The 12th edition of ManiFiesta dedicated a significant part of its program to activism and life in Palestine, inspiring participants to raise their voices against Israeli occupation and strengthen international support for a free and independent Palestine. A panel on the first day of the festival saw activists Ahed Tamimi, Islah Jad, and Fiona Ben Chekroun discuss the different possibilities of supporting Palestinians in their everyday lives, including supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
People’s Health Dispatch met with Islah Jad, an activist for women’s rights, lecturer at the Birzeit University in Palestine, and member of the Steering Committee of Bisan Center for Research and Development, to discuss the impact of the Israeli occupation on health in Palestine.
People’s Health Dispatch: The Israeli occupation is taking a heavy toll on the health of Palestinians – both with the continuous attacks and bombings, and by imposing direct and more subtle restrictions on the the health system. What is the situation of the health system in Palestine today?
Islah Jad: Let us start by saying that any health system needs resources. In the Palestinian case, the resources are not under the control of the Palestinian Authority. They are in the hands of the Israelis. When I talk about resources, I mean also revenue. For example, Israel collects a 16% Value Added Tax (VAT) from Palestinians and it is supposed to transfer this to the Palestinian Authority, to use for developing infrastructure and so on. But the Palestinian Authority does not get the full amount. Israel keeps half of it for administering the tax fund. Then there is the issue of not being able to control our economy, which further depletes the funds we have available. As the economy is merged, it is open for low-quality Israeli goods flooding our market. We cannot stop that because some of the settlements are on Palestinian land, so there’s an influx of third or fourth-class Israeli products into our market. Israel also controls resources like water and electricity.
And then there are the entry points, which mean we are not free to move or to import medicines or vaccines according to our need. We are not free to import medical equipment or medical supplies. All these are under the control of the Israelis. For example, we buy medicine at a higher price than the prices in Israel because Israel controls the import of the medicine, and then puts a VAT tax on it. You see what I mean?
Medical services like hospitals are affected a great deal by the division of the Palestinian territories: there are many differences depending on which area you live in. For example, if you are a Palestinian living in Jerusalem, do you have access to hospitals there? Yes, but under the condition that you are always able to prove that you reside there. And you wouldn’t believe the extent to which this goes. Sometimes, the Israeli police come to your house to check your garbage, to check your toothbrush, if it’s fresh or not. This is to make sure that you really reside at the address that you provide at the Ministry of the Interior. Using these restrictions, the Israelis revoke thousands of IDs and resident cards for Palestinians from Jerusalem. We are talking of something like 17,000-19,000 IDs until last year. If you count their families, that’s approximately 100,000 people – all this because they supposedly fail to prove that they truly live or reside in Jerusalem. These include people who may have chosen to live on the outskirts of Jerusalem – which is administratively considered not part of the city – to be able to pay lower rent or pay less for vegetables or meat.
PHD: What about the other areas?
IJ: Well, if you live in the West Bank or in Gaza, then you are not free to reach Jerusalem. And Jerusalem used to be the center, the capital for Palestinians, where most of the hospitals are, mostly specialized hospitals. You know, the kind you need if you have problems related to heart or eye disease. We used to go to these hospitals in Jerusalem, but with the mobility restrictions and with the huge network of checkpoints around each and every Palestinian city and village, we cannot reach Jerusalem any more. And again, we don’t have the freedom to import what we need.
The health system in the West Bank is administered by the Palestinian Authority, and they are left with what the occupying forces used to cover before, but without the resources the occupying forces used to take from the Palestinians. So in the West Bank, you have this problem of limited resources and the limited mobility.
Besides that, the territories of the West Bank are divided into three areas, Area A, B, and C. This is according to the Oslo Accords. The Palestinian Authority has no authority over Area C, and here we are talking about 60% of the land of the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority has no authority over this area because it is the target for the expansion of settlements. There are now about 600,000 Israeli settlers living in settlements in the West Bank. The presence of these settlers itself causes enormous health hazards. For example, they throw their sewage into Palestinian land causing terrible harm to the land and people’s health. The settlers have also released a huge amount of wild boar to destroy the plants. They have also thrown chemicals on Palestinian trees and plants, burning them. They have uprooted or burned more than 3 million olive trees in these territories. This makes the situation unlivable for many Palestinians because, you know, the source of their food is not sustainable, and the environment around them is becoming more and more dangerous.
Then, sometimes, they come and tell you that a portion of land is a military training area. If they take it as a military training area, it means they don’t take responsibility for any explosives left in the land, which can cause enormous damage and harm to the people. It is also another way of confiscating land from Palestinians.
