Enduring Life Under Occupation To Provide Cancer Prevention For Marginalized Palestinian Women

Imagine a four-hour daily commute to work. Imagine that the bus you take stops at multiple points–all passengers forced out, lined up by the roadside, questioned, padded down, bags and possessions searched, ID cards and work permits checked before allowed back on the bus which is thoroughly searched inside, out and under.

This is what the 28-year-old Palestinian breast cancer screening specialist, Elham Edaes faces daily because she is committed to providing cancer prevention screening to poverty-stricken, marginalized Palestinian women living in remote villages lacking access to water, electricity, healthcare clinics, and basic human rights.

Edaes and her husband, Amer El Fararjah (who has a law degree) are graduates of Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University–the world’s only university by a separation wall. The couple has come to terms with Amer’s travel restrictions since he served an eight-year prison term for anti-occupation activities following the death of his brother. They live in Bethlehem’s Area A with their five-year-old son Majd–six miles south of the Old City of Jerusalem within the West Bank.

Since 2015, Edaes has worked at Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria Hospital (AVH) mobile mammography clinic. A program of Lutheran World Federated Department for World Service, in partnership with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), AVH opened in 1948 after the Arab-Israeli war to care for Palestinian refugees.

Since 2009, the hospital’s free mobile mammography clinic has brought cancer-screening, curative services to Palestine’s rural villages, refugee camps and underserved areas. Since last year nearly 2,800 Palestinian women were screened and over 8,600 trained to perform breast self-exams. Edaes, initially barred from entering Israeli territories, has a special “despite the ban” permit from her hospital to continue providing critical healthcare services.

Palestinian Women’s Right To Healthcare

“It’s the basic human and healthcare right of every Palestinian woman to have access to healthcare and life-saving tests and preventions. By raising awareness and providing preventive resources, we can reduce rising breast cancer rates among the Palestinian women,” Edaes explains the impetus for the mobile clinic was countless Palestinian women from remote villages checking into the hospital with stage three and four breast cancers. Breast cancer remains as the highest cause of cancer deaths among Palestinian women.

Less than 20 hospitals and a handful of mammography centers serve the five-million Palestinian population in the West Bank. There are over 56,000 Covid-19 cases in the occupied Palestinian Territories confirmed by WHO. Edaes doesn’t want the pandemic to sidetrack critical healthcare issues and considers the mobile clinic a lifeline for the marginalized Palestinian population whose low education and high poverty levels are compounded with a lack of access to basic resources.

The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem, reports 200,000 Palestinians across 218 West Bank villages are “not connected to a water network” and lack “basic hygiene, house cleaning and using the toilet–and as a result, face significant health risks.”

The mobile clinic staff––Edaes and fellow x-ray technician, a nurse and the driver–take preventive measures before patients enter the mobile clinic one at a time. The staff also educates village residents, facing water and soap shortages, pandemic prevention measures.

In August, Edaes was diagnosed as a Covid-19 carrier–and unaware that she may have passed it on to her husband, son, their niece and nephew. They all recovered without major adverse reactions–Edaes contributes it to their “good immune system.” She returned to work after her PCR tests were negative.

Realities Of Life Under Israeli Occupation

The snippets of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict across mainstream TV screens fail to humanize the realities of Palestinians’ daily life under occupation.

“An occupation is an occupation! It means that Israeli soldiers can suddenly gather us, arrest us, or break into our homes. They are aggressive–it doesn’t matter if you’re a man, a woman or a child,” Edaes and her family live in a large building under the Palestinian Authority control. “In-spite of our water well, water is available every 21 days. Sometimes we have to buy water from others to survive.”

Based on a 1967 Israeli authorities Military Order 158, Palestinians cannot construct any new water installation without a permit from the Israeli army. Amnesty reports permits are “nearly impossible.” Villagers storing rainwater on rooftop tanks are often victims of Israeli soldiers target shooting their tanks.

B’Tselem reports that the average Israeli consumes “six times as much water as the average West Bank Palestinian resident.” All water projects–even those in Area A–require “consent of Israel’s representatives on the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee.”

In his recent article Abraham Accords: The War Pact Among Jim Crow States of the Middle East, Founder and chief editor of Informed Comment, Juan Cole explains Israel’s further encroachment onto Palestinian “land, property and human rights” while forging contracts with  such human rights violators as the UAE and Bahrain–UN has accused the UAE of “war crimes in Yemen.”

“Ordinarily in diplomatic affairs some countries are afraid to get too close to Israel for fear of being tainted by its Jim Crow policies toward Palestinians. But in this case, it is surely Israel that has taken the hit in its reputation for cozying up to these ruthless regimes,” Cole says.

Because I am a man Campaign

During the lock-down Edaes and her husband joined online gender trainings as part of the UN Women’s Because I am a man public awareness and behavioral changes campaign aimed at heightening “the importance of men’s roles in caregiving and working towards achieving gender equality.” Across Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Palestine the campaign aims for changes in legislative policy and social norms to establish gender equitable societies. 

“The trainings definitely helped Amer to be more supportive of me–and of all women. His views have changed,” Edaes explains Amer now shares in all the domestic chores. “Before the training he helped Majd get dressed and get ready for school but never cooked. Now he shares in cooking and cleaning without being ashamed.”

Amer, a youth development trainer at Al Ofoq NGO in Ramallah–a UN Women Palestine supported community-based organizations (CBO)–offers Edaes ideas on how to work with the women and has involved her in gender-based lectures at Al Ofoq. Edaes is empowered by Amer’s support for her career, which she genuinely loves.

“The campaign focuses on positive masculinity and sharing household responsibilities with an emphasis on fatherhood as an entry point to change behaviors towards a more gender equitable society,” explains Ola Tanani, Campaign Leader for ‘Because I am a Man’ Campaign and Communications Specialist for the UN Women Men and Women for Gender Equality Regional Programme.

Lots, Lots of Dreams For Palestine

The gender behavioral shift has set examples for the extended family members. Edaes’ father-in-law and father now support and share in domestic chores, as does her brother, who now serves food when they visit his family. Less overwhelmed with full domestic responsibilities allows couples to focus on their careers.

“You change the community when you instill behavioral changes within children who may be diluted with cultural norms,” Edaes is happy Majd has never been teased about his father doing house chores or getting him fed and home-schooled.

Committed to gender equity, her healthcare career, and raising their son, Edaes has lots of hopes and dreams for Palestine’s future. 

“I wish for no killings and arrests…it’s a dream! I hope to wake up one day to see no occupation. I hope I can someday go to the beach–we have a beautiful sea, but we can’t see it. I hope to have fun entertaining places–to have a normal life,” Edaes’ dreams and hopes are for unlimited women’s rights, a gender equitable environment to work and live in, and greater healthcare rights for women. “I want to provide healthcare for lots of women–Palestinian women deserve healthcare services–this makes living through all the daily difficulties totally worth it. I have lots and lots of dreams.”

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