Friends of MSF Essay Competition 2009-10 | Category 3: ‘Situations’ ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Justice: a mutilated concept in Palestine Raisa Ahmed 15th May 1948: marks the anniversary of Al-Nakba, “The Catastrophe” for the Palestinians. During the year 1948, more than 60% of the Palestinian population were expelled from their homeland by Israel.1 The politics of this 61 year old conflict is extremely complex and volatile with strong views being held on both sides. The fine line between truth and lies has been blurred: as the leaders we elected try to bury concepts of morality, humanity and justice, in concordance with the mainstream media. The result: a longstanding human tragedy, which only appears to deteriorate with each passing day. Palestine: now more commonly known as the occupied territories of Palestine, consists of the West Bank and Gaza.2 Gaza is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, with a population of 1.5 million3 residing in an area just 45km long and 12.5km wide at its southern end.4 In July 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that poverty affects 56% of the Palestinian population (Gaza and West Bank), with 80% in Gaza. Unemployment was 25.3% and has only risen since 2006. There are shortages of food, drinking water, electricity, medicine and medical supplies. The strict blockade placed on Gaza in 2006 by Israel severely restricts the entry of these necessities.5 In March 2008, Amnesty International released a joint report with other leading humanitarian and human rights organizations. This report stated that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is the worst it has ever been since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967.6 Unfortunately, the current situation is even worse. Israel’s assault on Gaza in late December 2008 rapidly transformed a humanitarian crisis into a humanitarian catastrophe.7 Healthcare is one of the many aspects of Palestinian life that has been crippled under Israeli occupation. In addition to the shortage of vital medical supplies, access to healthcare is extremely difficult due to the lack of contiguity between the West Bank and Gaza.6 This is further complicated by the hundreds of checkpoints littered across the occupied territories.
Access to hospitals can be delayed even longer with the requirement of travel permits. Moreover, travel can be prohibited altogether due to sudden road closures, military curfews and unpredictable lengthy detours.8 Between 2000 and 2006, the Ministry of Health reported that 69 Palestinian women gave birth at Israeli checkpoints. The average time to reach health facilities should be 15-30 minutes without roadblocks. 10% of pregnant women in labour were delayed by 2-4 hours on the road. In July 2007, alone, 40 ambulances were denied entry into the West Bank.9 Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released a report in March 2008, expressing concerns about how the severe lack of fuel was hindering their medical activities. The report clarified that this was primarily due to the tightening of the blockade in October 2007 and again in January 2008.10 Israel argues that these are security measures to ensure the safety of their citizens.11 However, what is the purpose of security measures that ‘defend’ a particular group of people but endanger another group? There is also a stark contrast between healthcare in Palestine and Israel. A good example of this: for every 1000 patients, Israel has 6.3 nurses whereas Palestine only has 1.7.9 Israel is universally recognized as an occupying force and this raises the question: what are the responsibilities of the occupying force? 12 The illegality of the occupation itself is a separate issue.13 Evidently, Israel is in clear violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, which highlights the obligations of the occupying power to provide medical services to the same standard as to their own citizens; protect hospitals; and protect freedom of movement of patients and medical personnel.14 In June 2009, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) issued a joint report, “Shackling as a form of torture and abuse.” The report provided significant evidence to show that Israel subjected Palestinian detainees to “inhumane and degrading treatment.” One case involved a pregnant detainee who was shackled while being taken to hospital for a scheduled caesarean. Post operation, she was shackled again by the leg to the hospital bed. The report stated that Israeli medical staff, who had attended to detainees requiring treatment while they were shackled, violated the Tokyo Declaration of the World Medical Association (WMA),15 “the doctor shall not countenance, condone or participate in the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading procedures… in all situations, including armed conflict and civil strife.”16 The Israeli Medical Association (IMA) has never investigated these allegations seriously. Instead they cut off ties with PHR, accusing them of fermenting anti-semitism.17 This is a ridiculous argument and is a common tactic used by Israel to deviate attention away from the main issue. This is not a religious conflict although fundamental Zionist propaganda tries to dictate otherwise. Israeli policies towards Palestinians do not equate to
Jewish practices. It is shocking that the IMA do not feel the need to investigate these claims, especially since they ratify the Tokyo Declaration.18 The infringement of Palestinian healthcare rights continued during the 22 day war. Operation “Cast Lead” that began on 27th December 2008 was a war unlike any other: trapped, unable to escape and with nowhere to hide, the people of Gaza were bombarded from land, air and sea. 1400 Palestinians died and more than 5600 were wounded.19 3 Israeli civilians and 10 Israeli soldiers were killed with 4 out of the 10 soldiers being lost to “friendly fire.”20 More than 3000 homes were destroyed and 20,000 were damaged. Entire neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble.21 34 health facilities including 8 hospitals were either damaged or destroyed, with some of the hospitals being attacked more than once.22 16 health personnel were killed and 22 were injured while on duty. 20 ambulances were partially damaged with 3 being completely destroyed.23 The Israel Defence Force (IDF) denied targeting medical staff and explained that medical staff who operated in the area took the risk upon themselves.24 Intentional or unintentional, there is no doubt that the IDF defied International Law. International Court of Justice defines the distinction between civilians and combatants as one of the basic principles of