Israel sees reliance on Palestinian health workers as a ‘threat to national security’

Ibrahim Khaliliye

Mondoweiss  /  February 16, 2023

Israel is putting its commitment to Jewish supremacy above the functioning of its healthcare system, proposing rejecting graduates of Palestinian universities in favor of “Jewish purity.”

Israeli officials see Israel’s high reliance on the expertise of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the medical fields to be a “threat to national security.” The anxiety over the lack of Jewish participation in the medical fields has recently pushed the Israeli cabinet to propose that medical degrees from Palestinian universities in the West Bank — where many Palestinian citizens of Israel study — no longer be recognized in Israel.

The cabinet’s proposal has sparked controversy and outrage among Palestinians living in the West Bank and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The resolution, pushed by Likud member and Minister of Agriculture Avi Dichter on February 1st, aims to reduce and weaken the relationship between these communities and is part of a larger effort by the Israeli government to combat what it perceives as “terrorism.”

This proposal follows a string of other discriminatory actions by the Israeli government, including denying national insurance benefits and deporting families of Administrative prisoners (administrative prisoners are detained and arrested by the Israeli government without trial due to their political activism), allowing more Jewish citizens to carry weaponsrevoking the citizenship of Arab prisoners’ families, and withdrawing identity cards and residency from the families of Jerusalemite prisoners. 

These actions reflect the far-right policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new government, which is an expression of Israel’s ethnic supremacism.

Studying at West Bank medical schools

According to a report from the Palestinian Ministry of education, Palestinian universities are popular with Arab students in Israel due to their focus on the health and medical fields, as well as their flexible admission conditions unlike Israeli universities Palestinian universities do not require students to have obtained a minimum and scores on standardized and Hebrew proficiency tests (such as the Psychometric Entrance Test or the “Yael” Test), cultural comfort, and their ability to study in Arabic or English. Palestinian universities in the West Bank offer an opportunity for students to preserve their cultural identity and participate in national activities and events that enhance their Palestinian nationalism.

The growth in the number of Arab students attending Palestinian universities has raised concerns among Israeli officials about the long-term impact on the economy and national security of the country. There are approximately 15,000 Arab students studying in West Bank universities, the majority of whom study medicine and medical sciences and do return to work in Israel after they graduate. 

Many of these students are exposed to political views that may be “hostile” to Israel given the predominance of Palestinian national identity in Palestinian universities in the West Bank, leading to a sense of injustice upon return to work in the Israeli medical field.

Additionally, the study highlights that the popularity of Palestinian universities among Arab students is also driven by their affordable tuition fees compared to universities in Israel. This has made it possible for many students from low-income families to pursue their studies and realize their academic goals. Moreover, the close proximity of these universities to major cities in the West Bank has made it convenient for students to commute and access basic amenities such as housing and healthcare. This has led to an increase in the enrollment of Palestinian Arab students from Israel in Palestinian universities, making them an attractive option for those who are looking to receive a quality education at an affordable price.

Preserving ‘Jewish purity’ in medicine

The Israeli government is proposing a new policy that aims to prioritize Jewish students over Arab students in the enrollment process for Israeli universities, especially in the popular majors. These majors include medicine, law, computer science, mathematics, and engineering. The government is also reportedly planning to offer additional incentives to soldiers who have completed their compulsory military service in order to enroll them in these popular majors.

This policy change echoes the platform of the far-right “Jewish Power” party, whose leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is advocating for the “purity of the Jewish race” in the field of medicine and pharmacy. It should be noted that Ben Gvir keeps in his living room a poster of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish Israeli physician who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron in 1994 and who refused to provide medical treatment to non-Jews throughout his career as a doctor. 

Ben Gvir argues that there is an over-representation of Arab students in these fields, which he considers a waste. This viewpoint has been included in the coalition agreement with the ruling Likud party.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute, the percentage of Arab students studying medicine increased from 8.2 percent to more than 12 percent, and their percentage in similar medical professions jumped from 10.8 percent to 26.7 percent.

While the percentage of Palestinian students in Israeli universities was low until the 1990s, it has increased significantly with the development of the higher education system and the integration of marginalized communities, including Palestinians. 

It is clear that the Palestinian Arab community in Israel has played a significant role in the country’s healthcare system. Making up 17 percent of doctors, 24 percent of nurses, 47 percent of pharmacists, and 33 percent of cleaning and maintenance workers in hospitals and medical clinics, the role of Palestinians in the healthcare sector cannot be overlooked.

Moreover, a significant number of Palestinian medical professionals who do not have Israeli citizenship — most of them carrying West Bank IDs — are also working in the health sector in Israel. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), there were approximately 7,500 Palestinians from the West Bank employed in the health and social work sector in Israel in 2020. This figure includes both those who work in Israeli hospitals and those who work in other healthcare settings, such as clinics and nursing homes. 

The Israeli government’s recent proposal to stop recognizing degrees from Palestinian universities, therefore, not only reveals the inherent racism of Zionism but would put Jewish supremacy above the functioning of its own healthcare system. If anything, this only further illustrates just how deeply ethnic supremacy runs in Israel and its new government. 

The racial supremacism underlying these proposals is systemic. It is part of a larger pattern that entrenches the oppression of Palestinians in Israel and in the West Bank.

Ibrahim Khaliliye is from Nazareth, Palestine. He currently works at the Mossawa Center, an international organization that promotes the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel