WHO’s unhealthy attitude towards Israel

A version of this article was published in the Australian Jewish News on July 23 2020


Whatever one might think of President Trump’s decision to take the US out of the World Health Organisation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assessment that it has a long history of politicisation is unarguable. 

Although WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other officials have claimed the organisation is “colourblind” and doesn’t publicly criticise member states, this is demonstrably untrue when it comes to Israel. 

Long excluded from the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean regional office (EMRO) by its Arab members, Israel eventually joined the European grouping in 1985. The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are, on the other hand, part of EMRO. 

EMRO’s reports routinely blame Israel for all shortcomings in Palestinian healthcare while absolving the Palestinian leadership. Currently appearing on its website are tragic stories of patients in Gaza lacking access to the necessary healthcare due to their inability to obtain “Israel-issued permits”. The implication is clear: the fault is Israel’s.  

But EMRO omits to mention that in May the Palestinian Authority took unilateral action to cease coordination with Israel in protest at the latter’s proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank. In so doing the PA ceased the processing and transfer of permits needed by these critically ill Gazans, leaving them high and dry. 

The WHO’s decision-making body, the 194-member World Health Assembly, meets in Geneva annually. Each and every year it provides Israel’s enemies with the opportunity to use it as a platform by passing a resolution condemning Israel with regard to “health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan.” No other country is ever singled out in this way. 

The resolutions are overtly political. Accompanying submissions from the Palestinian health ministry refer to the “enduring stranglehold” of the Gaza blockade, and “the apartheid wall that dismembers Palestinian territories”. Shortages of medical supplies and unsatisfactory health conditions are attributed to Israel.  

Devoid of historical context, crucial facts are airbrushed out of the picture, such as the fact that Gaza has not been occupied by Israel since 2005; that essential medical supplies are not subject to the blockade (with some very rare exceptions for dual-use goods); and that the blockade and separation barrier are direct responses to, and aim at preventing, terrorist attacks from the Palestinian territories.  

Palestinian submissions invoke Gaza without ever mentioning Hamas which governs there and chooses to fund weapons and terror tunnels in preference to healthcare. 

For grotesque political self-serving hypocrisy it is difficult to surpass annual submissions like this from the Syrian health ministry:  

“Oppressed by the Zionist occupation, the population in the occupied Syrian Golan territories is still suffering from many health problems, while preferring the citizenship of their Syrian homeland and rejecting Israeli identity. In addition, the agony experienced by the Arab Syrian population in the occupied Syrian Golan as a result of the practices of the Israeli occupation authorities, cannot be ignored and runs counter to the population’s basic right of access to essential health care.”  

This unabashed propaganda dates from April 2012, a year after the commencement of the Syrian civil war. The Syrian government’s commitment to the welfare of its people can be gauged by its willingness to subject them to gross human rights abuses, including chemical weapons attacks, in the course of a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of Syrians their lives, and made refugees of millions more. 

Another Syrian submission presented to the WHA in 2016 includes false antisemitic tropes claiming Israel experimented on Syrian and Arab prisoners with drugs and injected them with pathogenic viruses, causing them to develop potentially fatal diseases. 

In reality, Golan residents, Druze or Jewish, have full access to Israeli hospitals. From 2013 until September 2018 – when Syrian dictator Bashar Assad regained control of south-western Syria – the IDF provided humanitarian assistance to Syrian nationals living near the border. A day clinic was established which treated 7000 people, as well as a program admitting close to 5000 Syrians to Israeli hospitals. 

From 1967 until 2000, life expectancy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rose from 48 to 72. The WHO’s own recent statistics show that life expectancy in “the occupied Palestinian territory” was comparable to or better than that of other national groups in the Middle East region. 

It is regrettable that so many WHA members, such as those in the EU, continue allowing the politicisation of the WHO by voting with the Arab bloc and the Palestinian delegation in support of these annual politically motivated resolutions. But even they have their limits – at the 70th WHA in 2017, when a number of EU representatives spoke out against the pressure exerted by the Assad regime that had resulted in the suppression of a report favourable towards Israel.  

Australia has regularly voted against the anti-Israel resolutions, last year standing alongside Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, the UK and the US in doing so. 

The WHO has a vitally important role in improving world health. While it discharges much of its work effectively, it suffers from a long and lamentably politicised record, including on Israel, as critics are increasingly noting. 

Judy Maynard is a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).