Red Crescent finds ways to break isolation of West Bank villages

Published: 8 July 2002 0:00 CET

Sébastien Carliez in Ramallah.

Home to 3,500 inhabitants, the village of Dayr Abu Mish'al lies on top of a hill, 35 kilometres north-west of Ramallah, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It could be a nice place to live in; dozens of old-style, stone mansions overlook plantations of olive trees, or those remaining. Many were cut down by the army, representing a loss in income for local farmers. And sometimes, armed settlers from the surrounding newly-built Israeli settlements open fire on farmers, denying them access to their fields, further hampering harvesting activities. According to the village council, 300 breadwinners have lost their jobs over the past 20 months. And things are not getting better.

Dayr Abu Mish'al has been sealed off since early March by military-imposed closures. "It is one of the most affected villages in the district of Ramallah", says Sylvana Khoury, who coordinates health activities of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in the West Bank and Gaza. The PRCS is co-managing Dayr Abu Mish'al's health centre with the ministry of health. The nurse and laboratory technician live in the village. The rest of the staff come from neighboring towns, and have had difficulty reaching the isolated village for the past twenty months.

Dr. Kamal Ghanem, the PRCS physician in Dayr Abu Mish'al, lives in Bir Zeit, a half-hour drive away. As many Palestinians who have no choice but to get to work to make their living and sustain their families, he must regularly find new, alternative routes through hills and cultivated areas in order to bypass road blocks established by the army. These days, it takes him two hours to reach the health centre. Dayr Abu Mish'al is one example among others. "Many villages are isolated although they are geographically very close to main cities," Sylvana Khoury says.

In Biddo, a village located only ten kilometres south-west of Ramallah, the PRCS health centre services a population of nearly 15,000. Since the resident doctor has been prevented access for the past weeks, a colleague from the Ministry of Health residing in the area has been seconded to give consultations three days a week. In neighbouring Qatannah, also cut off from the rest of the West Bank, a doctor resigned since he couldn't get to work any longer - he lives in Ramallah, normally a 15-minute drive away. He was replaced by a local physician.

"We have problems bringing doctors to these villages and taking emergency cases out; and at the same time, needs for assistance are increasing," says Khoury. In an attempt to cope with these recurrent denials of access, the PRCS has set up an emergency telephone hotline for needy patients. "Doctors answer the phone, take people's numbers, and then call them back to give consultations or direct them to doctors in their areas who can visit them at home," explains Dr. Hossam Sharkawi, the PRCS emergency response coordinator.

Most of the households in the West Bank have mobile phones - one of the reasons why the hotline has been a success so far. "During the days of acute emergency early April, when total curfews were imposed on cities and villages for several days in a row, we were handling 150 calls a day on average, half of which resulted in medical prescriptions," Sharkawi recalls.

In cooperation with the Ministry of Health and local NGOs, the PRCS established a network of 50 volunteer physicians across the West Bank. "The long-term vision is to have 150 professionals on call round-the-clock to back-up medics dispatched to the field and help them make decisions."

A poll conducted in the West Bank and Gaza by the Bir Zeit University in May shows that 77% of those questioned have a "good" opinion of the Red Crescent action, against 7.6% who judge it "weak". The PRCS comes far ahead of all other Palestinian humanitarian organisations. "It's a sign that we do things right, and an encouragement to continue," Sharkawi concludes.

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