By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Desperate efforts to save the lives of two critically ill infants in Gaza ended in tragedy after medical transfers to Israel were paralysed by tensions over its planned annexation moves in the occupied West Bank.
Last week, three days before he was due to undergo heart surgery in Israel, eight-month-old Omar Yaghi died in Gaza.
Anwar Harb, who died on Monday, nine days after birth, also had cardiac problems that required a medical transfer to Israel that never came through, a Gaza-based rights group said.
A month ago, Palestinian officials suspended civil and security coordination, voicing anger over the looming annexation steps. As a result, border crossing permits for Gazans seeking treatment in Israeli hospitals are more difficult to arrange and no longer go through normal channels.
Haitham Al-Hadra, director of medical referrals in the Palestinian health ministry in the West Bank city of Ramallah, acknowledged it has stopped coordinating entry permits with Israel's official liaison office, known as COGAT.
Under a new mechanism, "it was left to the patients and the hospital to arrange the coordination", he said, although the ministry would still pay their medical costs.
Some transfers to Israel are still proceeding, via contacts between patients or their families and Israeli human rights groups, a Palestinian official said.
But two Israeli human rights groups said they tried unsuccessfully to get a permit for Omar.
"We contacted the (Palestinian) civil affairs office several times but they told us things were unstable and there was no clear vision," Omar's father, Ahmed Yaghi, said.
COGAT said it was still prepared to handle such cases.
"As a policy, (COGAT) keeps allowing, also at these times, an entrance of residents from the Gaza Strip for life-saving medical treatments, and in other humanitarian cases," it said in a statement to Reuters.
Citing security concerns, Israel maintains tight control of its border with Gaza, an enclave run by Hamas Islamists.
Briefing the U.N. Security Council, Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said Gazans now faced the prospect of being unable to obtain treatment in Israel.
"Already, an eight-month-old infant has lost his life due to this situation," he said. "Surely there must be a red line when it comes to the lives of children."
Drawing international criticism, Israel says it plans to begin on July 1 formal cabinet discussions on annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank under a U.S. peace plan.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Giles Elgood)