After the Israeli human rights group Physicians for Human Rights arranged a donation of 17 corneas to allow sight-impaired Palestinians from Gaza to receive necessary eye surgery, Israeli border agents stationed at Erez crossing prevented the sight-impaired patients from entering the West Bank. The cornea donations had to be discarded.According to the Physicians for Human Rights, “Because of this delay, the medical window of opportunity to perform the transplants for these patients was closed, because corneas can be transplanted only within the shortest time frame (24-48 hours after they are extracted from the donor’s body). The patients from Gaza whose exit was prevented will therefore have to wait for another donation, which may or may not happen.”

Due to the ongoing Israeli siege on Gaza, cornea replacement surgery is not available in the Gaza health system, which lacks many of the most basic medical supplies.

The main Musallam Medical Center in Ramallah received two deliveries from the US on January 3rd, with dozens of corneas donated by Tissue Bank International, an American organization that facilitates cornea and tissue transplants. Every year corneas are sent during Christmas break, during which such operations do not take place in the US, as a donation to the Palestinian health system, and dedicated especially to eye patients from Gaza. The Medical Center contacted their branch in Gaza to inform them that the corneas were ready, and the patients should cross into the West Bank to get their long-awaited surgeries.

The group of patients includes some who were waiting weeks or even months for cornea transplants. The longest wait was 31-year-old S.A., who has been waiting for this operation for three years.

The inquiry by the medical center in Ramallah raised the concern that the exit of the patients from Gaza was being prevented by the Israeli authorities, and accordingly PHR-Israel on Sunday made an urgent request to the DCO in Gaza, responsible for issuing exit permits to patients. In its appeal to the DCO, PHR warned that preventing the exit of the vision-impaired patients for eye operations this week will necessarily cause them to lose the opportunity for cornea transplants in the near future, if ever, because the corneas designated for the transplants have a very short expiration date.

Despite this request, the Israeli authorities prevented the exit of the 17 patients for the operation on time. Five patients were not given any answer; two patients were summoned to investigations by the General Security Service (GSS), scheduled for dates later than the cornea expiration dates; two requests were rejected; and eight requests were approved only after media intervention, but after the corneas had already expired.

According to the Physicians for Human Rights, this case, with its far-reaching consequences for the vision-impaired patients who now lost the opportunity to repair their eyesight, illustrates the many difficulties that face the residents of Gaza who need medical care that is not available in the Gaza Strip.

The group added that the delays, apathy and rejection by the Israeli authorities, which every month curtail the access of dozens of patients to medical care, had particularly severe significance in this case, because prevention of these patients’ exit from Gaza caused the loss of the corneas (which can be transplanted within no more than 48 hours from the moment of donation). Now the patients will have to wait for another cornea donation, at an unknown time and likelihood.