The World Health Organization (WHO) is the United Nations agency responsible for international health. Like other UN bodies, the WHO singles out Israel for denunciation. At its annual meeting at the end of May, the WHO passed a resolution about “health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan” that referenced its report blaming Israel. Of the 21 items on the meeting’s agenda only one focused on a single country. There was no mention of healthcare catastrophes in Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, or sub-Saharan Africa. (Read UN-Watch’s coverage of the annual meeting and WHO’s partisanship.)
One must be familiar with the source of biased reports and resolutions that bear the stamp of the WHO, a globally respected international organization focused on healthcare improvement. These reports are issued by a regional division of the WHO that is hostile to Israel, and extend beyond healthcare to take on a political tone blaming Israel for any inadequacies in the healthcare of Palestinians.
About the WHO
The World Health Organization, headquartered in Geneva, describes itself as the directing and coordinating authority on international health within the United Nations system. Its Secretariat is headed by a Director-General, currently Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from Ethiopia who was elected for a 5-year term in 2017. The WHO’s member states are grouped into 6 Regions, each with its own elected regional director serving under the director-general, including:
- South-East Asia
- Eastern Mediterranean
- Western Pacific
Israel is one of the WHO’s 194 member states and belongs to the European region. It is covered by Europe’s regional office in Copenhagen.
The West Bank and Gaza, on the other hand, belong to the Eastern Mediterranean region, made up 21 member states, largely Arab and Muslim countries, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, among others. The only non-state included in the Eastern Mediterranean region is the West Bank and Gaza Strip, referred to by the WHO as “Palestine.” The Eastern Mediterranean regional office is located in Cairo, with a country/territory office for the West Bank and Gaza located in Jerusalem and two additional sub-offices in Ramallah and Gaza.
Anti-Israel Bias of the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office of the WHO
WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean division is overtly partisan: Its website consistently refers to the disputed land of the West Bank and Gaza as “Occupied Palestinian Territories” and, along with its reports, include incendiary propaganda claims, with the WHO imprimatur. The current regional director of the Eastern Mediterranean region is Dr. Ahmad al-Mandhari from Oman whose term began in June 2018.
The anti-Israel bias of the Eastern Mediterranean region of the WHO is akin to that of the Arab-Soviet-Third World bloc that dominated the UN General Assembly and other bodies of the organization since the mid-1970’s. These countries voted together as a bloc to pass resolutions demonizing Israel under the guise of support for the Palestinians, including the infamous (now repealed) 1975 Zionism-is-Racism resolution.
The WHO’s political and sectarian approach to healthcare in the West Bank and Gaza is made clear in its “Country Cooperation Strategy for WHO and the Occupied Palestinian Territory 2017–2020” (CCS) – the document that sets out its strategic vision in establishing health policies, strategies and plans for Palestinian healthcare development efforts. Shortcomings in healthcare delivery to Palestinians are blamed on Israel, with no acknowledgement of the role of the Palestinian leadership – either Hamas or the PA – in the conflict itself or in the decisions it makes that compromise healthcare delivery. Here’s what the document has to say about the context of healthcare delivery:
Chronic effects of the occupation and prolonged conflict have been exacerbated by continuous settlement expansion, the acute humanitarian crisis that followed the July–August 2014 war in Gaza and the violence that erupted in late 2015 in the West Bank and continued into 2016…
The 2014 war in Gaza also accentuated chronic problems in the health sector caused by the long-standing Israeli blockade, movement restrictions and tightly constrained development opportunities. …
In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, illegal settlement construction has expanded through confiscation of land, demolition of Palestinian houses, settler violence, forced displacement and depopulation of rural areas. The security wall separates East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, restricting movement, trade and access to referral health facilities and emergency health care…
According to the Ministry of Health, Israeli security forces in the West Bank and Gaza killed 129 Palestinians in the last three months of 2015 and intensified access restrictions across the West Bank, erecting additional checkpoints, roadblocks and security controls that resulted in long delays for patients referred to health care facilities…
The WHO’s Latest Report on Palestinian Healthcare
Similarly, the WHO’s most recent report on Palestinian health care, “Right to Health”, published at the end of 2017, was crafted to blame Israel for limitations in Palestinian access to healthcare. According to the executive summary, the purpose of the report was to provide:
“an overview and analysis of the right to health in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), and focuses on two major issues: access restrictions for patients, companions and health staff – specifically due to Israel’s permit regime – and health attacks affecting patients, companions, health workers and health facilities.” [emphasis added]
While noting that the PA and Hamas have responsibilities for providing appropriate healthcare to their people, the WHO report lays the blame for Palestinian healthcare problems squarely on Israel:
Israel as occupying power has the primary responsibility for ensuring the right to the highest attainable standard of health for the Palestinian population in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip…The Palestinian Authority and the de facto authority in Gaza have responsibilities for the provision of health care to the occupied Palestinian population, and the Palestinian Authority has acceded to 20 international Covenants and Conventions, including 8 human rights treaties. These authorities are duty bearers to the extent of their jurisdiction, but Israel as occupying power bears ultimate responsibility.