International Humanitarian Law.25 Some Israeli officials defended Israel’s actions by declaring that Palestinian fighters were either treated or took shelter in the hospitals attacked.24 Even if this is true, is it justifiable to indiscriminately demolish places known to be sheltering mainly innocent civilians? The moral answer is no. This war was supposedly launched to end rocket attacks by armed groups affiliated with Hamas.26 It is paradoxical for Israel to justify their disproportionate use of force and the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians by claiming self defence. It is ironic that Israel should destroy the Palestinian way of life by proclaiming to protect the Israeli way of life. The burden of living in a conflict is especially great on children. Palestinian children grow up only knowing warfare as the norm. 10% of children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition (50,000 in Gaza alone). About 50% of children under the age of 2 are anaemic and 70% are vitamin A deficient. Children in nearly a third of families experience anxiety, phobia and depression.27 A study found that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more frequently identified in children below 15 years whereas depression is the main symptom among adults. Almost all patients reported at least one traumatic event before the occurrence of psychological problems. The 3 major traumatic events accounted for were witnessing a murder or physical abuse, property destruction or loss and killing of a close family member.28
Over half of Gaza’s population are children.29 Despite the difficult circumstances, Palestinians are one of the most educated groups of people in the Middle East. This can be attributed to the work of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in helping educate several generations of Palestinians,30 but also to the cultural emphasis placed on the importance of education in securing a better future.31 For Palestinians, education is a means to preserve and reinforce their identity.32 However, restriction of movement and lack of resources pose to be daily challenges. As a consequence, school enrolment is declining. In addition, more than 10% of children have witnessed the killing of a teacher in school and nearly 50% of students have seen their school besieged by the IDF.33 Educational institutions were not spared in the 2008 Israeli offensive: despite UNRWA clearly marking all their buildings and informing the IDF the coordinates of their schools.34 During the war, these schools provided refuge for the people forced to flee their homes. The IDF asserted that they were responding to mortars fired from inside the schools,35 which the United Nations (UN) later denied.36 Education is a measure of development and a symbol of hope for the future. By decimating the foundations of a young person’s future, it only strengthens the powers of radicalisation. It is inconceivable that Israel wishes to achieve peace by continuing their oppressive policies that only alienate the Palestinian population. Their suppressive actions has instigated a vicious cycle, in which unfortunately, Israeli civilians also suffer the brunt of desperate extremist measures: measures, which are carried out by people who have lost hope and believe that this is the only way of securing their civil liberties. Israel repeatedly declares that she wants peace but reason that Hamas must first halt their “terrorist” activities.37 Hamas, the democratically elected government of Gaza in 2006, is viewed in 2 ways by the world: freedom fighters or terrorists. Hamas is continually condemned for targeting Israeli civilians38: and rightly so. The killing of any civilian is unlawful. However, Western governments and the mainstream media deceitfully equate the military strengths of one of the most powerful armies in the world39 and home made rockets. Even if the Western governments disapprove of Hamas and their methods, they must recognize that by International Law, Palestinians have every right to resist against an illegal oppressive occupation: “the legitimacy of the peoples' struggle for liberation from colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.”40 Israel has been indicted of implementing the blockade to collectively punish the Gazan population for electing Hamas.41,42 This is effectively repression of Palestinian democratic rights. It is impossible to portray the full extent of injustice and violation of human rights that occurs in Palestine in a mere essay. There have been many injustices in our past that has led the 4
world to pledge, ‘never again.’ One such example was apartheid in South Africa. Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was an instrumental force against apartheid in the 1980s.43 In 2002, he condemned Israel for practicing apartheid: "the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”44 Indeed, there are many similarities, for example: both conflicts involve segregation based on ethnicity, and the expelling of the indigenous population without the right to return.45 Israel herself is cementing the foundations of this allegation by building a gigantic wall across Palestine. The wall is still under construction. Israel maintains that this is a temporary barrier to separate the West Bank and Israel to prevent the entry of suicide bombers. Israel’s integrity must again be questioned: why then does it breach the internationally recognized border of 1967 (Green Line)? Land grabbing and house demolitions are regular occurrences that threaten to further destroy Palestinian livelihood.46,47 This in itself is another vast topic. Although there has been some condemnation of Israel’s actions, particularly their conduct of the Gaza war, these words have not been translated into action by the International governments. Why have the International governments repeatedly ‘let Israel off the hook’, despite Israel’s long track record of defying International Humanitarian Laws? Why has justice become such a mutilated concept in Palestine? Though the answer to this is not simple, it is certainly to protect the interests of the Western world. For instance, Israel is one the biggest trading partners for the European Union48 and serves as a valuable ally in the Middle East for the USA.49 Nevertheless, many conscientious people have united together from all corners of the world to fight for the Palestinian cause. One of their main aims is to educate the masses and reveal the lies beneath the Zionist propaganda. In the words of Martin Luther King Junior, “a lie cannot live”,50 and perhaps one day, the true meaning of justice will be revived in Palestine.
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