Dehumanization of healthcare in the West Bank, a blueprint for ethnic cleansing

From direct attacks on hospitals to smear campaigns, health workers and facilities in the West Bank are facing a host of attacks by Israeli forces who seek to undermine the sense of trust that people have towards the healthcare system

February 05, 2024 by Peoples Health Dispatch
On January 30, 2024, a special unit of the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF), disguised as civilians, stormed into Ibn Sina Hospital in Jenin, occupied West Bank, and killed three Palestinian. (Photo: Al Haq)

A core intent unites attacks on healthcare in the West Bank, Gaza, and other occupied Palestinian territories, says Ubai Aboudi, Executive Director of Bisan Center for Research and Development. While these days, hospitals in Gaza are attacked with tanks and bombs, those in the West Bank are exposed to intrusions of special forces—yet the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) commit both acts with the intention of dehumanizing Palestinian healthcare and, eventually, ethnically cleansing the territories.

“How do you ethnically cleanse a territory? You make it unlivable,” Aboudi points out. And you make it unlivable by destroying its civil infrastructure: hospitals, schools, universities, cultural centers, sewage systems, and food resources. It would be wrong to say that Israeli attempts to do just that started only on October 7, 2023. In fact, attacks against healthcare in the West Bank have been ongoing ever since the signing of the Oslo Accords.

And, as Aboudi explains, they have taken many different forms. Some of them were direct attacks on hospitals and health centers. Others, spiteful initiatives to criminalize and strangle Palestinian civil society. One of these attempts included smear campaigns against the Health Work Committees, which was outlawed by Israeli authorities and its former director, nurse Shatha Odeh, imprisoned for almost a year.

Yet things have become even worse in the West Bank over the past year. In June 2023, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported air strikes inside the area. In July of the same year, MSF staff witnessed Israeli forces throwing tear grenades in the emergency room of Khalil Suleiman Hospital in Jenin and obstructing ambulance services.

Read more: 2023 was deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005

It is becoming harder for health workers to deliver essential care in the West Bank, as warned by MSF and Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). The health system might not be gutted in the same way that health services in Gaza have been, but people tend to increasingly depend on volunteer services, including trauma stabilization points, because of frequent attacks on ambulances and health workers.

Israeli checkpoints often cut off ambulance services from people who need urgent medical assistance, so at times these points are the only place where first aid is provided. They are usually operated by people whose first training is not related to health, but who receive basic first aid training to help their community. 

“They do this at great personal risk,” says Aboudi. “So many of them are targeted, shot.”

The significance of their role grows even further when one considers the atomization of health services inside the West Bank. People face both geographical and administrative barriers when trying to access hospitals and health centers: much earlier than 2023, hundreds of thousands had to travel for hours to reach the nearest hospital or health center.

Now, the IOF are preventing the rebuilding of volunteer trauma stabilization points in parts of the West Bank and continue to harass health volunteers and paramedics.

Israeli authorities hold the Palestinians’ right to health in a chokehold as they implement a complicated and oppressive permit system in case of health-related travel. Both patients and their companions need to have permits to cross checkpoints and reach health services. “Since October 7, Israel has revoked basically every permit there was, for both patients and companions.”

This has meant that thousands of cancer patients went without care. It is impossible for them to access the required treatments locally as no services exist. These were never erected, largely because Israel impedes the import of the necessary equipment and pharmaceuticals, claiming they are dual-use—cytotoxics apparently become dangerous if they fall into the hands of the resistance.

Read more: Israel’s attacks continue to decimate ambulance and maternity services in southern Gaza

Most of the blame for the healthcare crisis in the West Bank falls upon the occupation, but policies introduced by the Palestinian Authority (PA) over the years did not help. The neoliberal policies cut back spending on healthcare, adding yet another barrier between people in the occupied territories and their right to health.

On top of all of that, the IOF conducted an unprecedented incursion in Ibn Sina Hospital during the week of January 29. Members of the Israeli army and security services entered the hospital dressed as health workers and patients, murdering three people under the excuse that they were militants. Along the way, they reportedly beat doctors and nurses.

This is not the first time the IOF assaulted health institutions in the West Bank directly, Aboudi states. But, he says, it is the first time they murdered someone in that fashion. “Even if the person whom they targeted is a militant, he is not a legitimate target while he is a patient lying in a hospital bed.”

The fact that armed Israeli forces proceeded to kill people inside a hospital, including those who could not move, has been denounced by many as a crime. Some have said it is a striking illustration of the crime of perfidy, something that Israel can be persecuted for under customary international law.

Even more agree that the act is certain to deal yet another blow to the sense of security in the West Bank. Attacks on healthcare like this one have already pushed staff and patients to travel to hospitals through dangerous paths, where they are prey to army and settler violence, according to nurse Ahmed Al-Aswad (MAP).

MSF warned that people in the West Bank are living through trauma day after day, and this is making it virtually impossible to find comfort. Everyone is living in fear, including pregnant women, infants, and toddlers, who are showing chilling signs of anxiety.

Possibly even worse, the attacks and dehumanization of health services are certain to undermine the sense of trust that people have towards the healthcare system. “When you are dehumanizing the profession of a doctor, the space of a hospital, this will have a deep impact on how people will relate to them,” Aboudi says.

That this can happen has already been experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic when people were afraid of going to the hospital because they could catch COVID-19. “Now they won’t go to the hospital so they don’t get shot.”

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.