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In Gaza, 'American hospital' fuels suspicions

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Erez (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Volunteers with a US Christian charity group pose for a selfie in front of tents and crates of equipment to build a contentious new field hospital on the Israel-Gaza border.

The facility, to be located right next to a crossing into Israel, has rare joint support from the Jewish state and Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas as part of an informal truce deal.

But its existence, and the way it has been advertised by the US non-government group running it, is fuelling suspicions and rumours among some Palestinians.

Nicknamed the "American hospital" by Palestinians, it is funded by the evangelical Friend Ships organisation based in the US state of Louisiana.

Pictures posted on the Christian group's Facebook page show young volunteers in dark t-shirts hammering pegs into the ground and erecting a row of tents.

The dusty 10-acre (four hectare) site is right next to the Erez Israel-Gaza crossing, making access possible from both sides -- though likely only with Israeli permission.

The charity website said the hospital would offer telemedicine for remote consultations with specialists worldwide. It could later include cancer care as well as less conventional offers, including treatments that involve horse-riding.

The medical camp would be staffed heavily by volunteers after they have received 12 weeks training, it said, urging Christians to sign up.

"We will offer services to the public four days a week," the website said -- promising that on their days off volunteers can also enjoy cultural experiences.

"For those who would like to tour, you will have the option of making your own arrangements to spend three days on your own, experiencing Israel."

A post on Facebook by the group said volunteers would learn about the region and "become part of what God is doing there today".

The organisation, which previously operated a tent hospital on the Israeli side of its disputed border with Syria, did not respond to a request for comment and AFP was not permitted to visit.

The timeline for opening was unclear.

COGAT, the Israeli body responsible for coordinating access to Gaza, said the hospital was "not connected to Israel".

- 'Not needed' -

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.

Hamas does not recognise Israel's right to exist, while Israel's new defence minister, Naftali Bennett, has pledged a hard line.

Yet the hospital is indicative of a thawing after a longer-term truce was brokered this year by Qatar, the United Nations and others.

Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel for a decade, suffers crippling energy shortages and high poverty.

Its medical sector is overstretched, with hospitals chronically short of drugs and others goods, many of which are restricted by Israel.

If successful, the new tent hospital could provide an alternative for those in need, while its close proximity to Israel would assuage the Jewish state's fears over imports being syphoned off by Hamas.

Khalil al-Hayya, Hamas's deputy head in Gaza, told journalists in a recent briefing they would "evaluate the work of the hospital and its services to the public".

"If it is not the required level we will work to close it," he warned.

An official at the Hamas-run health ministry insisted they would oversee the facility, for which the first equipment was imported in September.

But multiple aid sources said there had been little coordination with the United Nations or the international humanitarian agencies which work in Gaza.

A humanitarian aid staffer who worked in Gaza pointed out the location was only a few minutes drive from two Palestinian hospitals inside the enclave.

"What Gaza needs is money to pay its medical staff and access to more equipment and drugs, not another basic hospital," he said.

- Palestinian split -

The initiative has met with fierce opposition from some quarters.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah movement, which is based in the West Bank and opposes Hamas, even alleged it would be an American "military base".

"Hamas is committing a crime against the Palestinian cause and against our people with this approval," Fatah said in a statement on the new hospital.

Multiple statements by Abbas's government have warned of "dubious intentions," suggesting, without citing evidence, that Washington was involved or that the facility was part of attempts by the US and Israel to weaken the Palestinian cause.

Abbas cut off talks with the United States in late 2017 and accuses President Donald Trump of trying to destroy Palestinian hopes of statehood.

Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas's forces in a 2007 near civil war, but the international community has continued to call for his internationally recognised Palestinian Authority (PA) to return to power there.

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a politics professor in Gaza, said for Hamas the hospital was a tangible result of the truce and could allow patients who are refused Israeli travel permits to get treatment.

But Abbas, he said, fears that the United States and Israel are seeking to de facto recognise Hamas' rule in Gaza.

"The PA is not part of the deal and worries that Hamas is competing with them to represent the Palestinian people," Abu Saada said.

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