary conditions and hunger, along with the unlikely availability of medical care. The fact that the security officials refuse to convey such a directive in writing indicates that they themselves are aware that it is clearly illegal and are avoiding responsibility.

“The hospitals and the medical staff must strongly oppose the release of the patients from their custody unless a guarantee is given that they will not be returned to Gaza where their lives are in danger.”

Israel’s government has argued that the patients ordered back have finished their medical treatment and that their return would be coordinated with international agencies. “In cases where there is a need for further medical treatment, Cogat arranges their stay with the hospitals to safeguard their health,” the agency told CNN.

While awaiting the court decision, Ali had nothing to do but wait, and dream. Prior to his leukaemia diagnosis, he was the captain of a football team in Rimal and he couldn’t wait, his mother said, to be able to get back on the pitch with his teammates.

Exhausted from the medication administered to him only hours before, Ali raised his hand to say that in addition to returning to playing football, he had an even more pressing desire.

“I want this war to end,” he said in a weak voice.