British parliamentarians raise attacks on healthcare and call for accountability in Commons debate

On 20 April, British parliamentarians helped to highlight the issue of attacks on Palestinian healthcare in the occupied West Bank, and the need for action from the UK government to ensure accountability for violations against Palestinians’ rights to health and dignity, during a debate in the UK Parliament.

The debate in the House of Commons, tabled by Scottish National Party MP and International Development Committee member Chris Law, focused on the topic of ‘Human Rights Protections for Palestinians’.

Chris Law MP’s opening remarks highlighted the issues that lie at the root of the dire situation Palestinians face: “The evidence is clear: the treatment of the Palestinian people is not primarily an economic or poverty concern, but one of systematic discrimination, erosion of human rights, and denial of identity and legitimacy.”

Echoing the findings of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)’s 2021 paper, Law illustrated the impact of Israel’s policies and practices of systematic discrimination on health outcomes for Palestinians: “Israel has three times more doctors per 1,000 people than in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt); women are nine times more likely to die due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth in the oPt than in Israel; and, on average, Israelis live nearly nine years longer than Palestinians.”

He called for accountability for violations of international law against Palestinians, and raised concern about the UK’s dangerous double standards on this issue: “If the UK Government are serious about protecting the human rights of Palestinians, it is fundamental that the problem—the crime being committed against them—is first acknowledged, then investigated; that perpetrators are brought to justice; and that it is not allowed to continue. […] The UK Government must make a choice: they either unequivocally champion human rights around the world, or they turn the other way when it is not politically expedient to call out what they see.”

Alongside Chris Law MP, Naz Shah MP, Munira Wilson MP and Bambos Charalambous MP – all of whom have participated in delegations to the West Bank with MAP and the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) – raised the issue of Israel’s discriminatory permit regime, which regularly denies Palestinians access to healthcare.

Bambos Charalambous MP, Shadow Middle East Minister, stated: “[T]he way in which the system is applied can be seen as punitive and unjust. A report published last year by Breaking the Silence, an organisation established by former soldiers in the Israel Defence Forces, described Israel’s military permit system as “bureaucratic violence” used on occasion as “collective punishment”, when an entire family’s travel permits can be revoked, which denies them access to work and to medical care in an instant.”

Munira Wilson MP spoke on how the permit regime separates mothers and their children undergoing medical care, as she had witnessed during her recent visit to the West Bank: “On my recent visit to the neonatal unit at Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, I saw prematurely born babies who had been separated from their mother and their family for weeks. One baby had been waiting two weeks to be discharged because neither her mother nor another family member in Gaza could get a permit. Will he condemn that? Frankly, Gaza is an open-air prison at the moment.”

“A report published last year described Israel’s military permit system as “bureaucratic violence” used on occasion as “collective punishment”, when an entire family’s travel permits can be revoked, which denies them access to work and to medical care in an instant.” – Bambos Charalambous MP

Andy Slaughter MP , Jeremy Corbyn MP and Sam Tarry MP all raised the issue of obstruction and attacks on healthcare workers and ambulances. In the first two months of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) documented 47 violations against healthcare, including the obstruction of health workers from accessing and treating injured Palestinians, and violence towards ambulances and medical teams. In addition, from January to March 2023, the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) has reported a 287% increase in violations against their medical teams compared to the same period last year.

Sam Tarry told the House: “During the recent attacks on al-Aqsa, Red Crescent ambulances were fired upon by the IDF with rubber-coated steel bullets, and a paramedic was severely assaulted and injured by an Israeli soldier. In total, nine ambulances were denied access to the courtyards of al-Aqsa, preventing them from reaching the wounded inside. […] As an occupying power, Israel is required under the Geneva convention to ensure the adequate functioning of health services and to allow medical personnel to carry out their duties. Article 59 obliges Israel to permit the free passage of humanitarian relief and to protect, not fire upon, any such relief."

Flick Drummond MP reflected on the traumatic experiences of Palestinian children in Israeli detention, as witnessed during her visit to the Ofer military court during a delegation to the West Bank: “Detainees, including children, are handcuffed and blindfolded. Some are kept in total isolation, as we have heard, and there are widespread allegations that they are threatened during interrogation. Some 70% of child detainees and 80% of adult detainees have been unlawfully transferred to prisons in Israel, in violation of the fourth Geneva convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.”

Several MPs raised the importance of upholding Palestinians’ access to justice through international mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) and International Court of Justice (ICJ). Wera Hobhouse MP (Lib Dem) called on the Government to “be absolutely clear that we stand on the side of international law. It is […] hugely disheartening that the Government are opposed to the International Criminal Court’s investigation into international crimes in the West Bank. It damages our credibility in the region, and it undermines our efforts to speak out when international law is violated in other parts of the world, including on our own continent. We cannot pick and choose.”

Bambos Charalambous MP also stated that the 2030 Roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations raises “concerns about the Government’s willingness to apply diplomatic scrutiny to breaches of international law and their support for the role and independence of international legal institutions such as the ICJ and the ICC...”

Speaking for the Government, the Rt Hon. Andrew Mitchell MP, Minister of State in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, laid out the UK’s position on several key issues, including demolitions of Palestinian homes and infrastructure, children in military detention, and the illegality of Israeli settlements.

On the issue of movement restrictions, the Minister outlined: “We continue to stress to the Israeli authorities the damage that their restrictions on movement, access and trade are doing to the living standards of ordinary Palestinians, especially in Gaza. While we welcome the steps that Israel has taken to ease some restrictions, we want to see Israel go much further. We urge access into and out of Gaza in accordance with international humanitarian law for humanitarian actors, reconstruction materials and those, including Palestinians, travelling for medical purposes. We are in close contact with UN agencies and key partners on the ground to assess the situation, and we will monitor that closely.”

MAP is grateful to those MPs that highlighted the impact of escalating Israeli military and settler violence, and discriminatory policies, on Palestinian health and healthcare. We call on the Government to urgently protect Palestinian civilians and healthcare personnel, and to support genuine investigations, and legal accountability for serious violations of international law which undermine Palestinian health and dignity.

Palestinians’ health and lives are on the line. Please email your MP and ask them to demand that the UK government acts urgently to end violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Email your MP

Photo: Healthworkers at the Rafidia Hospital in Nablus respond to increasing violence in the West Bank. (Credit: Ark Media / MAP).

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