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Israel’s attacks desecrate the sanctity of healthcare

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Dr Aayesha J Soni is a specialist neurologist and medical volunteer with the Gift of the Givers Foundation. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans 2017 and News24 100 Future Young Mandelas 2018.

On 16 January 2009, Muhammad Shurrab (68) and his two sons, Ibrahim (18) and Kassab (28), were injured when Israeli soldiers shot at their vehicle as they were returning from the family farm to their home in Gaza.

The car was fired upon during the daily three-hour ceasefire (known as the “humanitarian corridor”) at the time, as the war Operation Cast Lead was ongoing.

Repeated calls for help by Shurrab to the soldiers in a nearby building remained unanswered. He telephoned the emergency ambulance services, but no ambulance was allowed to come to their rescue. The Israeli NGO, Physicians for Human Rights, contacted the Israeli army but was told that the rescue could not go ahead.

Having been forced to watch his two sons bleed to death, and himself injured, Shurrab had to spend the rest of the night and the following morning in his car. An ambulance was eventually allowed to rescue Shurrab and collect the bodies of his two sons — 22 hours after they had been shot.

This is a direct excerpt from a 120-page research paper published by the human rights organisation Amnesty International in 2009, titled “Israel/Gaza: Operation Cast Lead: 22 Days of Death and Destruction”. The team collected evidence of the destruction meted out against the civilian population of Gaza at the time, collating first-hand accounts, hospital statistics and documented events as part of a larger fact-finding mission into the attack by Israel.

Various aspects were investigated, but under the heading Attacking and Obstructing Medical Workers, Amnesty International concluded the following:

“The Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 (Fourth Geneva Convention) obliges to respect and protect the wounded, to allow the removal from besieged areas of the wounded or sick, and the passage of medical personnel to such areas. The deliberate obstruction of medical personnel to prevent the wounded receiving medical attention constitutes ‘wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health’, a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime.’ ”

This was not the first, nor last, human rights report that has found Israel guilty of overstepping the boundary regarding medical workers and the healthcare system, falling under the category of war crimes as per International Law. These human rights violations have been systematically and independently documented against Israel over the past 75 years.

In May this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released two reports, “Right to Health 2019-2021” and “Palestinian Voices 2022-2023”. The reports outline how fragmentation of the Palestinian people, implementation of a permit regime, physical obstacles to movement, and protection gaps have caused health inequities and created substantial barriers to healthcare provision and health access in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

“Enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is a fundamental right of every human being,” said Dr Richard Peeperkorn, WHO Representative for the West Bank and Gaza. “The Palestinian health system suffers the consequences of longstanding displacement, refugeehood and occupation.”

In 2023, the WHO’s reports show the longer-term trends, with 750 health attacks documented in the West Bank and Gaza from 2019 to 2022. These attacks resulted in the fatality of a healthcare worker and 568 health worker injuries, with 315 ambulances and 160 health facilities affected. Ajith Sunghay, head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the occupied Palestinian territory, expressed deep concern at this:

“This trend has only accelerated in 2023. OHCHR and WHO documented that Israeli forces have frequently prevented access to medical care, including for first response teams to reach persons with life-threatening injuries. We are deeply concerned about failures to ensure protection against health attacks and the impact that this has on the rights of Palestinians.”

Bar the politics which govern the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we cannot ignore the human rights impact which the Israeli military force has had on the largely civilian Palestinian population. Human Rights Watch published a 220-page factfinding report on the human rights violated by Israel in 2021, titled “A Threshold Crossed. It concluded that Israeli authorities were committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, and that they had deprived millions of people of their basic rights by virtue of their identity as Palestinians. 

While these may simply read as statistics to most, I am flabbergasted, especially by the abolishment of the sanctity that traditionally accompanies being a healthcare worker and that a hospital should have. This issue has extended far beyond that of religion and politics, and the basic human rights abuses simply cannot be ignored any longer.

Professor Ilan Pappé, an Israeli professor, said last week that we are on the brink of a genocide in Gaza, yet the opportunity still exists for us to stop it by speaking out against the inhumanity of Israel. 

As physicians and healthcare workers who have dedicated our lives to service, this duty lies even heavier on our shoulders, especially given the effects our fellow Palestinian healthcare workers must endure on a daily basis. DM

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