FEATURE - Israeli surgeons repair young Palestinian heartsBy Allyn Fisher-Ilan
HOLON, Israel (Reuters) - Her lower lip quivering with every breath, Hala Ketnani, a 10-month-old girl from Gaza, sleeps beneath an oxygen hood in an Israeli intensive care unit as she recovers from heart surgery.
She had been unable to have the operation in Gaza, where many hospitals are suffering from worsening conditions since a Western aid embargo was imposed this year to pressure a Hamas-led Palestinian government to recognise Israel.
More than 1,000 children, about half from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, have been helped so far by the programme, which is partly funded by the European Union.
"I'm so happy to see the colour returning to Hala's cheeks," said the baby's grandmother, Raisa Ketnani, 65, clasping her hands together in a prayer-like pose. "I am very thankful."
Israeli soldiers and settlers quit Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year military occupation, but a substantial number of Palestinians in the territory still rely on either Israel or neighbouring Egypt for humanitarian needs such as medicine.
The need has risen in the past year with a drop in medical care levels in Gaza and the West Bank since Hamas, an Islamist group, took office after a January election and Western nations cut off direct funds to the Palestinian Authority.
Though it generally denies entry to Palestinians since they began an uprising in 2000, Israel says it eases the restrictions when it comes to medical care.
Shlomo Dror, an Israeli Defence Ministry spokesman, said about 1,000 Palestinians per month receive medical treatment in Israel, up from 600 in recent years.
Entry permits for children in need of medical attention in Israel are usually approved in a matter of days, although adults are subject to security screening, Dror says.
But Hala's grandmother, who accompanied the infant from Gaza, said she had brought her granddaughter after the baby's mother was denied a permit to enter Israel.
Dror had no immediate comment on that case. He said if a sick child's parent poses a security problem, Israeli authorities allow another relative to serve as an escort.
Israel has stepped up the screening since a recent suicide bombing at a Gaza checkpoint by a woman who had sought medical care in Israel, and a bomb found on another woman, Dror said.
Uriel Katz, an Israeli cardiologist, said Hala suffered from a ventricular septal defect -- a hole between the left and right ventricles of the heart.
Plugging up the gap involved a procedure Katz said was "like mending a torn sock". Her recovery has been rapid, and the child will probably return home in a few days.
Over the past year, "Save a Child's Heart" has treated more than 100 children from Gaza and the West Bank, and hundreds from elsewhere in the region, including a growing number from Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Founded in 1995 by the late U.S.-born cardiologist, Amram Cohen, the programme has expanded to include training for Palestinians and other doctors in paediatric cardiac surgery.
"We believe every child deserves the best possible medical care that he can get," said the director, Simon Fisher.
Medicine, he said, is a logical common denominator to help bridge differences between Israelis and Palestinians.
"They are our neighbours whether we like it or not, whether we have a political issue or not. We live side by side, share the same destiny of the Middle East," Fisher said.
Copyright © 2006 Reuters