VIDEO: Is Biden’s visit to a hospital in East Jerusalem about health or politics?
Augusta Victoria is a crossroads of life and death for the residents of East Jerusalem and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza
JERUSALEM—Few would have thought that a hospital could be the source of so much controversy.
But when President Joe Biden’s entourage makes its way to Augusta Victoria Hospital – in the Arab-majority section of the city and without any Israeli officials – he will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit East Jerusalem in an official capacity.
From a political standpoint, Israelis see this as an overture toward Palestinians who want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
This particular visit by an American president comes with a very high price tag: Biden is planning to announce $100 million in funding to Palestinian hospitals in Jerusalem.
“It’s a genuine gesture and a nice gesture both on the hospital issue and reversing some of Trump’s weird decisions. But does it mean the U.S. will recognize East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital? I don’t think so,” Daoud Kuttab told ALL ARAB NEWS.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump cut off funding to East Jerusalem hospitals that served mainly Palestinians.
Politics aside – if that is possible – Augusta Victoria represents more than a political pawn. The hospital is a crossroads of life and death for the residents of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza with advanced medical issues.
But Ghada Majadle, director of the Occupied Territories Department at Physicians for Human Rights Israel, says that the money may help the hospital – but it will have little impact on the Palestinian people.
“Humanitarian assistance does not really impact the health of Palestinians and I’m not sure how much is significant for the hospitals. It is nice for now because they have so many debts, but the situation is unsustainable,” she told ALL ARAB NEWS.
Situated on the Mount of Olives, Augusta Victoria provides medical services not available in the West Bank and Gaza such as chemotherapy, transplants, dialysis, cardiac care and other critical specialties.
But because getting to the hospital involves crossing a checkpoint – a de facto border between Israel and Palestinian territories – Palestinians must apply to get treatment there, first from a Palestinian health committee and then from the Israeli military for a permit to cross the border.
Billboard in Bethlehem ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to the city
(Photo: Paul Calvert)
It can take a month – sometimes more – to get the appointment sorted out and some applications are rejected by either side. Majadle said 40% of the people who apply for a permit from the Gaza Strip are rejected by the Israel Defense Forces.
“Israel is controlling too many aspects of Palestinian lives – the movement of patients, the movement of medical staff, the movement of medical devices,” she said. “As long as Israeli controls continues and occupation continues we can’t talk about solutions that make it possible for Palestinians’ right to health care. We have to build a system that is not dependent on Israel.”
While this represents a general complaint from Palestinians, Israel contends it is not so simple and not always its fault. Dr. Michel Thieren, WHO Special Representative to Israel and the Special Advisor of WHO Europe on COVID-19, has told ALL ISRAEL NEWS in the past that “there is no such thing as patients being refused on medical grounds. …There are plenty of cases referred from the West Bank and Gaza to Israel hospitals.”
Thieren said that delays are often from the Palestinian side and that, sometimes, situations are complicated by finances.
In addition to Augusta Victoria, Al-Makassed Islamic Charitable Society Hospital and Saint Joseph make up a network of East Jerusalem hospitals that primarily serve Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem residents. Saint Joseph – a premier natural birthing hospital run by nuns – also attracts many Jewish women who opt to deliver their babies there.
In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump redirected $25 million earmarked for East Jerusalem hospitals and, as the State Department said, “those funds will go to high-priority projects elsewhere.”
At the time, Al-Makassed CEO Dr. Bassam Abu Libdeh “questioned the justification behind mixing political issues with medical and humanitarian issues.”
The hospital further said the cut in aid comes as the “hospital is going through a suffocating crisis as a result of the lack of flow of financial aid, and the piling up of debts and funds held back by the Palestinian government.”
Now Biden is working to restore the American funding. Not only will the U.S. give $100 million, office have asked the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to match this. So far, the UAE pledged $25 million to al-Makassed Hospital, the kingdom announced.
When asked whether it would be more convenient to build a hospital of a similar caliber in the West Bank or Gaza, Majadle said there are enough hospitals.
“What is needed is to strengthen the capacity of these hospitals and one of the challenges is that you don’t have enough expertise in Gaza,” she said adding that shortages in medical devices and chemotherapy treatment also impede the ability to progress.
Augusta Victoria is a program of the Lutheran World Federated Department for World Service in Jerusalem. The compound itself was built in the early 1900s. It was named after Augusta Victoria, the wife of Kaiser Wilhelm II, when it was inaugurated on April 9, 1910.
Designed as a guest house for German pilgrims, the building in 2014 “became the headquarters for the Turkish military and in 1917 it was taken over by General Allenby as the headquarters for the British army,” according to the hospital’s website. Later it was used for “rest and relaxation” for British soldiers during the British Mandate period.
After the establishment of the State of Israel, Augusta Victoria partnered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to provide food, shelter and medical care for Palestinians. It evolved into the first hospital on that side of the border.
This area of the city was under Jordanian rule from 1948 until Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967 and gained control over the entire city. The hospital though has remained Palestinian.
The church tower is one of the three iconic spires that dominate the Mount of Olives skyline in the east along with the tower of Hebrew University/Hadassah Mount Scopus Hospital and the Chapel of the Ascension.