Israeli attacks on health workers in Palestine continue

By targeting healthcare in the Gaza Strip, Israeli occupation forces continue their decades-long aggression against the right to health of Palestinians

November 18, 2023 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Source: WHO in occupied Palestinian territories/X

On Saturday, November 18, Israeli occupation forces continued to attack civic infrastructure in Palestine. Among many others, these attacks claimed the lives of dozens in two UN-run schools. The schools provided refuge for those forced out of their homes due to relentless bombardments since October 7. Palestinian hospitals, shelter to thousands of patients and displaced people, also found themselves in the line of fire throughout the day on Saturday.

After raiding Al-Shifa hospital on November 15, Israeli soldiers forced most of those in the buildings to vacate the complex three days later. As reported by Al Jazeera, people were coerced to leave at gunpoint and given just one hour to do so.

The forced departure took the form of a single-file procession, where people had to wave white flags or handkerchiefs—an act described by Al Quds Network as another attempt to humiliate Palestinians. After the evacuation, a small number of nurses, five doctors, and over a hundred patients, whose health conditions prevented relocation, remained at Al-Shifa.

Muhammad Abu Salmiya, Al-Shifa’s director, told Al Jazeera that the health workers still staying inside the hospital were not allowed to move freely and that, failing safe evacuation, the 120 patients in their care – including babies and kidney patients – will “die imminently.”

Echoing the warnings coming from Al-Shifa, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in a post on X that an assessment mission by the UN agency found “a hospital no longer able to function.”

Health workers’ worldwide demand ceasefire

Israel’s deliberate targeting of health workers and hospitals in Gaza has led to global condemnations and widespread demonstrations. Trade unions, health workers’ groups and professional associations in healthcare have joined calls for immediate ceasefire, denouncing governments’ inadequate reaction to Israeli attacks.

Despite pressure from their members, some medical associations chose to look the other way. Among them was the American Medical Association (AMA), which censored discussion on a resolution calling for a ceasefire, despite its content enjoying support from a large part of its membership.

After the AMA decision, almost 3,000 US-based physicians, in coordination with the platform Physicians for Ceasefire, sent a letter to the AMA Board of Trustees. The letter demands that the association reevaluates its approach to the health crisis in Gaza, calls for a ceasefire, and expresses solidarity with members who have faced workplace discrimination for advocating the protection of human rights in the Gaza Strip.

The letter’s signatories also asked that the AMA, following the example of other organizations, calls out the root causes of the ongoing attack on Palestine: “the ongoing system of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid implemented by the state of Israel.”

Healthcare in Palestine a long-time target

Over the past 42 days of the Israeli war on Gaza, attacks by the Israeli occupying forces have devastated the already fragile health system in the besieged territory. Beyond raiding and shelling hospitals and health centers, according to some estimates, these attacks have resulted in the deaths of at least 200 health workers in the Gaza Strip.

This count adds to the data collected over the years by the WHO. It shows that Israel’s attacks on healthcare are not unfortunate mistakes or collateral damage but a well-developed strategy aimed at weakening the health sector and resistance in Palestine.

In May this year, members of the WHO discussed another report in the series on health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories. The findings not only reaffirmed that Israel limits access to health care by denying permits to patients but also highlighted that its attacks on healthcare in Palestine are a recurring pattern, particularly during periods of escalation. From January until July 2023, the WHO recorded 189 attacks on health care in Palestine: the acts led to the detention of 13, and injury of 77 health workers.

The daily reality of health workers in Gaza since October 7, however, is very different from what they experienced on previous occasions. From the beginning of the attacks until November 12, the WHO’s office for the Eastern Mediterranean region recorded at least 137 attacks on healthcare in Gaza “resulting in 521 deaths and 686 injuries.” Ambulances carrying patients have been targeted and bombed, and  health workers were subjected to humiliation and threats by the Israeli armed forces carrying out the ground offensive.

The death count includes at least three nurses working at Al-Shifa, as well as many of the health workers who had previously explained to the media that they could not possibly leave for the south as their patients needed them. Among them were Hammam Alloh, a doctor at Al-Shifa, and Rafat Lubad, the hospital’s head of internal medicine.

Whitewashing war crimes

Israeli occupation forces have been attempting to justify their attacks on healthcare in Palestine since October 7 by claiming that the hospitals are used as operation centers by Hamas. However, these claims have been disputed by both hospital staff and Hamas. This was the case in both Al-Shifa and Al-Rantisi, otherwise known as Indonesian Hospital, where Israeli soldiers alleged finding arms and ammunition left behind by Hamas operatives.

The fact that allegations by the Israeli occupation forces have been questioned by both international organizations and experienced analysts indicates that it is likely that Israel is purposefully targeting hospitals while attempting to avoid the mounting accusations that it is guilty of war crimes.

According to Gaza’s authorities, Israel’s indiscriminate bombings in Gaza have killed over 12,000 people as of Saturday, November 18. The attacks are also increasing the vulnerability of the surviving population of Gaza to outbreaks of infectious diseases by denying people access to food and destroying water and sanitation infrastructure.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here.