Five things Theresa May should raise with Trump in support of Palestinians’ right to health

This week, US President Donald Trump is on a three-day visit to the UK which will include meetings with UK Prime Minister Theresa May and new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Downing Street has said that the talks will cover developments in the Middle East, and therefore they present an opportunity for the UK Government to robustly urge President Trump to reverse damaging US policies with regards to Palestinians’ rights to health and dignity.

Harmful such policy shifts under include: His decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the US embassy to the city;  the removal of reference to “occupied territories” on official State Department documents regarding the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza;  and severe US cuts to UNRWA funding, imperilling the wellbeing of Palestinian refugees across the region.  

The UK Government has made it clear that it does not support the US embassy move, and has reiterated its support for UNRWA.

The UK has, however, maintained a “wait and see” approach towards Trump’s long-awaited “deal of the century” peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians.

While the world waits, Gaza’s humanitarian emergency continues to deepen, Bedouin communities in the West Bank such as Khan al Ahmar teeter on the brink of destruction, refugees in Lebanon struggle to access essential healthcare and Israeli forces attack healthworkers, ambulances and protesters with impunity.

Here are five ways that Theresa May could mark Trump’s visit to the UK which would send a strong message in support of Palestinians’ rights to health and dignity:

1. Remind President Trump of international law

In May, it emerged that the US State Department had broken with decades of established policy – and international legal consensus – and ceased to refer to the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza as ‘occupied territory’ in official documents including its annual human rights report.

Israel’s occupation of this territory began in 1967 and has continued to be recognised by the international community for the past 51 years. The Fourth Geneva Convention confers on Israel – as the occupying power – international legal obligations towards to the Palestinian population under its control, including responsibility for their health and welfare and indeed has been found to be in “profound breach” of those obligations.

While Palestinians endure widespread violations of international law, the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to Israel’s conduct continues to be reiterated by UK government officials. Theresa May could remind President Trump of the relevant international law governing Israel’s actions in the oPt, and call on the US to reaffirm the international legal consensus and not to put forward any peace plan which violates international law.

2. Call for any humanitarian plan for Gaza to include the lifting of the blockade and closure

The humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate amid more than a decade of stifling blockade and closure, a chronic electricity crisis, and restrictions on the freedom of movement of patients and medical workers. The challenges for Gaza’s healthcare system, which the World Health Organization warned was ‘on the brink of collapse’ in February, have been compounded by the high number of casualties resulting from Israel’s use of force against Great March of Return protesters since 30 March. 144 people have been killed and more than 16,000 injured, many of them with live ammunition.

This week, Israel announced that it was to close Gaza’s only commercial crossing, Kerem Shalom, to all imports and exports except basic humanitarian supplies. This will exacerbate Gaza’s already-steep economic and humanitarian decline.

In March, Trump advisor Jared Kushner hosted a meeting at the White House on the issue of Gaza’s humanitarian situation, attended by 19 states including the UK, but without any representation from the Palestinians. Little information has so far been made available about the proposals for addressing Gaza’s plight which have been discussed.

 The 11-year closure of Gaza by Israel has been deemed a “collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law” by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Theresa May should press President Trump to ensure that any US-led initiatives to alleviate Gaza’s humanitarian emergency must demand strict adherence to international law from all actors, including requiring Israel as the occupying power to lift the closure and end its 51-year occupation.

3. Support the UN-mandated independent Commission of Inquiry on Gaza

The Great Return March protests in Gaza which began on 30 March have been met by shocking – and often lethal – force by Israeli security forces. So far 144 Palestinians have been killed and 16,071 injured, many with live ammunition. In May, the UN Human Rights Council voted to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry to violations of international law in the context of these protests.

Despite the long record of Israeli forces attacking Palestinians with impunity, the UK, however, abstained on the vote and failed to support the inquiry’s creation. The US has since withdrawn from the Human Rights Council, accusing it of bias against Israel.

Theresa May could remind President Trump of the vital role of intergovernmental forums such as the Human Rights Council in protecting and promoting human rights – including the right to health –across the globe, and the centrality of accountability for any and all violations to maintaining the rule of international law.

Reversing the UK’s and the US’s position and publicly stating support for the Commission of Inquiry would send a strong message of commitment to the rule of international law in the context of the occupied Palestinian territory, and support for the Human Rights Council’s role in upholding this.

4. Call on President Trump to help save Khan al Ahmar

The West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al Ahmar is at immediate risk of demolition and forcible transfer.  

Expressions of concern and diplomatic pressure from the UK and other states on Israel calling for the decision to be reversed are welcome but unlikely to be adequate to save the community.  Preparations for the demolitions have already begun, and MAP’s mobile clinic – which regularly visits this and other Bedouin communities due to the Israeli Government’s prohibition on the building of permanent Palestinian health infrastructure in Area C – was prevented from visiting Khan al Ahmar for several days.

The US continues to hold significant influence over Israel, and could therefore urge Israel not to carry out the forcible transfer of the Khan al Ahmar community, and immediately cease the demolition of Palestinian homes and infrastructure in Area C. Theresa May should explain the UK’s concern for the wellbeing of this community, and ask President Trump to intervene.

5. Increase the US’s support for UNRWA

The work of UNRWA is vital to maintaining basic services, including healthcare, for millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. After 70 years of displacement following the Nakba in 1948, their humanitarian situation is more precarious than ever after the US administration’s decision to withhold more than half of its annual contributions.

The impact of these cuts is being felt, and UNRWA Chief Pierre Krähenbühl has warned that the organisation will soon run out of money for food distribution, psychosocial support and cash-for-work programmes. In Lebanon, the healthcare system available to Palestinian refugees which Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) recently warned is “close to collapse” has been further jeopardised by UNRWA’s growing deficit.

The UK Government has brought forward this year’s contributions to UNRWA, but so far refused to pledge any additional support. Theresa May could use the opportunity of President Trump’s visit to remind him of the humanitarian duty incumbent on the entire international community to support Palestinian refugees until they are able to return to their homelands.

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