Public health professionals condemn threats to health for Palestinians

By Cindy Sousa, International Health Section

The Palestine Health Justice Working Group, a committee of the American Public Health Association’s International Health (APHA-IH) Section, issued a statement last week focused on health justice for Palestinians. In it, they went beyond calling for a cease-fire to condemning ongoing settler-colonial violence and oppression by the Israeli government against Palestinians. The statement launched on Wednesday, May 19. Within 24 hours, they had 350 signatures from public health professionals across the globe (public health workers, social workers, physicians, nurses, medical students, and researchers, among others). By Saturday, May 22, this number had risen to 500 supporters.

To read the full text of their statement and to sign on: click here.

Pharmacy and Entrance to UNRWA Nuseirat Health Clinic, Gaza Strip, 2015. Photo by Ron J Smith.

Over the past month, Palestinians have seen spiraling violence at the hands of Israeli military forces, police, and private mobs. But the attacks of last week – following Palestinian resistance to the eviction of Palestinians in the neighborhood of Shiekh Jarrah by Israelis – were the worst in years. Between May 10 and May 21, the Israeli military killed at least 230 Palestinians in Gaza, including 66 children; injured almost 2,000; and temporarily displaced more than 77,000. In the West Bank, Israeli forces killed 27 Palestinians and injured 6,794 more. Israel destroyed or damaged six hospitals and nine healthcare centers in Gaza, including a clinic that housed its only coronavirus testing lab, and killed two of the most prominent physicians in Gaza: Dr Ayman Abu Auf, head of the internal medicine department and Coronavirus response at Gaza’s largest hospital al-Shifa and Dr. Mo’in Ahmad al-Aloul, one of the few neurologists in Gaza.

The violence has taken an extreme toll on Palestinians, a community already suffering from hostility, such that on April 27 of this year, Human Rights Watch released a report condemning Israeli authorities for “crimes of apartheid and persecution.” Israel has undermined Palestine’s public health system for decades, through blockades and direct attacks. These efforts have undermined efforts at containing COVID 19.   Vaccine access disparity reached such a critical point that many described it as institutionalized discrimination and as medical apartheid. These practices are especially damaging when viewed within the framework of ongoing occupation and deliberate gutting of the Palestinian health-sector under Israeli settler-colonial rule. On this point, Osama Tanous, a pediatrician and volunteer with the mobile clinic of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel in Gaza, described the larger context of the most recent attacks on Gaza, pointing out, “Healthcare infrastructure in Gaza was already heavily damaged by decades of Israeli de-development and siege. Now it has suffered additional, direct attacks on facilities and workforce.”

While the group was heartened last week by the news of cease-fire, their statement called for more, including independent investigations into the short- and long-term physical and mental health implications of the actions of the Israeli government. They are especially concerned about ongoing attacks on civilians, healthcare, and healthcare workers, which are in clear violation of international law and the ethics of public health. Palestine Health Justice Working Group also emphasizes that their statement – like their ongoing work – is not just about the most recent events, but about decades of violence and oppression against Palestinians. Group co-chair and global health scholar Yara Asi, asserted, “While our statement addressed the immediate need for a lasting ceasefire, this statement goes further, to situate the violence in its historical context. The public health community is very much seeing the need to act on our professional ethics to promote ongoing justice in Palestine and Israel – not just for this week, but for the long-term.”

Regarding the need to situate the violence of last week within a larger context, last week human rights experts from the United Nations called for an International Criminal Court investigation into not only the most recent Israeli attacks against civilians and healthcare facilities, but also wide-spread evictions and illegal transfer of Palestinians by Israelis, along with the ongoing constraints on Palestinian housing, education, and freedom of movement.

In support of the statement, Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian physician trained in emergency medicine who has been working with Palestinian doctors for four decades, said, “I’m a medical doctor. I’m trained to treat root causes of suffering, not just symptoms. The Israeli occupation, colonization of Palestine, and brutal apartheid that underlies the health crisis in Palestine must end.”

