UK Parliamentarians call for accountability for attacks on Palestinian medics

Last month, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UK abstained on a vote supporting accountability for potential violations of international law in the context of the ongoing “Great March of Return” protest in Gaza. Among the thousands of casualties there in 2018, three health workers were shot dead and more than 600 injured, leading the independent UN Commission of Inquiry to conclude that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers intentionally shot health workers, despite seeing that they were clearly marked as such.” The occupied Palestinian territory has become, it said, “one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a health worker”.

Immediately after the UK’s abstention on the vote at the UN, an Urgent Question on the issue was tabled in the House of Commons by Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry MP (Lab). She spoke about her meeting the previous week with Dr Tarek Loubani, a medic shot while working at the protests, and Dr Mahmoud Matar, a senior orthopaedic surgeon from Gaza who has been treating severe gunshot wounds incurred at the protests. The meeting was facilitated by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP):

“A few days ago, Dr Tarek Loubani came to see me. He is a Canadian who was volunteering in Gaza last year. When the protests began on the border last spring, he went to help the many protestors who had been wounded by gunfire or affected by tear gas. He said that, on 14 May, the situation was relatively calm. He stood chatting to his colleagues 25 metres away from the protestors, wearing his green hospital scrubs. He said:

“We could clearly see the IDF sniper towers…And they could see us”.

When he turned sideways, that was when they shot him—one bullet, through both legs. The paramedic who came to his aid, clearly marked in high-vis clothing, treated his injuries, then resumed his work elsewhere and was shot dead an hour later. That paramedic was one of 189 Palestinians killed during last year’s protests— 35 of them children—while Dr Loubani was one of 6,000 shot by snipers.”

Pressing (now former) FCO Minister Alistair Burt on the UK’s position at the Council, she emphasised that the UN Commission of Inquiry report “provides clear and compelling evidence that live ammunition was used in a way that cannot be explained or justified against individuals such as Dr Loubani and thousands more like him.”

“If Dr Loubani cannot be given justice for the injuries he has suffered and the killing of his colleagues,” said Ms Thornberry, “surely he deserves at least to hear the world, including our country, unequivocally condemn it.”

Minister Burt, who also met with the doctors in London, asserted that:

“There is no doubt about his sincerity and the pain that he has experienced in relation to his injuries and the death of his friend. Any encounter with those who have been involved in the actions that resulted from the protests and the move towards the fence brings into sharp relief our discussions, when we confront the reality of what has happened—the loss of life, the life-changing injuries to a child hit by a bullet, a lifetime of disability and the loss of paramedics”

 Nevertheless, he reiterated the government’s position that it “continues fully to support an independent and transparent investigation into the…events in Gaza” but that it “cannot support an international investigation that refuses to call explicitly for an investigation into the action of non-state actors”. This is despite the Commission of Inquiry did in fact look into such actions, stating clearly its finding that members of the de facto authorities in Gaza “encouraged or defended demonstrators’ use of incendiary kites and balloons, causing fear and significant damage in southern Israel” and had “failed in their due diligence obligations to prevent and stop the use of these indiscriminate devices.”

Other MPs who spoke in the debate also discussed meeting the doctors from Gaza with MAP. Richard Burden MP (Lab), chair of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group asked:

“Does the Minister accept that Tarek Loubani is one of 600 health workers who were wounded last year, three of whom were killed? In what other situation would the Government refuse to vote to hold accountable those who flagrantly breach international humanitarian law? Is the fact that the Government refused to do so on this occasion nothing short of disgraceful?”

Stephen Twigg MP (Lab), Chair of the International Development Committee, said:

“I, too, met Dr Tarek Loubani in London last week, as I know the Minister did. What message are we sending to the Palestinians if peaceful, diplomatic routes via the United Nations are being closed off to them, as we are doing now?”

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP (Lab) similarly underscored the need to protect health workers in Gaza:

“I, too, have met the fantastic Dr Loubani. As an emergency field doctor myself, I cannot fathom what it must be like to listen over the radio waves as your colleagues die, and to have to wait until they are dead before you can go and collect their bodies. I am ashamed that the UK abstained today. Will the Minister tell us how the Government will protect civilians, how they will protect medics, and how they will ensure that humanitarian law is upheld?”

In response, Minister Burt stated that “no medical worker should be a target, and that when that happens, there must be independent accountability for it,” but reiterated the UK’s belief that the independent UN Commission of Inquiry’s process was “flawed from the beginning”. Instead, the UK “welcome[d] the fact that Israel has opened some criminal investigations into some of its activities”, despite the finding of the UN Commission of Inquiry that:

“To date, the Government of Israel has consistently failed to meaningfully investigate and prosecute commanders and soldiers for crimes and violations committed against Palestinians or to provide reparation to victims in accordance with international norms.” Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has termed Israel’s internal investigation system a “whitewash mechanism”.

Other MPs focused on Israel’s use of force against protesters. Alex Chalk MP (Con) asked “Will the Minister join me in deprecating the use of live ammunition in all but the most extreme and volatile circumstances?” To which the Minister replied, simply, “Yes.”

Sir Edward Davey MP (LD) asked “what are the Government doing to put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza?” The Minister replied that the UK “continue[s] to exert pressure and make appropriate representations to Israel about what can and should come in and out of Gaza that will assist the economic situation.”

Andy Slaughter MP (Lab) stated:

“The UK mission to the UN in seeking to explain the abstention this morning says:

"It is a source of great concern that, since 30th March 2018, over 23,000 Palestinians have been injured and 187 Palestinians have been killed during these protests. Hamas of course bear principal responsibility as their operatives have cynically exploited the protests.”

Does the Minister seriously support that? Even if he regards this report as incomplete it is robust in what evidence is in it, which suggests that children, medics and civilians have been gratuitously executed by Israeli snipers over a long period. It appears that the Government are looking for an excuse not to condemn the Netanyahu Government. Does the Minister not realise that this gives a green light to Israel to continue murdering civilians and maiming people in this way, and that his Government will bear some responsibility for that?”

You can read the debate in full here, and watch it here (from 11:49 onwards).

Killings fuelled by impunity

Just days after the UK’s abstention at the Human Rights Council and the parliamentary debate, a fourth Palestinian health worker in a year was killed by Israeli forces, this time in the West Bank. Sajed Mizher, a 17-year-old volunteer health worker with the Palestine Medical Relief Society, was fatally shot in the abdomen by Israeli soldiers while providing care to people injured during clashes at Dheisheh Camp, near Bethlehem. The WHO “strongly condemns” the killing, as does MAP. The prominent Palestinian human rights organisation, Al-Haq, documented the circumstances of the killing and also attempts by the Israeli military authorities and others to misleadingly distort the facts and even portray Sajed as a “terrorist”.

The killing of Sajed underlines how important international support is for accountability, including from the UK, to protect health workers in the oPt. MAP is grateful to all the MPs who have raised their voices in support of this principle, including those who have signed this Early Day Motion.

MAP reiterates it call to the government to support and help implement the UN Commission of Inquiry’s important recommendations regarding accountability, the protection of health workers and other civilians, and the fulfilment of the right to health of people in Gaza.

We will keep supporters updated with developments, as well as new ways to get involved in our campaign to protect Palestinian health workers, via our e-newsletter, which you can sign up to here.