In the ongoing 74th session of World Health Assembly (WHA), member countries on Wednesday, May 26, discussed the health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT), including East Jerusalem and occupied Syrian Golan Heights. The WHA adopted a draft decision for improving the existing heath facilities in the region. The decision was opposed by Israel and its allies, including the US and the UK. Several countries also mentioned the recent attacks on Gaza and its larger impact on the condition of health of Palestinians.
After a long discussion on the report presented by the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) describing the existing health conditions in the OPTs, the member countries adopted the draft decision after a vote called by Israel. The decision was supported by 83 out of 136 countries present and voting. 14 countries voted in opposition and 39 countries abstained. The draft decision was co-sponsored by 28 member countries, including Cuba and Venezuela.
Identifying the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation in the OPTs, the draft decision requested the director general of the WHO to “ensure non-discriminatory, affordable and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines to the protected occupied population” in the OPTs “including East Jerusalem and in the occupied Syrian Golan in compliance with the International Law.”
The US, Canada, Germany and UK, along with some other countries, voted with Israel against the decision, echoing its allegations of politicization of health issues and violation of the WHO mandate. The Israeli ambassador accused the WHA and countries supporting the resolution of pursuing an anti-Israel agenda. Israeli representatives also claimed that WHA discussions have minimal effect on improving the health condition of people on the ground.
Recent Gaza attacks
Representatives from several countries, including Palestine, pointed to the need to update the report of the director general on the health condition of Palestinians in light of the recent Israeli bombing of Gaza during which health infrastructure was targeted specifically.
Speaking on behalf of the African group, Mauritania mentioned the recent attacks on Gaza, saying that restrictions imposed by Israel on the movement of people and goods prevent Palestinians from accessing their fundamental right to health. It also demanded an increase in COVID-19 vaccine supply to the occupied Palestinian territories.
At least 11 health facilities, including six hospitals and one COVID-19 testing center in Gaza, were damaged or destroyed during the 11 day-Israeli bombing which led to the death of over 248 Palestinians including 66 children.
The director general’s report mentions that, “in the Gaza Strip, the closure and blockade that have lasted more than 13 years, since 2007, have contributed to its isolation and affected all aspects of life from the underlying determinants of health to the availability and quality of, as well as access to, health care.” The occupation has been responsible for severe shortage of essential medicines in the occupied territories including crucial life savings drugs. It also mentions major Israeli attacks of 2008, 2012, 2014 and during the “great march of return” protests in 2018-19 as having had detrimental effects on the health infrastructure in the region.
WHO director general’s report on occupied territories
During the discussion, a large number of countries highlighted the deteriorated health condition of Palestinians in the occupied territories and condemned growing Israeli restrictions which prevent Palestinians from accessing their fundamental right to health. Some countries highlighted the differential access to healthcare in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem and Syrian Golan that was mentioned in the report. This differential access is a result of Israeli restrictions.
The director general’s report mentions the growing gap between Palestinians and Israelis living in the same territory. For example, the life expectancy of a common Jewish settler is nine years more than a Palestinian, and child and maternal mortality rates are much higher among Palestinians than among the Jewish settlers living in the same territories.
The report talks about the Palestinian Administration’s inability to provide adequate health facilities to its people due to occupation which limits the revenues from major natural resources of the region and imposes restrictions on the movement within and between the territories.
The report also mentions the critical financial situation of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) responsible for providing health services to at least 44% of the Palestinians who are refugees in the occupied territories with 65 primary health facilities across the OPT.
The report highlights the increasing Palestinian injuries and fatalities in Gaza and West Bank due to high level of violence meted out. According to the report at least 55,000 Palestinians were in need of mental health care due to protracted exposure to occupation violence in the beginning of the 2021.
The report also mentions the deteriorating condition of health among the Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli jails. According to it, the Red Cross has failed to report on the condition of more than 4,400 such prisoners due to restrictions imposed by Israel. Israel has also failed to hand over bodies of seven Palestinian prisoners who died in prison.
Another issue that was raised in the report is Israel’s denial of COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinians and its failure to fulfill its obligations to the occupied people under the fourth Geneva convention. The report also mentions the late and inadequate Israeli response in vaccinating Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli jails and Palestinians working inside Israel. The Israeli representative to WHA mentioned that Israel has vaccinated over 138,000 Palestinians inside Israel. Though numbers were not disputed, the Palestinian delegate refuted Israeli claims over vaccinating its Palestinians citizens.
The Syrian delegate criticized the report for its failure to compile independent data on the condition of health in the occupied Syrian Golan and relying on the data provided by Israeli Ministry of Health.
They also criticized the director general’s report on Syrian Golan saying that, “in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights there are discriminatory policies adopted by Israel. It tries to impose occupation by displacing people and impedes the Right to health. These are flagrant violations of the principles and constitutions of WHO.” It alleged that “WHO continues to shy away from the health conditions of Syrians” in occupied Golan.