An unprecedented crisis for Palestinians: How will the UK respond?

Writing in the New Statesman last week, MAP CEO Aimee Shalan called for a new approach to the crisis faced by Palestinians:

One year ago, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) warned of a “humanitarian emergency” in Gaza. Electricity shortages threatened the shutdown of hospital services including intensive care, incubators and dialysis. Scarcity of medicines and medical specialties meant some treatment was unavailable, and dozens died awaiting Israeli permits to exit Gaza to reach hospitals in the West Bank.

Since then, Gaza’s decline has accelerated. Now 40% of essential medicines are completely out of stock, including many cancer medications. Hospitals run on backup generators 20 hours per day, and the UN warns that services will shut down within days unless funding for fuel is secured.

Gaza’s economy and health system are de-developing under 11 years of Israeli blockade. Infant mortality declines across the world but stagnates in Gaza. On top of this, Gaza’s health system is dealing with weekly mass casualty events resulting from the Israeli military’s use of force against “Great March of Return” protesters. More than 10,000 have been hospitalised, half with gunshot wounds. Some 1,200 need up to two years of expensive and painful limb reconstruction treatment and surgeries, relying strongly on the dedicated limb reconstruction unit developed by MAP and IDEALS. Orthopaedic surgery teams visiting from the UK say that any NHS hospital would be overwhelmed by the casualties. The ability of overstretched Palestinian medics to keep responding every Friday for 26 weeks is remarkable.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) calls the Gaza situation “a crisis on top of a catastrophe.” Meanwhile in the fragmented West Bank, Bedouin communities face demolitions and forcible transfer as their land is eaten up by settlements – all illegal under international law. UN human rights experts are “appalled” by the Israeli High Court’s sanctioning of the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar – a marginalised community served by MAP’s mobile clinic – and in effect the forcible transfer of its population, a decision “totally against the fundamental principles of international human rights law and international humanitarian law”. Will the UK actively support the experts’ demand that there be accountability for the unfolding international crime? 

And now Palestinian refugees across the region face a US-led assault on their status as refugees and their well-being. The US is cutting $200 million to humanitarian programmes administered by international NGOs, $365 million in annual contributions to UNRWA, and $25 million to hospitals in East Jerusalem.

The 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords passed without celebration. Under Oslo, aid is a carrot to Palestinians in their thwarted steps towards statehood while allowing Israel to offload and outsource its legal obligations to meet the humanitarian needs of the population whose land it occupies. The US is now withdrawing aid to coerce Palestinians into accepting Trump’s “ultimate deal” which fails to uphold international law. A stick is wielded against those blighted by occupation, displacement and ill-health but not against Israel which violates international law with impunity.

A new, effective approach from the international community is essential. Aid without accountability has failed, and Palestinians are falling over the precipice. Recent pledges for additional support for UNRWA and projects across the oPt are important in real and symbolic terms but cannot compensate for lost US funding nor halt the deterioration.  

Nevertheless, with its historical and ongoing responsibilities, the UK should address the crisis and show leadership on two fronts. Its aid projects must focus on sustainability – developing healthcare and other institutions and the human resources needed to perpetuate them. And it must work multilaterally towards a political solution embedded in international law, ensuring accountability for violations. The alarm bells couldn’t be louder. Will the UK respond appropriately?