In Gaza, it’s yet another story. West Bankers cannot reach Jerusalem or Gaza, and Gazans cannot reach Jerusalem or the West Bank. The fragmentation doesn’t help to build a popular common health system, and it creates lots of differences and variations between each and every area. The most neglected area in this context is Area C, where the Palestinian Authority has no say, and healthcare is basically left completely to the activities and the work of NGOs. The NGO sector has 11 mobile clinics in Areas C and the Palestinian Authority cannot establish hospitals or clinics because everything is dependent on Israeli permits. And of course, the fact that the Israelis want to uproot the population from this area means they make it very difficult for people to get education services, health services, or just about any infrastructure or work. These marginalized areas are fully supported by the NGOs. And this also explains why the attack on the civil society organizations is happening.
PHD: Health Work Committees (HWC) is one of the NGOs that was targeted previously, and they were making sure that thousands of Palestinians get health care. How did the shutting down of HWC by the Israeli impact provision of healthcare where they were active?
IJ: To be accurate, the civil society sector provides more than 35% of medical services to Area C and in marginalized areas, whether Bedouin areas or generally poor areas in Gaza. The Israeli side has a two-fold purpose in targeting them. First of all, they want the population of this area to endure marginalization and poverty so they can dislocate them and confiscate land to build more settlements. On the other hand, they want to drain the funds coming from Western sources and to divert these funds to the Israeli authority. The Israeli authorities claim that they will develop this area for all its inhabitants. But when they say for all its inhabitants, it means it includes settlers. So the Israelis are aiming to bring the funds to build more settlements and to provide services for the settlers at the expense of European and Western taxpayers.
If we look at the health status of the settlers and the Palestinians, it’s uncomparable. For example, the birth rate mortality for the settlers is nine times less than that of the Palestinians. When it comes to child mortality, it’s six times less than the Palestinians. So you cannot compare. And if we say that mortality at birth for Palestinians is almost 17.1 per 1000, it means that the same mortality for Israelis is minimal because Israel has a very robust health system and offers them full coverage. Palestinians are not covered by this health insurance. The majority of the Palestinians are not covered by any health insurance, and the income which should come to the Palestinian Authority through health insurance does not exist. This means that the revenue that should come to the Palestinian Authority through collecting health insurance is not there.
So the purpose of targeting the work of these civil society organizations is basically to deepen and expand the settlements and confiscate more land from the Palestinians. And of course, to remove the population silently from this area. That’s why they target organizations like Health Work Committees who are working for the benefit and the service of the population in this marginalized area.
PHD: More recently, we’ve seen attacks on six more Palestinian organizations, which faced false charges of terrorism. Bisan Center is among those six organizations, along with Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Defense for Children International, and Al-Haq. What does Bisan Center do, and why is it on this list?
IJ: Bisan does what we would call engaged research. It means that, for example, if Bisan works with a group in a marginalized area, let’s say Area C, then the researchers work with the people who live there, they collect information and document the impact of settlements on this population. Bisan’s research has included investigations on living conditions of women and children during COVID-19 because, as you know, there were enormous differences between the pandemic response among the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Israeli system covered the entire Israeli population with a vaccination campaign at a very early stage: they were among the first countries in the world to successfully vaccinate their population.
But they didn’t vaccinate the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Palestinians cannot control the import of vaccines or medication and so we were at the mercy of the Israelis. Bisan was one of the first research centers to enter Area C and document what sort of services were provided to these neglected communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, who were going without any vaccine, and at the same time worked as daily laborers in the Israeli market.
When some of these workers caught COVID-19, they were thrown out through the checkpoints without any medical treatment. They didn’t even put them in ambulances to take them to hospitals. So people were having very high fever and they were left in the middle of nowhere at the checkpoints. They were just left on their own.
So we then documented this. During the pandemic, the Israelis decided to give a gift to the Palestinian Authority of around 100,000 vaccine doses. But these were expired doses, and Bisan was one of the centers that spoke out loudly about it. And of course, the Israelis do not want this kind of publicity. They want to silence this kind of research center because as I said, what we do is engaged research, documenting what is really happening, and talking to the population and the different communities directly. And this is what they don’t want to happen.
PHD: And a similar thing applies to the other organizations that were targeted?
IJ: Yes Al-Haq Law in the Service of Men is another example. Al-Haq is a very big human rights organization that has documented all violations of international law and humanitarian international law done by the Israelis and the Israeli army. They were the first Palestinian civil society organization to speak about the occupiers’ law, about how they tailor the law to suit the purpose of their colonial project, and their expansion and confiscation of the land. Al-Haq’s work is very, very well documented. And the Israelis cannot deny the facts collected from the ground, so Al-Haq’s documentation is crucial for any case where you want to take Israel to court for violation of human rights and international humanitarian law. So that’s why they also want to silence them.
