By Saleh Mamon
The Palestinian Union of Health Workers Committee (UHWC) is one of the main providers of health services in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), running hospitals and health clinics which provide medical care to marginalized communities. It provides essential health services to thousands of Palestinians and also runs a programme for women’s health among many others.
More than 310,000 Palestinians have contracted Covid-19 and the virus has killed 3,500 of them. UHCW has been at the forefront of the Covid-19 response in the OPT, providing medical care to Covid-19 patients at its health facilities as well as through mobile clinics for hard-to-reach communities. It plays a vital role in raising awareness and offering public health guidance on the spread of Covid-19. Additionally, it leads local advocacy efforts to improve the Palestinian health system.
On 9th June, Israeli army forces raided the UHWC headquarters in Ramallah in the early hours without warning. They forced their way in by breaking the main door down and confiscated computers and memory drives which are essential to run its services effectively. This was immediately followed by a military order for the UHWC to close for six months.
Amnesty International has warned that the order to shutdown UHWC will have catastrophic consequences for the health needs of Palestinians across the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
This is not the first time that UHWC and its staff have been targeted by the Israeli military. Its Jerusalem office was shut down by Israeli authorities in 2015. Its Ramallah office was previously raided in October 2019 – when its finance director was arrested – and in March 2021 when two other members of staff were arrested.
The organisation has come under attack repeatedly from the Israeli authorities, with its employees facing harassment and arrests for its alleged affiliation with the Popular Liberation Front for Palestine, a Palestinian political party with an armed wing and listed as a terrorist organisation.
Associating a community organisation with terrorism in order to criminalise it is a very familiar tactic in nations across the world, in the context of the global war on terror, to delegitimise opposition, dissidence and resistance.
The allegations against UHWC come from a report by NGO Monitor which claims to be a globally recognized research institute promoting democratic values and good governance. Its objective is to hold NGOs to account through transparency and adherence to human rights. Its primary focus is non-governmental organizations (NGOs), their funders, and other stakeholders, in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
NGO Monitor is based in Jerusalem. Its funders are organisations from the United States and a few from Israel. It is well endowed with a turnover of nearly 1.8 million US dollars in 2019. Among its International Advisory Board are prominent pro-Israeli supporters such as Professor Alan Dershowitz, Elliot Abrams and Douglass Murray, among others. Its Board of Directors and Legal Advisory Board have highly qualified individuals from the academic and business world who have varied associations with Israel.
Its activities aim to defund European finance for Palestinian organisations by allegations of association with terrorism. Its publication attacks human rights organisations such as B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch which have called out Israeli apartheid. It opposes any resistance against Israel, such as the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
The claims that NGO Monitor makes of impartiality and defending human rights are patently false. It is a right wing organisation which is pro-Israel and seeks to delegitimise any opposition to Israel. This shows how pro-Israeli political organisations have the capacity to influence both knowledge and decision-making at an international level.
Saleh Higazi, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International said in a statement, “As the occupying power Israel has a clear obligation under international law to protect the rights of all Palestinians – including their right to health. So far they have completely failed to fulfil this responsibility throughout the global pandemic, pursuing a discriminatory Covid-19 vaccination policy. Israeli authorities must immediately rescind the shutdown order and put an end to the harassment of health workers.”
Appeals to Israel to respect international law have always fallen on deaf ears. Israel is being shielded by the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe from any criticism or pressure to change its policies. This provides an unconditional impunity, giving it free pass to act as it wishes, defying international law and conventions.
Israeli policies have strangled the Palestinian health care system for decades. The cumulative effect has meant the Palestinian healthcare system is in a state of chronic crisis with continuous shortages of money, investment in infrastructure, medication, medical equipment and a lack of specialist doctors and medical staff in general.
Per capita expenditure in Israel on health services is eight times greater than in the West Bank and Gaza. This is reflected in the staffing of health services. Israel has eight times more specialist doctors than the West Bank and Gaza, 1.76 compared to 0.22 per 1,000 residents. While Israel has 4.8 nurses per 1,000 Israelis, the figure for the occupied territories is 1.9.
Furthermore, the Palestinian public health system is not able to provide specialized treatments for complex medical problems in fields such as oncology, cardiology and orthopaedics. Many patients needing such care are referred to private Palestinian health facilities in East Jerusalem and, if needed, to hospitals in Israel, Egypt and Jordan at a significantly higher cost.
The Israeli Ministry of Health also controls the import of pharmaceuticals to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It allows only the import of medicines registered in Israel and blocks imports from neighbouring markets which could provide medications at lower costs. Importing raw materials needed for the local manufacture of medicine is almost impossible because of restrictions by Israel.
All these constraints are reflected in health outcomes. The life expectancy of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza is about ten years lower than that of persons in present-day Israel. Meanwhile, infant mortality and maternal death rates are four times higher in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the West Bank and Gaza, an average of nineteen babies die per one thousand births, while in Israel, the average is four out of one thousand. Four times as many Palestinian mothers die during childbirth compared to mothers in Israel, 28 compared to 7 per 100,000.
The incidence of infectious diseases is higher in the occupied Palestinian territories than in Israel. Disturbingly, some vaccinations against life-threatening diseases are not given in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Expensive vaccines that prevent Hepatitis A, chickenpox, pneumonia, rotavirus (the common cause of severe diarrhoea among infants and young children) and human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer, are not included in the Palestinian Authority’s national vaccination program because of lack of access and cost.
Needless to say, the healthcare situation in Gaza is extremely precarious, fragile and near to collapse. The Israeli blockade for 14 years, reinforced by the Egyptians, the periods of non-cooperation by the Palestinian Authority and the four devastating aerial bombardments by Israel, have left a trail of destruction both of human life and resources.
The destruction of housing has created a mass of displaced people – the ruin of the economy, a mass of jobless. Food insecurity and rising poverty mean that most residents cannot meet their daily caloric requirements, while over 90 per cent of the water in Gaza has been deemed unfit for human consumption. A meagre electrical power supply, a badly-depleted water aquifer and the inability to treat sewage have only intensified the social health crisis.
The deaths of loved one caused by bombings have filled the living with grief and trauma. Those injured during bombings and live firings during the March 18th demonstrations near the border have left them with disabilities. Across the Gaza Strip, psychological trauma, poverty and environmental degradation have had a negative impact on residents’ physical and mental health; many, including children, suffer from anxiety, distress and depression.
On top of all this, the Israeli authorities are hell-bent on criminalising and closing down Palestinian civil society organisations built by Palestinians to serve the health needs of their community. The shutting down of UHWC is unforgivable and indefensible.
It shows that the Israeli apartheid system is a heartless and cruel system which has no regard for the wellbeing of Palestinian people. It is clear that Israeli policies want to decimate the Palestinian population in order to contain the demographic threat they are believed to pose.
We must be ever vigilant of what Israeli policies are doing to Palestinians under occupation and speak out critically against our government’s policy of looking the other way. We must support the struggle of Palestinians for freedom and self-determination. We must not remain silent.
Saleh Mamon is a retired teacher who campaigns for peace and justice. His research interests focus on imperialism and underdevelopment, both their history and continuing presence. He is committed to democracy, socialism and secularism. He blogs at https://salehmamon.com/
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