What is missing from both the CCS and report on Palestinian healthcare is the context of Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and its takeover by Hamas. There is no discussion about the effect of Palestinian terrorism that impacts the delivery of healthcare, nor of the decisions by the leadership – the Palestinian Authority (PA) that runs the West Bank and Hamas, the terrorist group that runs Gaza – that have an impact on the delivery of healthcare. There is, for example, nothing about the subverting of medical ambulances by terrorists, Hamas’ rejection of essential medical supplies from Israel, or the diversion of resources by Hamas to benefit its terrorist infrastructure; nothing about the reduction of essential services and halting of medical shipments by the PA to Gaza resulting from the internecine Palestinian fighting between the PA and Hamas; no discussion of the PA’s role in delaying or suspending payments for the referral of patients to medical treatment outside Gaza, denying access to Israeli hospitals to average Palestinians while allowing senior Palestinian officials to avail themselves of Israeli care. (For more details about how this WHO report has misrepresented the problems confronting Palestinian healthcare, see this NGO-Monitor assessment.) WHO’s refusal to address the complexities of the situation and all the factors that disrupt optimal healthcare for Palestinians is problematic, and speaks to its lack of credibility on the subject.
Equally disturbing is the WHO’s complete reliance on Gaza’s Health Ministry officials as a source of information. They are, after all, employees of Hamas, a terrorist regime sworn to Israel’s destruction. Indeed, the Hamas Interior Ministry has issued guidelines for reporting events and discussing them with outsiders. It is no wonder, then that health ministry officials have been proven again and again to lack credibility. (See the appendix following this article about Hamas health ministry claims that were later retracted or proven wrong).
Indeed, with its reliance on a Hamas ministry and its ignoring and concealing the decisions and activities of the Palestinian leadership that affect medical care delivery to Palestinians, the WHO’s reports amount to nothing more than partisan political documents that are weaponized by those who seek to demonize Israel. Thus, the latest report was cited as a definitive assessment of the situation in news reports and by such organizations as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, Medical Aid for Palestinians, which take a comparable politicized anti-Israel approach to problems in the Palestinian healthcare delivery system.
WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office Website
The WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean region country-specific website for what it calls “Occupied Palestinian Territory” serves as a disseminator of anti-Israel propaganda in the form of videos, health situation reports, referral access reports and interviews. Below are examples.
The monthly reports posted on the website usually end with an “In Focus” section that profiles a Palestinian who is said to have suffered as a result of Israeli actions. For example, the monthly report for April ended with a heart-rending section about Aisha a-Lulu, a 5-year-old Palestinian girl from Gaza, who died at home just weeks after receiving treatment for cancer in an eastern Jerusalem hospital.
