Gaza City, Four years ago, 174 vehicles modified to fit the physically disabled people entered with international humanitarian convoys designed to ease the impact of the Israeli and Egyptian siege imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007.
These vehicles, however, never reached the target group: at least 20,000 physically-handicapped Palestinians, most of them home-bound, or in rehabilitation centres because of a shortage in reformatted cars for the disabled and a public transportation system that is not friendly to their special mobility needs.
Instead, most of these vehicles were stripped of their special modifications and sold to the public with tacit approval from ministries in charge of licensing vehicles and monitoring charities caring for the disabled.
Or, they simply ended up among the fleet of municipalities and ministries at the service of public servants who are unable to drive around comfortably because of the embargo that has banned the import of regular passenger cars and vehicles. The ban has excluded cars for the disabled and ambulances.
Abdul Karim Al Jarnawi, a student who has been partially paralysed since 2006 needs four hours (back and forth) to cover a distance of 12 kilometres, four times a week, in order to make it to his college in Gaza where he studies accounting.
Had there been a car equipped to take the physically handicapped or a taxi capable of taking him and his wheelchairs, his quality of life would have improved.
To go to college in the Nuseirat camp, where he lives, Abdul Karim, 23, drives his electric wheelchair and pushes behind him his regular wheelchair to manoeuvre on the dirt roads from his home to the car park and then to his classes.
His anguish intensifies further when he sees cars for the disabled bearing the “for sale” sign parked in front of societies caring for Palestinians with special needs
His suffering mirrors that of many physically handicapped, since most of the cars for the disabled that have entered the Gaza Strip since 2007 were either sold to individuals after they were “stripped” from their loading and unloading mechanisms or taken by official corporations with ministerial approval.
This transfer/sale is facilitated by the corporation in charge of distributing the cars due to several loopholes in the Palestinian law for the disabled of 1999 and the 2000 Welfare Societies Act.
The Department of Statistics says in its 2012 report that 89.9% of around 40,000 Palestinians with special needs have long complained of lack of special transportation vehicles. Seventy five per cent of them cannot use public transport.
Worse, some of those in need of transport are victims of Israel’s bombing of the Strip in 2008 and those who were injured in fighting between Fatah and Hamas.
The physically handicapped over 18 years of age do not use public transport according to proportional distribution for several reasons:
Source: Palestinian Statistics Department
Based on interviews carried out with officials, this reporter has traced 174 cars for the handicapped that were brought into the Strip on board three humanitarian convoys including “Miles of Smiles” on June 14, 2012 and “Loyalty” on December 17, 2012.
She followed ten of those cars that are roaming the streets of Gaza carrying out other services than what they were originally intended for.
Their license plates bore the following numbers:
(3-3622-10) (3-0041-09) (3-0409-09)(3-0414-50) (3-0387-09) (3-0229-50)(3-0227-50) (3-0392-50) (3-4744-10) (3-1236-50)
Two of these cars: (3-0229-50) and (3-0227-50) are used by the Ministry of Education officials though the ministry denies these charges and says they are carrying students from AnNoor Society for the Blind (governmental).
The Civil Defence Department is another place that has taken some of these cars. Two specialized vehicles have ended up there but since they were not useful they will exchange them soon, says an official who requested anonymity.
Next to the Civil Defence Department building, this reporter spotted a hydro-electric lever that is normally used to lift the disabled into the car. It stood there in a corner, rusty and covered with dust.
The family of Amir Anan, 20, who suffers from muscular atrophy, had petitioned to buy this lever and install it on one of their cars. But the Civil Defence Department told replied that they did not have authorization to sell it.
This investigative reporter visited a number of societies for the disabled who have sold specialized vehicles or gotten rid of some of their parts because they did not have the budget to operate them.
The $7000 electric lift attached to the vehicles, a mechanism which lowers to the ground and carries the handicapped person into the car and known locally as the “jack”, is sold as scrap metal for 4000 Shekels ($1000).
The General Federation for the Handicapped and the governorate of Al Wusta are two organizations that have gotten rid of these fittings due to high cost of maintenance and petrol as well as the salary of the driver.
Where do the cars go?
The Ministries of Transport and Interior also distributed a number of vehicles for the physically challenged to governmental institutions after readjusting their special features turning them into cars “for normal usage”. Ironically, the same ministries have also provided societies for the physically handicapped with specialized vehicles to carry those with mobility difficulties. But some were sold later to traders after removing the “jack”.
