Occupation a ‘major barrier’ to healthcare for Palestinians says World Health Organisation

The funeral of martyr Razan Al-Najjar in Khan Younis

PALESTINIANS in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continue to face major barriers to the realisation of the right to health, said Gerald Rockenschaub, Head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) office in the occupied Palestinian territory on Thursday.

Speaking in Ramallah on the release of the WHO report, ‘Right to Health in the occupied Palestinian territory: 2018’, Rockenschaub said that the 50-year-long Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza left a profound impact on Palestinian access to healthcare.

‘Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continue to face major barriers to the realisation of the right to health.

‘Sustainability of quality healthcare services is challenged by chronic occupation and fragmentation; restrictions on movement have a profound impact on access to healthcare, including for some of the most vulnerable Palestinian patients,’ said Rockenschaub commenting on the findings of the report.

‘The study completed by WHO this year demonstrates that cancer patients initially denied or delayed permits to access chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy outside Gaza from 2015 to 2017 were 1.5 times less likely to survive in the following six months or more, compared to those initially approved permits.

‘The findings highlight the urgent need for reform to remove access barriers to protect patients from harm,’ he added.

The report examines obstacles to achieving the highest attainable standard of health for Palestinians living under occupation, including barriers to adequate healthcare provision, access to healthcare and determinants of health beyond healthcare.

According to the report, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are exposed to high levels of violence.

In 2018, 299 Palestinians were killed and 31,723 injured in occupation-related violence, of which the vast majority (87% of deaths and 81% of injuries) occurred in the Gaza Strip in the context of the Great March of Return, which began on 30 March 2018.

The public health consequences of violence are severe. Over a half of conflict-affected children may be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, while the long-term consequences of injuries, with more than 6,000 live ammunition injuries in Gaza alone over the year, put a strain on an already overburdened health system, it explained.

Health staff, too, work at considerable personal risk. In 2018, an unprecedented 432 attacks against healthcare workers took place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In Gaza alone, three health workers were killed and 570 injured, 41 with live ammunition, while providing care to those injured in Gaza’s Great March of Return.

Zaid, a first responder with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), was injured with live ammunition at one of the peak times of the demonstrations when there was a huge volume of injuries overwhelming the public hospitals in Gaza.

He was taken in a critical condition to the PRCS hospital for emergency surgery. Zaid stated, ‘When I remember the events of that day, it makes me very sad. Even us health workers – carrying out our humanitarian work and clearly marked with our PRCS vests – were targeted with live ammunition.’

Commenting on the humanitarian situation for Palestinians, Jamie McGoldrick, Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, said, ‘The dire humanitarian situation – particularly in the Gaza Strip and for West Bank communities in Area C, East Jerusalem and the H2 area of Hebron – has profound implications for people’s health.’

He added, ‘The WHO’s report highlights the health implications of impediments to inadequate access to water and sanitation, high rates of poverty, unemployment and food insecurity and insecure housing, demolitions and displacement.’

He expressed concern about ongoing high levels of exposure to violence, including for health workers: ‘No patient should have to worry about being prevented from accessing essential and lifesaving treatments, whether it involved access to health facilities requiring Israeli-issued permits or access to essential medicines within Palestinian health facilities.

‘No health worker should have to go to work with the fear of being shot at and killed. WHO’s report underlines the immediate need for our collective efforts to strengthen the protection of healthcare.’

In addition to Rockenschaub and McGoldrick, the launch event was attended by James Heenan, Head of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, and Mai Kaila, Palestinian Minister of Health.

  • Minister of National Economy Khaled al-Esseily held talks on Wednesday with Egyptian officials in the fields of investment, industry and trade to boost trade exchange between the two countries and support the Palestinian government’s vision of gradual disengagement from the Israeli economy.

The two sides discussed the possibility of signing agreements on mutual recognition in relation to conformity assessment, certificates and quality markings, in order to facilitate, increase and develop trade between the two countries.

They also tackled the possibility of reaching an agreement for the establishment and development of industrial zones and industrial technological zones.

The talks dealt with means of enhancing economic, trade and technical cooperation to increase trade exchange of agricultural, industrial, animal products and natural resources of local origin, and to provide all possible facilities to support the imports and exports between the two countries.

They also highlighted the importance of continuing the implementation of Resolution No. 200 of the Arab Summit held in Cairo in 2000 to facilitate the entry of Palestinian products and exempt them from paying customs and taxes.

They stressed the importance of establishing the joint Egyptian-Palestinian economic committee, activating the joint business council and exchanging business missions to meet their counterparts in both countries.

  • A Palestinian prisoner serving a life sentence in Israeli jails completed on Wednesday 21 years behind bars, according to the Palestinian Prisoner Society (PPS).