The various stories put out by Palestinian sources about her case were misleading, based on false statements by the Gazan Minister of Health, Mai Alkaila, who had used her case as a cudgel with which to beat Israel. He told reporters:
How can a little child travel alone through Israeli checkpoints without being escorted by her mother, father or brother to provide her with affection and psychological support during treatment? Aisha had to fight her disease alone, in a blatant disregard to international agreements, covenants and treaties on human rights, children’s rights, the right to health and access to health services in a safe manner.
The “In Focus” conclusion of the WHO report used the tragic case similarly to highlight its accusations against Israel. This is what they reported:
Aisha al-Lulu, a 5-year-old girl from Gaza, was diagnosed with a brain stem tumour on 12 April. She needed specialist surgery not available in Gaza and was referred to Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. Aisha was granted a permit, but none of her family obtained an Israeli-issued permit in time to travel with her for her urgent surgery. Instead, she was accompanied by a non-family member who had been able to obtain a companion permit to exit Gaza. Aisha spent three weeks in Jerusalem without her family. She underwent a major operation during this time, following which her health deteriorated significantly and she was distressed. Her uncle stated: “Aisha was fine in the first few days but then deteriorated. She couldn’t talk and she started to vomit. She cried a lot and was asking for her mother. Halima [the non-family companion] got tired after ten days. We applied to change Aisha’s companion but our request was rejected by the Israeli authorities.”
Aisha died shortly after her return to Gaza, on 15 May.
The benefit of family support to children is not only critical for emotional support of paediatric patients, but close involvement in a child’s healthcare improves family understanding of the child’s illness and needs for longer-term care. Non-approval of permits for patient companions represents a major barrier to ensuring effective care for children and others who are strongly dependent on families for longer-term care and recovery. WHO calls for the safeguarding of family accompaniment of children traveling for healthcare.
Although the WHO report contained no direct lies, as did many other Palestinian and non-Palestinian media outlets, it nonetheless distorted the story by suggesting that Israel had denied Aisha’s parents permits to accompany their young daughter during her illness.
However, the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) vehemently denied this. On the contrary, they said:
“We emphasize that CLA [Coordination and Liaison Administration] Gaza policy requires parents to escort their minor children for medical treatments, based on the understanding that children need their parents in moments such as these. However, in this case, Aisha’s parents did not wish to accompany her and therefore, in accordance with CLA policy, they were requested to sign a declaration that they choose not to escort their daughter during the course of her treatment, due to their own choice, and request that another party on their behalf escort her…”
A WHO-produced video-graphic, originally embedded in the site and now linked to from the site, presents the same clichéd accusations of Israel restricting Palestinian access to healthcare in simplistic propaganda-form.
Claiming to be “based on the true story of a young patient with cancer,” the video is a child-like cartoon focuses on a fictional cartoon character named Ahmed who is repeatedly denied an exit visa from Gaza by Israeli authorities, preventing him from obtaining necessary medical tests. The cartoon goes on to accuse Israel of separating families for months, and, even when it does grant permits, of making “frail and elderly relatives accompany children.”
It also alleges that “patients and their families risk arrest and detention by Israeli forces en route to receiving care.” These accusations are presented as blanket truths, without any evidence and without any acknowledgement of valid Israeli security concerns – documented examples of terrorists trying to infiltrate into Israel under the guise of seeking medical treatment. (See, for example: “Hamas Operatives Pose as Medical Patients to Infiltrate Israel”; “Cancer Patient Caught Smuggling Explosives for Hamas, Shin Bet Says“; “Israel Reveals: Hamas Exploits Sick Palestinians for Terrorism”; “Hamas’s Systematic Use of Civilians to Promote Terrorism”; “Budding West Bank Hamas Cell Aimed for Major Bloodshed”.)
There is, of course, no reference to Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and its takeover by a terrorist group worn to Israel’s annihilation.
Were the WHO really interested in improving Palestinian healthcare, it would examine all the factors involved in regulating healthcare. But like the Hamas Health Ministry, the WHO seems more concerned with spreading anti-Israel propaganda than in seeking improvement to Palestinian healthcare.