Fadel Shobaki, 29, explained to this reporter how he got hold of a vehicle for the disabled. “While passing nearby one of the societies I noticed a vehicle that had been left aside that was in pretty bad condition. My brother managed to purchase it for $7000 two years ago. We fixed it up and now use it to carry supplies to grocery stores. Because of its interior width I can carry large amount of supplies.”
The reporter contacted Abu Al Mu’tasem, 45, who owns a vehicle that once was fitted for use by the disabled. He bought it in 2012 from one of the central governorates and then converted it into a bus for students because of its size.
He says: “When I bought the vehicle it was licensed to carry six passengers. I changed the body and added some more chairs and got approval to use it from the Ministry of Transport.”
A governorate source who asked to remain anonymous says: “this vehicle was given to the governorate by the ministry on condition the “jack” is handed over to the Ministry of Transport.
In order to sell it, the governorate obtained a “sale permit” from the Ministry of Interior in Gaza in line with a law that stipulates that sale of vehicles is permitted to individuals or corporations if a convincing reason is provided.
“After one year of using it to transport employees and for carrying out orders we decided to sell the car because it was of no use to us neither in size or capacity; we wanted to buy a better vehicle” says a source at the ministry.
Awni Mattar, President of the General Federation for the Physically Handicapped says that as a high-ranking official in one of the biggest societies for the physically challenged he received a vehicle from the Ministry of Transport that had been stripped of its “jack and gear”.
He says in an interview that he had to put the vehicle up for sale because it became a burden on the federation because the maintenance bill and the salary of the driver cost over 3000 Shekels a month. To sell it, he put in a request with the Minister of Transport, with the approval pending.
How the deals are done?
This investigation has concluded that the Ministries of the Interior and Transport make it a point of changing the shape of these vehicles that are given as donations from outside parties and then sold in the market or distributed to government corporations to transfer employees. Societies for the disabled also sell such cars despite their humanitarian mission. They use the cost of running the machinery as an excuse, which in the end deprives those in need of such vehicles for transport.
The Interior Ministry holds the Transport Ministry responsible for these specialized vehicles and for making sure that all the necessary equipment is available. However, the Ministry of Transport only accepts responsibility for the supervision of the societies and says this does not include the use of the vehicles. The Ministry of Social Affairs claims that the problem is due to a legal loophole that allows both ministries to allow societies to carry out “unsupervised” projects.
Thareef Al Gurra, the official in charge of the disabled affairs at the Youth Initiatives Centre says: “Societies find these cars a burden so they petition for sale permits at the Interior Ministry which turn does not know the importance of these vehicles. Since the societies usually approve the sale and a notice is placed in the newspapers to that effect, approval is usually given.”
The “Interior”: No penalty for violations
The responsibility for this crisis is shared by the Ministries of Interior and Transport. However the bigger share falls on the shoulders of the Interior Ministry as it is the party in charge of licensing these societies. The vehicles, which belong to the societies, are registered with the ministry and it is also responsible for overseeing the finances and administration of these charities.
According to Al Gurra, the Ministry of Transport has limited authority, as it is only responsible for car licensing or waiving the taxes on imports.
Tharwat Albeyk, in charge of the affairs of non-governmental organization at the Ministry of Interior, says there have been no sentences in the past five years in response to violations concerning car sales by societies.
Sales are usually done with permission from the ministry.
The Charitable Societies and National Organizations Law No. (1) issued in 2000 stipulates that the “concerned ministry” is the Ministry of Interior Affairs. Therefore it is responsible for penalising the societies should any of them violate the law.
According to Albeyk societies have to request a sale permit from the ministry for any item they wish to sell. If the donor stipulates that a vehicle is to be used for transporting the disabled and the society violates that agreement, then it has to answer to the ministry. However, this reporter has established that the ministry has not taken legal action against any of these charities that have violated the law. And the district’s attorney office has not investigated any wrong doing.
“Justice” throws the balls in the “Interior’s” court
Sha’ban Al Mubeid, in charge of legal assistance at the Ministry of Justice, blames the Interior Ministry for this and says it is the party responsible for forcing societies to use cars for the disabled in the rightful manner.
“The sale of those vehicles for the handicapped is usually carried out with the approval of the board of the societies and the Ministry of the Interior. However if it comes to light that this permission was not sought, the violation has to be penalized and the society is given three months to rectify the situation. If this is not done the society is then disbanded or the concerned party who carried out the sale is punished.”
