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COVID-19: Israel Has ‘legal Duty’ To Ensure Palestinians In OPT Receive Essential Health Services

A UN human rights expert has urged Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to live up to their international legal responsibilities by ensuring that the right to health is fully provided to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The legal duty, anchored in Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, requires that Israel, the occupying power, must ensure that all the necessary preventive means available to it are utilized to ‘combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics,’” said Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967.

All of the responsible authorities – Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas – bear the duty to provide essential health services and apply public health measures throughout this pandemic in a non-discriminatory fashion, the expert said.

“At the heart of the efforts to contain and roll back this pandemic by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas must apply an approach centered on human rights. The right to dignity requires that all persons under their authority should enjoy equality of access to health services and equality of treatment,” Lynk said.

The Special Rapporteur observed with concern that the initial publications to increase awareness about the spread of COVID-19 issued by the Israeli Ministry of Health were almost exclusively in Hebrew, with virtually no information posted in Arabic. This serious imbalance is apparently being addressed after protests, but it highlights the importance of ensuring equality of treatment.

As well, Lynk stated: “Any restrictions on human rights – such as access to health services or freedom of movement – must be strictly justified, proportionate and should only be curtailed for a length of time no longer than necessary and in a non-discriminatory manner.”

The Special Rapporteur has previously noted that Israel is in “profound breach” of its international obligations with regards the right to health of Palestinians living under occupation. Significant movement restrictions on patients and health workers already compromise Palestinians’ access to healthcare services. In the context of COVID-19, where patients’ conditions deteriorate rapidly as symptoms become more severe, any delays getting to hospital can be fatal.

“I am particularly worried about the potential impact of COVID-19 on Gaza. Its health care system was collapsing even before the pandemic. Its stocks of essential drugs are chronically low. Its natural sources of drinkable water are largely contaminated. Its electrical system provides sporadic power. Deep poverty amid appalling socio-economic conditions is prevalent throughout the Strip,” Lynk said.

“Gaza’s population is also a physically more vulnerable population, with malnutrition on the rise, poorly controlled non-communicable diseases, dense living and housing conditions, an elderly population without access to proper nursing care and high smoking rates.

“A potential large-scale outbreak will also constitute another enormous strain on Gaza’s beleaguered health workers who have had to respond, with inadequate resources, to three large-scale military offensives in just over a decade and have had to treat thousands of casualties from the ‘Great March of Return’ protests.”

Finally, respective authorities must speedily address any evidence of racism, xenophobia and bigotry during this pandemic, the expert said.

“Whether it occurs in the differential treatment by authorities during health care delivery, through the imposition of restrictions, through attacks in social media and other forums towards individuals accused of being infected, or through other means, discrimination and racism must be combated by reliable public information and by strong statements opposing it.”

The Special Rapporteur noted that Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have taken wide-ranging protective measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. This has included significant restrictions on movement and travel, cancellation of public gatherings, creation of quarantine areas, and closure of educational and religious institutions.

“These steps can be supported if they interfere as little as possible with human rights during this emergency,” the UN expert concluded.

Mr. Michael Lynk was designated by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016 as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967. The mandate was originally established in 1993 by the then UN Commission on Human Rights. Professor Lynk is Associate Professor of Law at Western University in London, Ontario, where he teaches labour law, constitutional law and human rights law. Before becoming an academic, he practiced labour law and refugee law for a decade in Ottawa and Toronto. He also worked for the United Nations on human rights and refugee issues in Jerusalem.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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