Middle East Eye / March 30, 2020
As the world battles coronavirus, spare a thought for health workers in the ‘most dangerous place in the world’
While doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals around the world are heroically battling the growing coronavirus pandemic, spare a thought for those doing so in a place a UN investigation last year called “one of the most dangerous places in the world for healthcare workers”: the occupied Palestinian territories.
One year ago this month, a UN mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli military snipers had intentionally shot at health workers, children, persons with disabilities and journalists at protests in Gaza.
Three medics were among the more than 200 people killed during two years of Israel’s use of force at the Great March of Return demonstrations. A further 845 medics were injured. No one has been held to account for this.
Attacks on Palestinian medics and the wider health sector are nothing new. Israel’s devastating military offensive on Gaza in the summer of 2014 took the lives of 23 Palestinian health workers and 556 children. Forty-five ambulances, 17 hospitals and 56 healthcare centres were damaged or destroyed.
A different round of death and destruction prompted a different UN investigation, but the conclusion was all-too-familiar: that there was “substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law [which] may amount to war crimes.”
New research by the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, of which I am an honorary patron, in partnership with the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights, shows that the protected status of hospitals and medical personnel under international law is not being upheld.
Their report, Chronic Impunity: Gaza’s health sector under repeated attack, illustrates how Israel’s internal military justice system has afforded impunity for the 2014 attacks on hospitals and ambulance crews, failing to prosecute a single perpetrator. It outlines how this impunity has fuelled the repeated attacks on health workers in Gaza during the Great March of Return, also carried out with total impunity.
At the UN Security Council in February this year, UK ambassador Karen Pierce stated that “the United Kingdom believes that legal accountability for conflict-related crimes serves as deterrent, punishment, and a method for upholding victims’ rights.
Without it, there can be neither reconciliation of communities, nor faith in the functioning of rule of law institutions, nor respect for the rules-based international system.”
This is completely correct, but the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories cannot be allowed to become an exception or a blind spot for the UK government. If nations like the UK truly care about addressing humanitarian needs and upholding the fundamental rules of international law, we have to be prepared to condemn outright deplorable illegality and impunity wherever it occurs.
Failure to do so emboldens other nations to behave in a similar fashion.
A global challenge
Russia has been exposed as deliberately bombing hospitals throughout Syria in the ongoing conflict there, and health workers have been repeatedly targeted in Yemen. As the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition highlight, this reflects a global, recurring pattern of attacks and impunity.
With health workers the world over now confronting a common challenge in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, now is the time to send a clear message that attacks on them will not be tolerated anywhere.
The United States has made clear that is has abrogated any vestiges of global leadership on the issue of international law as pertains to Israel and the Palestinians.
US President Donald Trump’s so-called “peace plan” paints a vision of permanent Israeli control over Palestinians’ daily lives, and one where Palestinians would have no recourse to international justice where crimes are committed against them.
The UK, with its international partners, must therefore step up. It is time to take real action to support accountability for attacks on healthcare and other potentially serious violations of international law wherever they occur, including in Palestine.
Impunity is contagious. Silence is collusion. If the UK and others fail to act, I’m afraid any hope of peace and justice also lies in critical condition.
Helena Kennedy is a barrister, broadcaster and Labour member of the House of Lords; she is an expert in human rights law, civil liberties and constitutional issues, and an Honorary Patron of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)