WHO Executive Board Rejects Israel’s Proposal To Remove Standalone Agenda Item On Palestinian Health Conditions
Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, speaking to the WHO Executive Board.

For the second time in as many years, WHO member states have voted down a proposal by Israel to remove a standalone item from the agenda of the 74th World Health Assembly – devoted exclusively to a report on health conditions in the Occupied Palestinian territories – and consider it as part of WHO’s overall health emergencies agenda.  

Saying that the agenda item unfairly singles out just one country for criticism, as compared to every other nation in the world, Israel on Tuesday proposed to the WHO Executive Board, which fixes the WHA agenda, that the report be considered as part of the overall discussion on WHO’s work in health emergencies when WHO member states meet in May. 

In a lengthy and unusual voting process on the closing day of the 10-day EB session, the proposal was rejected in a vote of 15 to seven – with 9 abstentions and 3 countries absent. Those supporting Israel’s position included the United Kingdom, Germany and Austria, joined by the United States, Australia and Colombia. EB members that were opposed included Oman, China, Russia, and Tunisia. 

Israel’s delegation said the report was a “political” item that does not reflect reality and will not change the situation on the ground.

Item 25 is a political item with only one purpose – to attack Israel and to politicize an otherwise professional organization [WHO]. This must be changed…What I’m asking you to do today is to ensure that the World Health Assembly maintains its focus on health and the truth, said Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Meirav Eilon Shahar.

“Regardless of what takes place in Geneva, we, Israel, will continue to work with the Palestinians and with WHO and we’ll continue to work on any problem and assistance intended to improve the health conditions for the Palestinians,” she added. 

The Palestinian representative, Ibrahim Khraishi, Ambassador of the State of Palestine to the UN, which holds observer status in the World Health Assembly, retorted that: “The [health situation in the occupied territories] is catastrophic and dire…Israel is finding it easy to renege on its responsibility, for example, it is not meeting its requirement…when it comes to vaccination.

“When we look at the rate of vaccination for [Israeli] citizens, the figure exceeds two and a half million, whereas not one single Palestinian citizen has had the jab because of Israeli practices,” he said. 

Khraishi cited the WHO report from the 73rd WHA in November 2020, which he said shows that infant mortality of West Bank Palestinians is six times higher, and maternal mortality nine times higher than that of the 600,000 Israeli settlers living side by side with Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank. The report also describes barriers Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza face in accessing more health services, such as the more specialized services in Jerusalem, which is directly under Israeli rule and to which access is tightly-controlled. 

Ibrahim Khraishi, Ambassador of the State of Palestine to the UN and Palestine’s representative to the Executive Board.

After the vote among member states, Israel disputed the vaccination claims, saying that Palestinian inmates have received vaccinations and the PA has been provided with emergency supplies for 100 essential health workers – but the overall responsibility to vaccinate the roughly 5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza lies with the Palestinian Authority (PA), not Israel. 

“We are very happy to extend assistance in facilitation of those vaccines in entrance to Israel,” said Eilon Shahar, referring to the expected arrival of PA-purchased vaccine supplies from Russia. PA health officials have not, in fact, officially requested vaccines from Israel, but rather are awaiting the arrival of Russian Sputnik vaccines within the coming two weeks.  However, human rights groups have underlined that Israel still holds the ultimate responsibility for health under international law insofar as it still occupies the West Bank,

The largely technical issue of where on the WHA agenda the report on Palestinian health conditions should be reviewed, was subject to a lengthy and unusual voting process (most EB decisions are made by consensus).  The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom explained their support of Israel’s proposal, saying that no other country in the world has been singled out in such a way by the WHO.

“We’re concerned that the World Health Assembly does not consider the many other difficult health situations around the world in the same way,” said the UK’s delegate. “This item remains the only country specific item at the WHA…We fail our duty to serve people around the world who have vitally important health concerns if we allow WHO to become politicized in this way.”

The UK’s delegate to the Executive Board.

Australia went a step further, expressing concerns about the introduction of political issues into the WHA through the existence of the stand alone item – and calling for negotiations to permanently remove the item, not only as a stand-alone item but altogether from the agenda. 

The delegations from Oman and the Syrian Arab Republic countered the arguments made by the UK and US, claiming that the agenda item does not single out Israel.

“This is not a country-specific item. This is an item which [reflects] a specific situation, a situation of people under occupation and addresses the legal obligations of the occupying power,” said Syria’s delegate. “The politicization is coming from attempts to go around these facts.”

The Palestinian representative concluded the discussion at the closing session of the Executive Board meeting on Tuesday by urging member states to encourage Israel to “shoulder her responsibilities and do her duty towards all citizens for which she is responsible, particularly those in the occupied Syrian Golan, the Gaza Strip, and the other occupied territories.”  The Gaza Strip has been under Israeli blockade as a result of repeated Israeli confrontations with the fundamentalist Hamas, which wrested control of the Strip from the PA-supported Fatah in 2007,  two years after Israel unilaterally uprooted its settlements and withdrew from the Strip. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, and extended Israeli citizenship to the predominantly Druse residents of the Heights who remained after the war.  

Image Credits: WHO.

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