The majority of signatories are from the United States, with others signing from the UK, Egypt, Canada, Spain, Israel, and Palestine. Dr. Yasser Abu-Jamei, a psychiatrist in Palestine and head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, said, “This statement sends a positive message to all supporters of the Palestinian struggle. We see justice getting closer and closer. No matter how difficult life is for us now, our dignity and our rights to health and to freedom are increasingly recognized, in this case, as the statement demonstrates, by a growing public health community concerned with justice for Palestine.”

The statement by the APHA-IH working group joins with at least four other statements issued by health professionals aimed at addressing not only immediate fatalities, but also the health harms of the ongoing Israeli settler-colonial project in Palestine. Statements were also issued by People’s Health Movement; Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Health Advisory Council; Equal Health’s Campaign Against Racism; and a group of Canadian Health Workers. Other professional groups have issued calls, including a wide-ranging group of scholars; The National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA); Middle East Studies Association; the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association; and others.

Rachel Rubin, another co-chair of the Palestine Health Justice Working Group, who is also on the steering committee for the JVP Health Advisory Council, notes, “What we have seen this May is an increasingly urgent insistence that justice in Palestine is a compelling health issue, one that requires us to act on our ethical imperatives to promote freedom and oppose all forms of violence including settler-colonial control of Palestine.”

It was exactly this sentiment that led to the formation of APHA’s International Health Section Palestine Health Justice Working Group several years ago. The working group began as a network formed within the International Health Section to pass an APHA policy statement on the health harms of Israeli settler-colonial violence and oppression in Palestine. Serving as a forum for interaction, support, information exchange, and activism, the group works to raise consciousness about the issue among APHA members and other health professionals – through education at the APHA annual meeting and other venues, and through promoting the work and leadership of Palestinian health professionals.

As an organized body within APHA focused on health justice in Palestine, The Palestine Health Justice Working Group works not only externally, but also within APHA to pressure the organization to use our collective voice, as one of the leading global public health organizations, to voice opposition to Israel’s continual assaults on Palestinian health and freedom, as APHA has in contexts of Iran (#277718), Iraq (#200617), South Africa (#9122), Nicaragua (#8306), Yemen (LB19-13), and other locations.

The group’s statement aligns with several APHA resolutions, which have held that the prevention of genocide (#200030), the health effects of militarism (#8531), the health of refugees (#8531), law enforcement violence (#201811), attacks on healthcare workers (#201910), and health within armed conflict and war (#20095) are public health matters deserving of our attention and action. The statement also pushes APHA itself, as the Governing Council has–in four separate attempts (2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013)–failed to pass proposed resolutions expressing concern about how the Israeli occupation has undermined the health of Palestinians.

Site of the Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital, Gaza Strip. Destroyed in Israeli bombing raid July 23rd, 2014. Photo by Ron J Smith.

“People’s views are changing,” says Amy Hagopian, long-time section member and 2018 recipient of the section’s Victor Sidel and Barry Levy Award for Peace, who co-authored these resolutions, “APHA members are beginning to see through the rhetorical devices used to shut down debate on Palestine. This topic scares people because they think it’s too complicated, or they don’t want to be accused of being anti-Semitic, or the don’t see the connection to public health.  Maybe the meaningful conversation about Black Lives and police violence in the U.S. over the last year has helped people connect some dots. The widespread support for this statement – and others like it – demonstrate that APHA could have this conversation in a respectful way, and step up to advocate for health justice for Palestinians.”  

To get involved, people can join our Palestine Health Justice Working Group meetings at APHA’s annual meeting each year, or send a message to apha-palestine-health-justice-working-group@googlegroups.com. Please be sure to attend their invited session at APHA’s 2021 Annual Meeting: Sovereignty as a core determinant of health: The imperative for both social connection and independence, as well as other sessions that will be held on Palestinian health justice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.