Israeli – Palestinian Conflict Blocks Full Day At World Health Assembly  
Palestinian medics attend to an young man injured during clashes with Israeli security forces in Jerusalem on 10 May, just before the eruption of violence between Israel and Gaza

A longstanding dispute over a perennial World Health Assembly resolution on the health situation in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories claimed a full day of WHA delegates’ attention – as countries on both sides of the bitter conflict battled over a draft decision in a prolonged debate, leading up to a painstaking virtual vote by roll call of all 194 WHO member states.  

Ultimately, Israel lost its bid to defeat the measure – to which it has long objected saying that it singles out the Palestinian issue at the WHA above any other health and humanitarian conflict today. 

A total of 83 WHO member states voted yes, 14 voted no and 39 abstained from the final, approved resolution on the “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan”. 

The resolution, its 27 co-sponsors led by Algeria, and including South Africa, Andorra and Indonesia and Venezuela alongside nearly two dozen other Arab and North African states, was backed by a detailed report focusing on shortcomings and barriers to the access of health services in Hamas-controlled Gaza and the West Bank, occupied by Israel. 

WHO Regional Director for EMRO Ahmed Al Muntari

The report covers a wide range of longstanding issues faced by Palestinians such as: the lack of access to specialist hospitals in Israeli-controlled Jerusalem; Israeli limitations on the movement of Palestinian emergency services; lack of Palestinian access to COVID vaccines, and an overall lower quality of health services.  The net result of those factors, compounded by chronic violence, poor housing, inadequate water and sanitation services, also leave Palestiniains with a shorter average life expectancy, pointed out WHO’s Ibrahima Socé Fall and Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, who presented the report.   

The resolution, anchored upon the report, called mainly for the provision of  more WHO support to the Palestinian health sector, equitable Palestinian access to COVID-19 vaccines, and protection of health and humanitarian responders who have faced even greater challenges during the recent 11-spate of clashes between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.  

However, Israel and its allies also have begun to object more and more vocally over the past year to the centrality the Palestinian measure receives aimed on the WHA stage – unlike that of any other country, humanitarian crisis or disputed territory.  

This year, in particular, sentiments were running at fever pitch – in light of the recent fierce fighting between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Those clashes saw 11 days of fiery exchanges of missiles and air power – leaving at least 243 Gaza Palestinians killed, including more than 100 women and children, according to Hamas  – although Israel disputes those figures saying that among the victims in Gaza were more than 150 Hamas fighters.  In Israel,13 people, including two children, died.  

In contrast, a brewing WHA debate over whether to credential Myanmar’s deposed civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, or the new military rulers who seized power in February and have since been accused of violently repressing and arresting protestors en masse, was buried by a WHA credentials committee. The committee, meeting behind closed doors Tuesday, kicked on the politically thorny decision to a latter date and the UN General Assembly.  That motion passed without a word of opposition from the WHA plenary on Wednesday. 

Even the normally contentious issue of Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHA passed with just a few remarks by member states in plenary and other meetings yesterday and today. 

Objections by Israel and Allies to “Standalone Item” Have Amplified 

The debates over the health conditions in occupied Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights have gradually became more and more prolonged over the past couple of years, after Israel began to insist on a roll-call vote over the  WHA resolution accompanying the report on health conditions. 

That constitutes Israeli pushback over the extra  attention the issue receives every year in the WHA forum – as compared to other similar reports on health conditions in humanitarian situations and conflict zones – which are either never discussed, or are confined to a footnote.    

A sustained Israeli diplomatic effort among sympathetic member states has gradually yielded some results – although not enough to overturn the vote.  

As the United Kingdom stated:  “We voted no, because we object to the addition of this standalone agenda item at the World Health Assembly, which as we all know is the only country-specific item proposed at this Assembly – and something which we believe needlessly politicizes the WHO and the WHA at a time when collaborative action between us is so needed.

“We supported the report, and the associated decision be considered alongside other WHO assistive programs. 

“We of course, like so many others who remain deeply concerned by the fragile health situation in the occupied Palestinian, especially in Gaza –  and the recent conflict and damage to health infrastructure has exacerbated the needs of the population at the same time that it faces the COVID pandemic. 

“However, we are considering that this Assembly does not scrutinize the other difficult health situations around the world in the same way as it scrutinizes the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.  And this his item remains the only one of its kind. And we fail, we believe in our duty to serve people around the world who have vitally important health needs. If we allow the WHO become politicized in this way.

Palestine & Syria Retort – What is New?

Syrian delegate to the WHA

Retorted the delegate from Palestine, which represents the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank – and has observer status at the WHA: 

“It’s very sad to hear all of these excuses from some of my colleagues, all of those who spoke of the politicization, voted for this same draft a few years ago. Everyone was for this draft resolution. So what is new, that we have just discovered, that makes everyone believe that this is a politicization, no we’re against anything that makes things more political.” 

The Palestinian delegate also suggested that “if the bombing stops, and ief we have at least the opportunity to have eased access to distribute vaccines, then in that case, we wouldn’t even need a resolution” – adding that she hoped next year Palestine would also become a full member of the World Health Assembly. 

“What we are attempting is to establish responsibility, we do not want to harm anyone but this means of going forward is something that we reject. And it is a major hindrance for the health sector of Palestine, and it is not in conformity with the Geneva Conventions, I thank you very much for your kind attention.”

Added Syria, Israel’s allegations that the resolution politicized the work of the WHO, “is a sheer misleading campaign” saying it was a “technical text….  which is presented in the context of the mandate or who it confirms the determination of the international society, to provide protection and health care to the Palestinian people and the Syrians under occupation.”

The bitter dispute, as Syria noted, also extends to the Golan Heights, over which Israel has extended Israeli law – providing Syrian Druse communities living there with access to Israeli health and social security services –  as well as a pathway to citizenship. 

“This relates to Syrian citizens, who are under foreign occupation, and who are being referred to by the Israeli occupying power under misleading terms, to justify its illegal decisions to annex the Syrian Golan.”

Israel meanwhile said that member states who adopted the decision have allowed the Syrians to whitewash their political crimes – and allow the Palestinians to use this forum for their political goals, and adopt a decision that is far removed from reality. 

Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva

“Let’s stop the politicization of this forum, by deleting this  from the agenda,” said Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva. “Health can be a bridge to peace. This decision has become a ritual, its time to stop that. It’s time to build back better.” 

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