The Ties That Bind

Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees heals wounds and builds bridges

text by Ben Cramer
photographs by Peter Lemieux

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Two Palestinian students stood at the Surda checkpoint, a dry stretch of road just outside Ramallah. The Israeli Defense Forces were not letting any Palestinian vehicles through – not even ambulances – so hundreds of Palestinians walked the mile stretch on their way to school, shop or perhaps to visit a friend. Under a hot, Levant sun, it is not an easy walk for many, especially the elderly, disabled or sick. That was where Ziad Darwish and Mustafa Sabri came in. They rushed back and forth, pushing the infirm in wheelchairs. The students wore yellow vests, which are instantly recognizable by anyone who has spent time in the Occupied Territories. The vests are the signature of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC), a nongovernmental organization that plays a vital role in providing health care to Palestinians.

Providing health care in the territories has always been difficult, not just during periods of hostilities like today. First, there is a simple lack of funds. In 1993, the last year before responsibility for health care was handed over to the Palestinian Authority, Israel spent about $67 million on health care in the West Bank and Gaza. During the same period, Israel spent about $6.25 billion – almost 100 times more – on health care for its own citizens. (During this period, however, the Palestinians also received many millions of dollars for health care from other countries, international aid groups and other donors.) Today, Israel annually spends about $1,000 on health care for each citizen. Only $80 is spent annually on each Palestinian, with funding coming from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, international organizations and an assortment of NGO’s.

Much of the health care work falls to the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, which today serves more than 400 communities in the West Bank and Gaza. The union has provided health care to more than one million people, nearly one-third of the Palestinian population, said its president and co-founder, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti. “It’s the most important NGO in all of Palestine.” The union operates with a $5 million annual budget, securing funding from local and international donors, including Arab states, NGO’s and private citizens (CNEWA was among the first to support UPMRC). It also works closely with other NGO’s, including Israeli Physicians for Human Rights.

Since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, the task of providing health care in the territories has grown more difficult and more costly. Groups like the union are more vital than ever.

Dr. Barghouti, 50, is used to working long hours, but recently his schedule has grown more hectic than ever. In addition to running the union, he is the director of the Health, Development and Policy Institute, a Ramallah think tank. He is also running for president to succeed the late Yasser Arafat. (This article went to press before the 9 January election; Dr. Barghouti was not the favorite.)

Born in Jerusalem, Dr. Barghouti grew up in Ramallah. He knew he wanted to become a doctor since he was 12 years old. “I was a boy scout when the 1967 war broke out, and we were all taught first-aid care,” he said. “So, even at that early age, I was treating wounded Palestinians. It left a strong impression on me. I knew from that time on I wanted to be a doctor.”

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Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Second Intifada