Imad Rashed Kamil, 52, from the town of Qabatiya, to the north of the northern West Bank city of Jenin, was arrested on October 9, 1998 and sentenced for life in prison for resisting the Israeli occupation.

Kamil’s family told WAFA that he is suffering health and psychological conditions due to the harsh and painful conditions that he was subjected to in jail by Israeli authorities.

They added that Kamil was denied family visits by Israeli authorities as a means of punishment against him and that he was deprived of seeing his father who died while in jail.

  • Brutal treatment meted out to Samir Arbid by Shin Bet agents has prompted strong condemnation from human rights campaigners

Last week, a Palestinian detainee arrested by Israeli occupation forces was admitted to a Jerusalem hospital suffering from severe injuries, including broken ribs and kidney failure.

Samir Arbid, 44 and in good health when detained, had been tortured during his interrogation at the hands of Shin Bet agents. According to reports, the agents had been given permission by an Israeli ‘judicial body’ to use ‘exceptional ways to investigate’.

The treatment meted out to Arbid in custody has prompted strong condemnation from Palestinian and international human rights campaigners, with Amnesty International describing the ‘legally sanctioned torture’ as ‘utterly outrageous’.

That reference to ‘legally sanctioned’ is key. In its most recent annual report, Amnesty noted how “torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, including children, remained pervasive and was committed with impunity by Israeli forces’.

Other NGOs have documented the use by Israeli interrogators of physical violence, stress positions and sleep deprivation – methods deployed while the Palestinian prisoner is denied access to a lawyer. An academic study published in 2015 found that ‘sexual ill-treatment is systemic’.

In 2017, Haaretz reported on Israel’s torture methods as confirmed by interrogators themselves, and cited a piece published two years earlier that suggested the ‘use of torture was on the rise’.

Clearly, this is not just a case of ‘a few rotten apples’. In fact, the issue goes deeper than the actions of the individual agents, right to the heart of Israel’s institutionalised – and judicially rubber-stamped – violations of Palestinian rights and of international human rights norms.

In 1999, Israel’s top court famously ruled that Shin Bet agents could not use ‘physical means’ against Palestinian prisoners – but that those who did so in the case of a ‘ticking bomb’ situation would be immune from prosecution.

As human rights NGO B’Tselem describes, Shin Bet agents thus continued to use methods ‘that constitute abuse and even torture … These methods were not limited to exceptional cases and quickly became standard interrogation policy.’

It gets worse. In December 2017, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition brought by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) on behalf of Palestinian prisoner Assad Abu Ghosh.

With the court taking ‘the state’s side on all of the key issues before it’, Judge Uri Shoham declared: ‘The definition of certain interrogation methods as “torture” is dependent on concrete circumstances, even when these are methods recognised explicitly in international law as “torture”.’

The decision was slammed by the UN special rapporteur on torture as setting ‘a dangerous precedent’ and ‘gravely undermining the universal prohibition of torture’.

Yet, more was to come. In a November 2018 ruling, Israel’s Supreme Court again gave its backing to the violent interrogation of Palestinian prisoner Fares Tbeish, stating that his torture by Shin Bet agents was not illegal and the perpetrators should not face prosecution.

A report in +972 Magazine described the ruling as having ‘broadened and effectively removed’ even the limitations imposed in the 1999 court decision, with legal scholar Itamar Mann telling the news site that in the eyes of the High Court, physical abuse ‘is a legitimate and perhaps even the preferable way of carrying out an interrogation in cases of national security’.

It is no wonder, then, given the support for torture among Israeli officials and judges, that out of hundreds of complaints made against Shin Bet interrogators in recent years, not a single criminal investigation has been opened.

And it is in light of these precedents that one must view with scepticism the announcement by Israel’s Justice Ministry that it is launching an investigation into potential wrongdoing by Shin Bet agents in the case of Arbid; no one is holding their breath for anything like meaningful accountability.

The impunity enjoyed by Israeli forces for the violent and degrading treatment of Palestinian prisoners makes international pressure and intervention essential.

On Tuesday, Palestinians protested at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) offices in Ramallah, demanding that the body exercise its right to visit Arbid.

Prisoners’ rights groups and the Palestinian health ministry delivered a letter to the ICRC expressing their collective concern, and the ICRC said on Wednesday that it was attempting to visit Arbid ‘as soon as possible’.

The torture of Arbid shines a light on yet another way in which Israel is singled out for impunity. An ally of Western states, which benefits from multiple bilateral and multilateral agreements in trade and defence, is openly torturing prisoners detained in occupied territory – with judicial backing.

Addameer has called on the UN and its bodies ‘to act immediately in actual attempts to hold the Israeli occupation authorities accountable for their crimes’.