Then there is Addameer, which literally means conscience, which is a prisoner support association. They provide support for Palestinian prisoners: since the signing of the Oslo Accords, we are talking about more than 140,000 incarcerated or detained Palestinians. Among them, 20,000 are children, and 5,000 are women. Addameer was taking care of the rights of these political prisoners, taking care of their families, amplifying their voice and their demands from within the prison. That’s why they wanted to silence Addameer, besides the union of the health workers we talked about, and the others.
PHD: Some of the organizations that were shut down were the only ones providing support to specific population groups, including children and women.
IJ: Yes, for example Defense for Children International. They collected a lot of information about the torture of children in the Israeli prisons, and they documented cases of imprisonment of children as young as nine years old. This has tremendous effects on children. Take the case of Ahmad Manasra, who was arrested when he was 13 years old and kept in prison ever since, although he has been diagnosed with depression and is in urgent need of mental health care. Every time there is a request to release him or other prisoners on ground of health conditions, including cancer or dangerous chronic diseases, like heart disease or ulcers, this is not taken into consideration.
Defense for Children International assured that the arrest and the detention of Palestinian children is systematically documented, and that it is understood that it is a very widespread phenomenon affecting Palestinian children and childhood. The purpose of arresting children is to affect their consciousness in a way that they want to deter them, to scare them, to terrify them from even thinking of resisting when they grow up. The Israelis have a very tough policy vis-a-vis children and the detention of children. They are left to be with grown up prisoners, and sometimes they are put with Israeli criminal prisoners just to be abused.
Then there is the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, which also used to be very active in marginalized communities. They used to run kindergartens. They used to run women’s cooperatives to support families in this area, but also to be in contact with women and talk about their conditions, the living and working conditions of peasant women, workers in settlements, and their exposure to pesticide and dangerous cleaning material in the settlements. These women are left alone, they are not unionized, and nobody really cares about them. Any civil society organization that provided them with some vital support and services would have been put on this list of so-called terrorist organizations because their work goes against the Israeli line.
PHD: And how can international activists support Palestinian civil society organizations which have been targeted by the Israeli Authority? And what steps should be taken by other governments, especially those in the Global North?
IJ: First of all, the anti-terrorist clause adopted by the European Union should not apply to Palestine, because Israel is misusing it a great deal. Israel uses this clause to limit Palestinian activity of any sort, including the work of legal human rights defenders, journalists, women activists. Any sort of activism that is not formal or that that does not go hand in hand with the Israeli policy of settlement expansion and evacuating the Palestinian territory is considered terrorist. So this clause should be abolished when it comes to Palestinians, because it did lots of harm to Palestinian people in general and to Palestinian civil society in particular.
Number two, it is very important to be in physical touch with the Palestinian people. This is a cooperation or a connection that can take many forms. For example, people can support the education of Palestinian children, whether at school or at the university. They can support Palestinian families in sustaining their daily life in the face of the occupation. Any European can do a lot to support Palestinian families in a village or in a Bedouin area, to help them fostering their land and supporting their daily existence. All visits are very important: it’s important to come to Palestine, document and witness what is happening there, and speak about what you see to the newspapers.
Following the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement is also very important, because Israel, with their guarantee of American support, doesn’t really care. They can go forward with any policy they like if the world keeps silent. If people keep silent, we will continue to see massacres and massive expulsions of Palestinians. The purpose of the checkpoints and the permits is to tighten the grip on the Palestinian people and to push them out, but they have to wait for a suitable moment to introduce a big dose of violence, to massacre and massively expel people. To prevent this, the world has to take action starting now. Only this will prevent this scenario from happening.
It’s vital that people take action from now, because Israel as a state should know not to behave as a pariah state above the law, a state above any legal rule in the world, and think that it can do whatever it wants with Palestinian lives, economy, and existence.
It is important to sanction Israel. Sanctions affect Israel because it is so keen about its image, about this idea of it being an island of democracy in a desert of dictatorships, violence, and atrocities. But the truth is that there is a horrible amount of atrocities and violence there every day, every moment. The killing of a Palestinian is a daily act. Every day a Palestinian child is killed. Dozens of Palestinians are put in prison every day. This has to stop, but it cannot be stopped unless the international community puts pressure on Israel. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, we saw dedicated sports and media events, politicians’ speeches and I don’t know what more. We want them to do the same thing for Palestine, because as things stand today, we have lots of skepticism about the true values of human rights and democracy in western countries. Because when it comes to Israel, every single one of these human rights values is kept silent or shelved.