Claims coming from the Gaza Health Ministry, which is an arm of the Hamas terrorist organization, have often been subsequently proven false. Below are just a few examples:
♦ In September 2016, Hamas Ministry of Health spokesman Ahsraf al-Qudra claimed that a 16-year-old Palestinian boy “was killed by an Israeli bullet to the head” during a border clash in the central Gaza Strip. Following a review of the circumstances, the IDF issued a denial, stating that:
“Dozens of rioters breached the buffer zone and attempted to damage the security (border) fence. … Forces stationed at the border used tear gas that led to the dispersal of the riot. Following a preliminary review, the Israel Defense Forces did not conduct the reported shooting.”
♦ In May 2018, the Gaza Ministry of Health announced that Laila Anwar al-Ghandour, an eight-month-old baby girl, died of tear-gas inhalation – a story dutifully conveyed by numerous media outlets. The baby was touted by Palestinian propagandists (like Yousef Mounayyer who is frequently featured in the New York Times) as “a victim of Israel’s brutal repression against Palestinians.”
The IDF refuted that tear gas was responsible for Laila’s death, relying on an unnamed Gaza physician who said a pre-existing heart disorder was to blame for Laila’s death. The New York Times then reported that Laila suffered from patent ductus arteriosus, as did her brother who had died at a similar age the previous year. Hamas health ministry spokesman then announced that the ministry would refer the case to the forensic medicine department and removed Laila from its list of Israeli victims.
It later emerged that the family was paid 8000 shekels to blame the death of the baby on Israeli tear gas.
♦ In September 2018, the Gaza Health Ministry announced that an 11-year-old Palestinian boy was hit by Israeli fire and died from head wounds. The AP initially transmitted the information without comment. On the same day, IDF Arabic spokesman Avichay Adraee raised doubts about the Ministry of Health account, tweeting at the Ministry of Health’s spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra:
“Once again, there are mounting questions about the credibility of the statement issued by Hamas’s Ministry of Health regarding the death of the boy Shady Abdel-al during the March of Return. According to the indications and testimonies, the boy was killed as a result of an injury caused by a rock being thrown at the time of the violent actions of riot. Does Ashraf al-Qudra have anything to say in response?” (Translation from Arabic)
After several news agencies reported the dispute about the circumstances of the boy’s death, the Hamas health ministry backtracked on its original claim. )
♦ In May 2019, the Gaza Health Ministry announced that a pregnant mother, Falestin Abu Arar, and her 4-month-old daughter, later amended to aunt and niece, were killed by an Israeli air strike in east Gaza city. They quickly confiscated the rocket fragments from the scene.
The Arabic-language spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, Major Avichay Adraee, however, almost immediately denied Israeli responsibility for those deaths in a tweet. He wrote:
“More and more indications reach us from the Gaza Strip that cast serious doubt on the credibility of the statement from Hamas’s Ministry of health about the circumstances of the death of the infant Saba Mahmoud Abu Arar and her mother Falastin Saleh Abu Arar. According to these indications, the death was caused by terrorist activities by Palestinian terrorists and not an Israeli strike.” (Translation from the original Arabic)
The IDF denial was subsequently corroborated by the Palestinian terror group, Islamic Jihad, which admitted that one of their “rockets of resistance exploded inside the family’s home due to a technical failure, and prematurely exploded. There is a claim that the technical failure was caused by low-grade explosives in the rocket…There is no doubt that the baby’s death has nothing to do with the enemy’s (Israel’s) planes…”
Even Human Rights Watch, an extreme critic of Israel, noted that “a Palestinian rocket that landed inside of Gaza was most likely responsible for the deaths of a pregnant Palestinian mother of nine and a 14-month-old toddler” based on field workers’ testimony that Gazan authorities had removed remnants of the munitions and that the type of damage they noticed made it more likely that the strike was from an errant Palestinian rocket.
Defense for Children International – Palestine, another anti-Israel N.G.O., similarly reported that “based on evidence gathered from the scene,” it was probably that the deaths were caused by “a misfired rocket fired by a Palestinian armed group nearby and was not caused by an Israeli forces strike.” (For more details, see here.)