NABLUS, WEST BANK // On a hill overlooking Nablus's city centre, work on the UAE-funded Sheikha Salama bint Butti Hospital has finally resumed. For three years, the building lay empty after the Palestinian committee charged with overseeing the project was dismantled.
However, according to Dr Rami Hamdallah, the president of Al Najah National University, the delay could yet turn out to be good fortune for the West Bank's next generation of doctors. "We were looking for land to build a teaching hospital, so the government stepped in to see whether we could use the buildings for that purpose," he said. So started the process under which the site was transferred to the university, which through funding from the UAE is hoping to make the five-storey building, named after the late Sheikh Zayed's mother, into a state of the art teaching hospital.
Currently Nablus's 135,000 people are served by the 100-year-old Al Watani Hospital in the city centre. The new hospital, which Dr Hamdallah said was "vital", is to have two main functions: first, to take over from Al Watani; and second, as the first fully fledged teaching hospital in the West Bank. It will be a major referral centre for the entire West Bank. "It will cover the needs for the West Bank for the next 10 to 15 years, so this is how important it is," said Dr Anwar Dudin, dean of the faculty of medicine. "There will be two major impacts on health in the northern West Bank. Firstly it will produce high quality, specialist students and also it will reshape the relation between all health structures and play a role in implementing standards."
The large sand-coloured structure looms over a green-domed mosque on the opposite side of what is now a dirt track but soon will be a paved road, winding up from the town below. The site is only 500 metres away from one of the six main Israeli military checkpoints controlling access to the city. Known as Checkpoint 17, it was reopened only three months ago after several years. Its closing turned the five-minute journey from outlying villages into Nablus into a long trek across the hilly terrain.
The Sheikha Salama building was empty for three years. Over the past couple of months, workers have returned to the site. The floors are being tiled and the ceilings fitted as lifts are installed. The Sheikha Salama block is also known as Building A. Next door, Building B was constructed through Kuwaiti funding. The C wing is still in the planning phase and will link the two buildings, with the hope of transforming the complex into one of the largest hospitals in the West Bank.
"We hope this hospital will benefit all people here in Nablus and in Palestine," said Mohammed Ruzzeh, the chief project engineer. "We hope within four years the whole hospital will be completed." Although work is ongoing, the building still needs equipment and beds to complete its transformation into a teaching hospital, specialising in such areas as ophthalmology. The Red Crescent Authority is expected to provide about US$2 million of the US$9 million (Dh33m) needed.
"We hope that in the next few months we will be able to operate these buildings, which we hope will serve not just Nablus but the whole of Palestine," Dr Hamdallah said. "For the UAE it is very important to have the building named after the mother of the late Sheikh Zayed and I hope that a UAE delegation will come when it opens." However, while the Sheikha Salama building starts to take shape, Building B remains a shell. More money is needed to complete what is planned to be the first Palestinian cardiology ward, along with a lung centre.
Currently people with major heart and lung conditions have to be transferred to Jordan or Egypt, Dr Hamdallah said. "It costs the government US$70 million every year to transfer people outside," he said. "We hope to minimise these expenses." There are more than 18,000 students at Al Najah National University. Among them are 22 medical students, half of whom are women, who will graduate this academic year as the university's first doctors. Dr Dudin is working to increase that number to between 60 and 80 in the next five years.
"Despite the political turmoil, we have per year nearly 250,000 newcomers because of our very high birth rate," he said. "If we want to maintain and develop health standards, we have to graduate in all medical schools in Palestine 300 doctors every year. The new hospital will cover important services for the public health sector." After it opened in 1999, Al Najah's medical school became one of only three in the Palestinian territories. Today it is the largest, with about 300 students. Only 40 to 50 students are accepted each year to the tough programme and only about half make it into the second year.