Al Mubeid confirms that there is no law enforcing mechanisms to correct the usage of these cars as the law only covers the illegal sale of vehicles in Gaza.
This, he says, is a “misdemeanour” punishable by anything between a week and three years in prison. In some cases the two parties might agree both on the sale and on keeping the vehicle registration under the name of the society. In such a case both sides have acted with “malicious intent”.
Hasan Ukasha, Director of Technical Affairs at the Ministry of Transport who is in charge of giving approval to changing the body of the vehicles, denies that the ministry participated in converting cars and removing their “jacks” before giving them to ministries for use by their staff. He says societies themselves have taken part in removing the “jacks” from cars for the disabled.
“We are happy to receive requests from corporation wishing to convert vehicles and adapt them for the physically challenged, but not the reverse”, he explains.
A gap between “Social Affairs” and the Societies
In accordance with the Palestinian Societies Act, the responsibility for administering and overseeing the work of these charitable societies lies with the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Osama Sharaf, the former director-general of the societies at the Ministry of Social Affairs acknowledges the existence of a gap between the societies and the ministry and says these societies were allowed prior to the 2007 division between Gaza and the West Bank to operate without ministry supervision. Citing an example, he says: “when a society receives a car from a donor we only know about it when a request for customs clearance is submitted.”
“In cases when we are informed of special vehicles being dismantled and sold, the Social Affairs Ministry refers the matter to the Ministry of the Interior for follow-up”.
AsSalamah Al Khayriyah, a charitable society, is among many in dire need of specialised vehicles both for the physically challenged and the wounded. It has on its list 12,000 injured Palestinians, 750 of them physically handicapped. Of the total number, 1200 patients need to consult a doctor or pay a visit to a clinic or physiotherapist on a regular basis.
Public relations officer at the society Abdullah Al Hajjar complains that they only own one specially-fitted vehicle serving the Gaza area and the North that was provided by the “Miles of Smiles” convoy four years ago.
Al Hajjar talks of the anger of these patients for being unable to receive regular treatment due to transportation shortages. Many need to be moved on electric wheel chair and stretchers. “In some instances we have had to hire people to carry patients on their shoulders so they can get into regular passenger cars and this is very harmful to their health”.
Muneer Al Meenawi, 49, one of the registered patients at this society is in need of a vehicle to take him to hospital three times a week. But now, he can only go to hospital once a week. He suffers from partial paralysis as a result of an accident in 2007 and has since then been been hiring cars at his own expense. “Sitting in a vehicle that is not specially designed for my condition hurts me and I have often had to deal with convulsions and muscle contractions. No one has the patience to deal with this and the driver often urges me to move and this embarrasses me”.
“Worse is when the driver refused to take me in his car”.
Noor Ghanem, 16, who is a paraplegic, has not been able to attend classes at her school for the last two years because she cannot find a special vehicle to carry her along with her electric wheel chair. Her father who carried her for nine years has been unable to do so since he suffered from a slipped disc.
Coming out of the bottleneck
In order to find a solution for this crisis, Thareef Al Gurra, an expert on the disabled, calls for identifying one government institution and asking it to assume responsibility for this bleeding file instead of having the responsibility split among several ministries.
He says the biggest problem for these societies lies in the fact that the Palestinian Disability Law does not force the government to have public transport vehicles with special fittings for the physically disabled. This continues despite a clause in the Transport Ministry law that says the latter shall work on creating a suitable environment to help the physically handicapped and provide special reductions in the cost of public transport for them and their companions.
Hasan Ukasha, Director of Technical Affairs at the Ministry of Transport says there are “ambiguities in the philosophies” applied by institutions taking care of the physically challenged. They do not use the equipment provided for their assistance. And there is negligence in the use of these cars.
He also says that the institutions for the disabled and the various ministries – Social Affairs, Transport and Interior – should combine their efforts to create public transport system for the physically challenged.
Meanwhile, cars for the disabled are being converted and thousands of physically handicapped remain prisoners of their homes and rehabilitation centres.
Amir Anan, 20, who suffers from muscular atrophy, and his family have been forced to spend $8000 to convert a regular car to a vehicle so he can obtain a diploma in multimedia from a local university.
And if the car breaks down, Amir, who has become famous for being the first person to work in 3-D technology in Gaza, has to wait for more than two hours to get a taxi that can barely take him and his electric wheel chair to the university.
This report was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ)