Four bee stings please...
Gaza City - In a clinic in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, Ratib Samur makes his way from one patient to the next armed with little more than a small box filled with enraged bees.
He uses the bees to sting those who have come to him for help - and amid the territory's deepening isolation, his clinic has been transformed into a hive of activity.
Since the Islamist movement Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007 the coastal enclave has been sealed off from all but vital aid by both Israel and Egypt, limiting the ability of Gazans to seek medical care abroad.
It has meant growing demand for Samur's bee venom treatment.
"The bee stings are really great," says Mohammed al-Dayya, paralysed from the waist down because of muscular atrophy.
The 25-year-old used to be treated in Egypt, but has had to resort to the bees because of the closures. Confined to Gaza, he wheels himself into Samur's clinic each week to get stung, which he says has stabilised his condition.
"I no longer have this pain that used to keep me from sleeping," he said during a recent session. "This treatment made my condition stable and now it won't get worse before I am able to travel."
Most claims of apitherapy - the medical use of bee venom - are anecdotal and have not been proved to the satisfaction of scientists, although believers say it help relieve pain from multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis and certain other ailments.
Bee stings, however, also entail risks of serious allergic reactions, and of course the process of getting stung is not one most people would enjoy - at Samur's clinic, patients often get four to six stings a time.
Samur admits his treatment is no substitute for advanced medical care.
"I cannot help him walk again, but my treatment basically focuses on easing the pain and preventing his condition from deteriorating further," said Samur, who studied agricultural engineering in Egypt.
When the 53-year-old opened the clinic in 2003 after testing out bee venom treatments on his family and friends, he was greeted with scepticism.
"It became more acceptable when I got brilliant results from the treatment with a number of patients, and it increased even more after the Israeli siege," he said.
Israel generally allows people to leave Gaza for emergencies but grants only a limited number of permits for medical treatment abroad.
The lack of medical options and the economic crisis gripping the territory has sent hundreds of men, women and children flocking to Samur's clinic, where he pricks them with bees raised in dozens of backyard hives.
A course of three injections costs just €1.60.
Many of his patients suffer from wounds inflicted during Israel's assault on Gaza at the turn of the year aimed at halting Palestinian rocket attacks. Some 1 400 Palestinians were killed before the fighting ended on January 18.
Ismail Matar has been receiving bee stings to treat the shock he suffered when a friend was killed before his eyes by an Israeli air strike.
"My friend was torn apart right in front of me by shrapnel from an Israeli missile," the 23-year-old said.
Little experimental evidence
"I was in psychological shock. I was not strong enough to move my legs, I could barely see, and none of the drugs worked. But now, after seven months of treatment with bee stings, I am much better. I can walk again."
The natural remedy, which contains large amounts of the anti-inflammatory agent melittin, has been used in other nations to treat multiple sclerosis and arthritis, but there is little experimental evidence of its effectiveness.
"The bee venom treatment is a complement to medicine," Samur says. "I don't diagnose the illness, but rely entirely on the opinion of the doctor."
He also refuses to treat people with heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
Patients such as Nivine Ajur, a 32-year-old mother of six who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, swear by the treatment.
"I have been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for five years and nothing helped because there is no treatment for this disease in Gaza," she said as a bee plunged its stinger into her wrist.
"I could not climb stairs at all but now, after five months of treatment, I can climb them six times a day."
In another corner of the clinic 10-year-old Mohammed Barud does not flinch even as bees gather on his ear lobe just below his hearing aid.
"I'm used to this, and I am not afraid," he said.
"My hearing gets better every week and I will keep coming here until I can take out this hearing aid. The doctor told me I would have to wear it my whole life."