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UK medics go on hunger strike after being refused entry into Gaza

Haroon Siddique | The Guardian

19 May 2009

Three British medics began a hunger strike in Egypt today to protest against being refused entry into Gaza for a humanitarian mission.

Their aim is to establish a cardiac surgery unit at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, which currently has no such facility, and to help train medical students and junior doctors there. But the British medics have been denied access to the Palestinian territory at the Rafah crossing since the beginning of May.

Omar Mangoush, a cardiac surgeon at Hammersmith hospital, in London, told guardian.co.uk he had been to the crossing with his colleagues every day since arriving in Egypt on 4 May, only to be told they did not have permission to enter.

“We are on hunger strike until they let us through,” he said. “We’ll stay [at the crossing] until they let us in. We want to put pressure on the British embassy. We believe if the British embassy wanted us to do this they could exert pressure [on the Egyptian authorities].”

Mangoush said he had been told by the British embassy that it had received a letter from the Egyptian foreign ministry saying the medics’ request for access to Gaza had been “postponed”.

But he claimed American aid workers had gained entry to Gaza at their first attempt with the support of the US embassy.

Mangoush named the other British medics on hunger strike as Christopher Burns-Cox, a retired consultant, and Kirsty Wong, a nurse at Hammersmith hospital. Another six people are on hunger strike, including three Belgians, he said.

The cardiac surgeon took a month’s holiday from work to take part in the mission for the Manchester-based charity Palestine International Medical Aid (PIMA)

“This is very important for us,” he said. “There are loads of people with heart disease [in Gaza]. They can’t get here [to Egypt], they can’t get to Israel. If it’s this hard for us to get to, how difficult is it for the Palestinians to get out?”

PIMA’s director, Dr Ahmed Almari, said: “It’s unbelievable. They’re a group of doctors, they went for education and teaching, to set up a cardiac unit. It’s unfair and sad that it is only as a result of a hunger strike that anybody pays attention. There’s no reason to stop them from crossing.”

Egypt has kept the Rafah crossing largely closed since Hamas won the Gaza elections three years ago. One of the main demands of Hamas has been that all crossings into Gaza should be allowed to reopen permanently. A number of aid groups have said the closure of the crossings is contributing to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Palestinian medical sources reported today that a one-year-old infant died yesterday at a local hospital in Rafah owing to several complications, including pneumonia, as his transfer to a hospital outside of the Gaza Strip was not possible due to the ongoing Israeli siege.