Gaza Strip – Sitting in her wheelchair, Saida Barbakh looks around at the crowded classroom in a United Nations-run school in Khan Younis that is her current home. She sighs deeply.
The 62-year-old bone cancer patient’s medication had run out several days earlier. She had been treated at Al Makassed Hospital in occupied East Jerusalem, and following a successful yet complicated surgery, she returned to the Gaza Strip on October 5, two days before the war began.
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“I was supposed to go back after two weeks for a medical check-up,” she says. “I did not expect things to reach this level of danger.”
The UN-run schools, where 725,000 displaced Palestinians have taken shelter from unrelenting Israeli bombardment for more than a month, are far from ideal to house sick patients. A lack of electricity, clean running water, food and bedding, and inadequate washroom facilities, are turning the schools into Petri dishes for an outbreak of diseases, mainly respiratory infections, diarrhoea and skin rashes.
“I feel that I need care and sleep and I cannot move a lot in this wheelchair,” Barbakh said. “Living in this ugly and painful war with cancer is really awful.”
Barbakh, who is from the town of Bani Suhaila east of Khan Younis, was initially recovering at the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital, the only one for cancer treatment in the Gaza Strip.
But the hospital was forced to shut down its services on November 1, after running out of fuel due to Israel’s continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip. The building had also sustained heavy damage from repeated Israeli attacks on the surrounding areas, the Ministry of Health said. More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s bombing of Gaza since October 7.
Barbakh was among 70 cancer patients evacuated from the hospital to go south, but after her house was damaged as a result of Israeli bombing – turning much of the area into a ghost town – she and her family had no choice but to stay at a shelter school.
Only clinical care available
The Palestinian Authority health minister, Mai al-Kaila, warns that the lives of these 70 cancer patients are under serious threat because of the lack of treatment and health follow-ups.
Overall, the 2,000 cancer patients in the Gaza Strip are living in “catastrophic health conditions as a result of the ongoing Israeli aggression on the Strip and the mass displacement”, al-Kaila said.
Subhi Sukeyk, the director of the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital, said more than a month after the start of the war, medicines have run out.
“Specialised treatments for cancer patients, such as chemotherapy and treatment that combines several medications, cannot be provided,” Sukeyk told Al Jazeera. “Some patients were transferred to Dar Essalam Hospital in Khan Younis, which they say is safe, but there is no safe place in Gaza at all.”
Dar Essalam Hospital cannot offer medicines or cancer treatment, but it does provide patients with basic clinical care, he said.
But some of the cancer patients have asked to join their families in the shelter schools to die among them because they know that the hospitals cannot provide them with treatment, he added.
“Every day, we lose two or three cancer patients,” Sukeyk said. “On the night the patients were transferred from the Turkish Friendship Hospital,” he says, “four of them died. The previous night six patients died.”
At the Turkish Friendship Hospital, only a few patients remain. Among them is Salem Khreis, a 40-year-old leukaemia patient.
“There’s no medicine or treatment,” he said. “I can’t explain how terrible the pain is.”
Khreis said he appreciates that the doctors are always by the side of their patients, but beyond their reassurances, there is nothing else they can do.
“They stand with us and tell us they are with us, but their eyes are full of sadness and helplessness from how much we are suffering,” he said.
“Can we die from the siege? Is it not enough for Israel that we suffer from cancer? Save us from this injustice.”
Last week, Turkey’s health minister said his country and Egypt had agreed to send 1,000 cancer patients and other injured civilians needing urgent care in Gaza to Turkey for treatment. No other details were offered.
No medical referrals or permits approved
The Gaza Strip’s healthcare facilities have been stretched under a 16-year Israeli blockade. Before October 7, Sukeyk said, he handed the Health Ministry about 1,000 medical referrals for cancer patients every year for their proper treatment and care in more specialised hospitals outside the besieged territory.
Patients and their relatives must submit a medical permit request, which can only be approved by the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Administration. Overall, about 20,000 patients per year sought permits from Israel to leave the Gaza Strip for healthcare before the war, almost a third of them children.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Israel approved about 63 percent of these medical exit applications in 2022.
That all has come to a grinding halt. Hospitals overcrowded because of a high number of Palestinians wounded in Israeli attacks have started discharging cancer patients to make room for those injured.
Sukeyk said some of the cancer patients who were waiting for their medical permits have died, but is unable to confirm the exact number because of the chaos of the war.
“If a patient hasn’t been receiving treatment, then the spread of cancer in their body is inevitable and they will die,” he said.
Reem Asraf, who has thyroid cancer, has also run out of her medication. She was supposed to get treated at Al Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, but the Beit Hanoon crossing, known as Erez to Israelis, in the north has not been in function since October 7.
Asraf underwent two surgeries including one to remove the tumour from her neck, but needs further treatment and check-ups.
“I cannot move or even stand due to the deterioration of my health and the lack of painkillers necessary for my condition,” she said, speaking from Khan Younis after she was displaced from her home in Gaza City.
“In the face of the scenes of death and destruction, words cannot describe what we cancer patients are suffering through.”