The COVID-19 crisis has been marked by various restrictions placed on people to secure global health. Yet this is only one aspect of the relationship between public health and the limitations on human rights and freedoms. Recent years have seen authoritarian governments around the globe shrinking civil space – repression that has an impact on the ground. With the weakening of civil society and prevention of transparency in decision making, public trust gets eroded, making it difficult for health authorities to promote e.g., vaccination programs. Additionally, the suppression of civil society leadership through arrests, restrictions on freedom of movement and/or expression, leads to the erasure of the communities’ concerns that these leaders represent. This also includes the inability of citizens to raise concerns over policies impacting their health.
The recent Israeli decision to outlaw 6 leading Palestinian human rights organizations, set in the context of an ongoing occupation, is a notable example of the connection between repressive government action and the impact of such policies on the health of the most vulnerable.
We, healthcare organizations around the world, condemn this decision by the Israeli government to designate these organizations as “terrorist organizations”. This decree by the Israeli Defense Minister, Benny Gantz is yet another step to politically persecute those who oppose the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the resultant human rights violations. It has a direct implication for the thousands of Palestinians whom these organizations assist and for the health of Palestinians in general. These organizations work to improve social and political conditions under which Palestinians live, and they therefore have a significant impact on their health – physically and mentally – and their chance of living healthy lives free of violence, poverty, and discrimination. This decree also has a silencing impact for the many other human rights defenders that seek to protect the health and other fundamental human rights of Palestinian people in the occupied Palestinian territory. We call on the Israeli government to repeal this decision and for the international community to condemn it.
This latest development is one of a series of attempts by successive Israeli governments to dismantle the Palestinian political and civilian leadership and curtail human rights activities in the occupied Palestinian territory and beyond. These tactics have included legislation, raids, arrest of prominent human rights activists — including Dr. Shatha Odeh — and marking leading human rights organizations as illegitimate.
The criminalization of those opposing authoritarian regimes as “terrorists”, and the expansion of the meaning of terrorism to include speaking out against this very repression is a known strategy by authoritarians worldwide. Leading European states have publicly stated that previous allegations by the Israeli government have been “unsubstantiated”, while Israeli newspapers have recently exposed that the classified documents which supposedly provided evidence to the US and others in May were baseless claims and lack proof regarding the 6 organizations.
The organizations targeted: Al Haq, Addameer, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Bisan Center and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, all served to expose the human rights abuses that take place under the occupation and protect Palestinians impacted by it, including violations of the right to health. Their assistance to farmers, prisoners, women and children must be lauded, not condemned. Their human rights work is one of the few ways to oppose Israel’s military occupation, through which it exercises power and control over every aspect of Palestinians’ lives.
Israel’s decision to mark the employees of these organizations as terrorist operatives puts them in danger of being arrested and prosecuted, their offices raided and their financial accounts frozen – impeding their important work, shutting them down and ultimately, silencing their powerful voices.
As professionals working in the global health and human rights space, it is our duty and moral imperative to stand in solidarity with these organizations and by the side of those who speak out for fundamental rights in the face of rising oppression, including through speaking out, lobbying the Israeli authorities to reverse this decision and encouraging international donors to continue supporting these human rights organizations.
About the author: This letter was written by Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI) with the support of various signatories listed below.
- CDTF – South Africa
- Housing Assembly – South Africa
- International Federation of Health and Human Rights Workers – Netherlands
- IntNSA South Africa – South Africa
- Jewish Voice for Peace Health Advisory Council – USA
- MEDACT – United Kingdom
- Medecins du Monde – France
- Medicos del Mundo – Spain
- Doctors of the World – USA
- Medico international – Germany
- People’s Health Movement – South Africa
- Physicians for Human Rights Israel – Israel
- Viva Salud – Belgium
Competing interests: None
Handling Editors: Neha Faruqui and Seye Abimbola