The UK must address attacks on Palestinian health workers

Since 30 March 2018, Gaza has seen widespread civil society-organised demonstrations, named the “Great March of Return”. Two thirds of Gaza’s two million-strong population are refugees and protesters are demanding their right to return to the lands from which their families were expelled or fled in and around 1948, as well as their wider rights relating to Israel’s unlawful 11-year closure of Gaza.

The Israeli military’s repeated use of shocking and often lethal force against protesters has resulted in scores of deaths, and many thousands of injuries.

Health workers trying to reach, treat and evacuate wounded demonstrators have also come under fire. Scores have been shot with live ammunition, directly hit with teargas canisters or have suffered teargas inhalation. Dozens of ambulances have also been damaged. By September, three health-workers had been killed and 428 injured by Israeli forces while carrying out vital and often life-saving work.

MAP is imploring the UK authorities to do more to ensure protection and support for Palestinian health workers.

The tragic stories of the three paramedics killed in Gaza demonstrate why such action is so urgent

Musa

On 14 May, 34-year-old field paramedic Musa Abu-Hassanin was fatally shot while trying to evacuate wounded demonstrators east of Gaza City. Witnesses said Musa was about 200 meters from the perimeter fence at the time.

Razan

On 1 June, 21-year-old medical volunteer Razan al-Najjar was fatally shot while trying to reach injured demonstrators close to Israel’s perimeter fence in Khuza’a in the south of Gaza. Witnesses said Razan approached the fence wearing a white medic’s vest with both of her arms raised to show Israeli forces about 100 meters away that she posed no threat.

Abdallah

On 10 August, 22-year-old first responder Abdallah al-Qutati was fatally shot while providing care to a 55-year-old man who had been shot by Israeli forces east of Rafah, south Gaza. One of many short films produced by MAP in Gaza in 2018 shows the family, colleagues and friends of Abdallah al-Qutati describing the circumstances of his killing and the need for protection and accountability.

These deaths only tell part of the story. Over the past decade, health workers and facilities have repeatedly been attacked or impeded by Israeli forces. In total, 39 health workers were killed and 106 injured during Israel’s 2008/9, 2012 and 2014 military offensives on Gaza. 147 primary health clinics and 80 ambulances were also damaged or destroyed.

Attacks on healthcare have impacts far beyond the initial pain and damage. Impunity fuels further killings and injuries and such attacks also reduce the capacity of the health system to care adequately for the population, particularly during emergencies, undermining Palestinians’ right to health in the long-term. Failing to ensure accountability increases the likelihood of recurrence and further erodes the international norms which ensure the protection of health professionals and infrastructure in conflicts around the world.

A dangerous double standard

In 2016, the UK Government championed UN Security Council Resolution 2286, condemning attacks on health services in conflict, demanding that states comply with international humanitarian and human rights law which prohibits such violations, and urging states to take proactive steps to hold perpetrators to account.

Yet, in the context of Israel’s use of force against protesters and health workers in Gaza, the UK has failed to put its principles into practice. In May 2018, the UK abstained on a resolution establishing an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of international law in Gaza at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The Government has instead called on Israel to investigate its own violations by carrying out an “independent and transparent investigation” which they insist should include “international members”. This is despite warnings from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights of Israel’s “failure to consistently prosecute violations committed by members of security forces” and the “deficit in accountability for alleged extrajudicial killings and other violations [which] undermines confidence in Israeli justice”.

By the admission of Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP, the UK has “yet to have a full response” to their suggestion to Israel that their internal investigation should have an independent element. Israel is clearly unwilling to adequately and promptly investigate the killing and injuring of Palestinian health workers, and it is time for the UK to revise their position.

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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of our supporter magazine, Witness.