World Health Assembly calls for support for Palestinian health system

Last week, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) attended the 70th World Health Assembly at the UN in Geneva. This year, as with previous years, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) presented a report to the Assembly on the topic of the “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan”.

This year’s report, the last from outgoing Director-General Margaret Chan, outlined the progress being made with technical assistance to the Palestinian health sector, including the family medicine project through which Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) has been collaborating with the WHO, Palestinian Ministry of Health, UNRWA and other stakeholders:

“With WHO’s support, the family practice model was adopted and training initiatives implemented in three district centres in 2016. A 10-year strategy is being drafted to advance family practice further, and an online training programme for general practitioners was developed to build family practice and general medicine capacity.”

The Director-General also assessed the health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). She highlighted the continuing physical and procedural barriers to healthcare access, including the delay-causing ‘back-to-back’ ambulance transfer process at East Jerusalem checkpoints, and the drop in the rate of Israel’s approval of permits for patients seeking to exit Gaza for treatment from 92% in 2012 to just 62% in 2016.

Her report highlighted potential violations against Palestinian health providers in 2016, including reported damage to three UNRWA clinics, and 46 reports of attacks on Palestine Red Crescent Society ambulances. It also described the ongoing mental health impact of the occupation:

“Regarding mental health in the occupied Palestinian territory, the occupation itself was noted as a major cause of problems. Mental health professionals reported: an increase of impulsive behaviours in the general population; a weakening of secure relationships leading to emotional and behavioural problems among children; and an increase of personality disorders.”

At each year’s Assembly, States vote on a decision to continue reporting on this situation and to mandate the WHO to provide technical assistance for the development of Palestinian healthcare. This year’s decision requested that the Director-General “support the development of the health system in the occupied Palestinian territory … with a particular focus on strengthening primary care and integrating mental health services provision into primary care services, as well as on health prevention and integrated disease management.”

The decision passed with the support of the majority of States, however the UK took the unprecedented step of voting against it, stating in its explanation of vote: “The WHO is one of the world’s most important technical agencies. It should not be a place where we argue over geopolitics.”

Nevertheless, this decision focused purely on continuing reporting of the situation and supporting technical assistance, and the Assembly’s mandate for discussing this topic is well-established over many years.

At previous World Health Assemblies – including 2016 – the UK has voted in favour of decisions on this topic even when more strongly-worded than this year’s. The UK joined the United States, Canada, Australia, Guatemala, Togo and Israel in opposing this year’s decision and was the only European Union member to do so.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, which next week will mark its 50th anniversary, imposes significant barriers to Palestinians’ rights to health and dignity.

International support for both health-system development and the creation of the political conditions through which these rights can be met, including an end to the occupation and the blockade and closure of Gaza, are vital to improving the health of Palestinians.

This is why MAP is supporting Palestinians as they demand their rights to health and dignity this year. To join their call today, click here.