The World Health Assembly meeting in May 2023.
As the World Health Organization (WHO) celebrated its 75th anniversary, the world also commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, which resulted in the forceful displacement of close to 800,00 Palestinians. The 76th World Health Assembly, held in Geneva from May 21-30, saw WHO members adopt a decision urging the Director-General to continue monitoring and reporting on the health conditions in Palestine.
The decision received 76 votes in favor, 13 votes against, and 35 abstentions, which was similar to the voting patterns of previous years. Countries such as Zimbabwe, Cuba, Lebanon, Venezuela, and Sudan expressed concern about the health conditions in Palestine and stressed the importance of monitoring the health situation in the occupied territories. Israel, the United States, and a few other delegations continued to object to the WHO’s support for strengthening the health system in Palestine.
An escalating health crisis
The life of Palestinians in the occupied territories is characterized by limited human rights, restricted access to healthcare, discriminatory planning procedures, targeted attacks by Israeli settlers and government, and detentions. This situation is compounded by high unemployment rates, displacement, poverty, food insecurity, and limited access to clean water and sanitation, all of which are directly linked to Israeli occupation. The health crisis is further exacerbated by Israeli settlers and the government impeding the movement of Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Due to denial or delays in giving permits for hospital appointments, Palestinians struggle to treat physical and mental illnesses, which sometimes leads to avoidable deaths.
By mid-2023, it is estimated that around 11 million Palestinians will be residing in the occupied territories, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. While COVID-19 was the primary cause of disease in 2021, followed by cardiovascular disease and cancer, the ongoing occupation remains the key determinant of Palestinians’ health. According to the 2021 annual health report by the Palestinian Ministry of Health, the likelihood of dying from selected non-communicable diseases between the ages of 30 and 70 was 26.7%, compared to 8.8% in Israel.
In the occupied territories, Palestinians have a life expectancy of approximately 75 years (as of 2022), whereas Israeli settlers in the West Bank have a life expectancy of around 82 (as of 2019). This context is made even more frightening by the pervasive exposure to violence, which significantly impacts the short-term and long-term mental and physical health of Palestinians. As evidence of this, 40% of households in the Gaza Strip reported that at least one member experiences signs of acute psychological distress.
WHO could have a bigger role in protecting health in Palestine
Nearly half of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, holds registered refugee status and relies to some extent on basic and essential healthcare provided by international actors, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). However, the provision of healthcare is increasingly hindered by inadequate funding.
Lastly, it is crucial to highlight the shrinking and targeted civic space in Palestine. In 2022, WHO documented 187 attacks on healthcare in the occupied territories, while globally, there were 1,335 documented attacks on healthcare during the same year. Israeli forces frequently raid, close, or legally restrict Palestinian health and human rights NGOs, further undermining the provision of care and the documentation of violations.
Activists from the People’s Health Movement, who attended the World Health Assembly, warned that the situation in Palestine has only worsened over the past 75 years. The activists called upon the WHO to go a step further from monitoring the health conditions in Palestine. They suggested the organization could use available data to warn against the further deterioration of health in the occupied territories.
The health activists further suggested that WHO should utilize its documentation of attacks against civilians, healthcare facilities, and humanitarian actors to make serious referrals to the International Criminal Court. They also recommended establishing an independent commission to investigate the health impact of UN engagement and efforts in the occupied territories.
The WHO Watch team is made of: Marta Caminiti, Dian Blandina, Mariana Lopes Simoes, Juliette Claudine Mattijsen, Facundo Fernandez, Chiamo Seraphine, Ben Verboom, Axelle Ebode, Lauren Paremoer, Candelaria Araoz Falcon, Jyotsna Singh