It may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but one of the outcomes of the closure of Gaza is that toddlers with hearing impairments are less likely to receive the life-changing treatment that allows them a chance at hearing. It’s yet another side effect of movement restrictions, and particularly, the separation policy’s impact on civil society organizations operating in the Gaza Strip.
Organizations like Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children, Al-Amal for Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities and the Basma Audiology and Speech Therapy Center, all third-sector organizations in Gaza, help children with special needs. A key part of their activity focuses on toddlers with hearing impairments who have received a cochlear implant – an electronic hearing device implanted in the ear. Representatives of these organizations say travel restrictions deny them necessary training and professional development in order to provide services to the children.
The hearing device is connected to another device that needs to be programmed and updated using special equipment. The equipment is available in only three clinics in Gaza and only one of these is public. As a result, the waiting list for treatment is very long. Add to that the restrictions Israel imposes on the entry of spare parts and batteries for the implants, particularly items received as donations from oversees organizations, and the result is weeks or sometimes months-long shortages that put implants out of commission.
The implant, which allows children to hear for the first time in their lives, is inserted under the skull in a complicated surgery that lasts about three hours, followed by weeks of recuperation. After recovery, the external part of the device, a tiny microphone that works as a digital sound processer, is attached to the back of the ear. Gaza is short on doctors who specialize in this complex surgery.
Once recuperation is complete, children undergo a six-month treatment to develop and practice speech and language skills together with family members. It is important to note that treatment is most successful when offered at a very young age, meaning there is no time to waste to ensure access to competent specialists and functioning equipment.
Though the field of speech therapy in Gaza is well-developed with competent specialists, there are still insufficient resources to help support children undergoing this unique rehabilitation process. Gaza NGO staff say Gaza also lacks experts who can supply technical support for repairs to equipment and the implants themselves. It is also difficult to acquire the equipment needed to program the computer that controls the mechanism.
One way to grapple with the lack of experts, the organizations say, is to have their own staff members undergo training by professionals in the West Bank or abroad. Yet, these staff members are unable to obtain permits to exit Gaza due to the severe travel restrictions imposed by Israel. Experts from the West Bank who have been invited to provide training in Gaza have not been given permits to enter. The ongoing closure of Rafah also makes it difficult for professionals to enter the Strip or for organization staff to travel out.
In a report published early this year, entitled Split Apart, Gisha examined the challenges faced by dozens of civil society organizations in Gaza as a result of travel restrictions, which further isolate Gaza from the West Bank and the rest of the world and make it difficult for civil society organizations to advance their goals and effect change in the Palestinian territory as a whole. Staff members at the organizations shared that restrictions on travel harm resource development efforts for projects that the organization wishes to promote, because of the difficulties they have meeting with potential donors either inside or outside Gaza.
What does Israel stand to gain, from a security perspective or otherwise, from drying out support for organizations that provide humanitarian services to people with special needs? What benefit does Israel gain by preventing Atfaluna staff from developing their professional skills in a field like restoring hearing for toddlers?
Gisha calls for the recognition of the needs of civil society organizations in the Gaza Strip and for allowing the organizations the freedom of movement they need to advance the well-being and protect the fundamental rights of the people they serve.