Broken Lives: A Health Crisis in Palestine

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Miriam Stats

Miriam Stats

Miriam Stats is a fourth year student at Northeastern University in Boston. She will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences and plans to attend medical school with the hopes of becoming a pediatrician. She currently works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Newborn Medicine department and has completed global health work in Panama. Her particular areas of interest in global health are in the fields of maternal and reproductive health.

The Arabic word samoud means steadfast perseverance. However, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip has for five decades tested the remarkable resilience of the Palestinian people. Palestinians have been subjected to persistent violations of fundamental human rights law, directly attributable to the Israeli regime. The 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention Article 56, states the occupying power “has the duty of ensuring and maintaining the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health, and hygiene in the occupied territories.”1 However, with the knowledge and even encouragement of the international community, over four million people have been submitted to a state of abject destitution, unable to build peace and uncertain of the future.2

The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”2 However, the combination of war, occupation, displacement, and deprivation has had devastating health consequences in the Palestinian occupied territories. A study published in 2012 in the Lancet on the Global Burden of Disease, stated that in terms of life-expectancy, Israeli men rank 9th in the world while Palestinian men ranked 86th.3 Infant mortality – another direct measure of the health of the population – also reflects stark differences, with an infant mortality rate of 38 per 1,000 births in Palestine, compared to 9.9 per 1,000 births in Israel.1

Persistent aerial and ground attacks from Israel have deepened the unfolding crisis. Between 2000 and 2008, Israeli military action killed over 4,700 Palestinians, 900 of which were children. These figures do not include the nearly 35,000 Palestinians that have been injured or permanently disabled in the conflict.2 In just one military endeavor alone, Operation Protective Eagle of 2014, the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry reported that 2,100 Palestinians were killed, with at least 75% of which were civilians. Additionally, nearly 11,100 Palestinians were wounded, 3,374 of which were children. The UN also predicted that 1,000 of the injured children would likely suffer a permanent disability.4 According to emergency department records in the West Bank, 65% of all injuries were due to firearms and live ammunition, 19% beatings, and 6% noxious gasses. Most alarming was Israel’s widespread use of white phosphorus, which leads to significant burn injuries. Palestinian civilians live in fear of tear gas, aerial bombs, and rubber-coated bullets. The Palestinian people have been inhumanly humiliated, stripped naked in crowds, verbally abused, and coated in a substance called skunk, which leaves a foul odor on the skin that lasts for several days.2

Palestinians have been virtually incarcerated, trapped inside the regions dictated by Israel. Checkpoints, curfews, barriers, and the infamous West Bank Separation Wall have effectively cut Palestinians off from the rest of the world. This restriction of movement has prevented access to food, work, family, sites of worship, social support, and medical care. Most shamefully, Muslim Palestinians have been prevented from visiting Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most important religious site for the Muslim community. Likewise, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has become inaccessible to Palestinian Christians. Restrictive access to holy sites has created a profound amount of distress for the Palestinian people, as faith and religion are often an essential part of psychological health. The stringent checkpoints, which include over 70 manned barriers and nearly 500 earth mounds used for blocking vehicular access, have also prevented sick and injured Palestinians from accessing medical care.5 While travel permits are allowed for those that are critically ill, travel is often delayed or denied, leading to many preventable and unnecessary deaths.6 Hospitals within the Palestinian occupied territories are paralyzed as the medical system has become grossly underequipped and shortages of medical supplies, equipment, and medications grow increasingly severe.

Living standards have become unacceptable. Israel has consistently used house and infrastructure demolition as a form of collective punishment of the Palestinian people.7 In fact, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of statistics, between the years 2000 and 2005, 7,633 homes in the Palestinian occupied territories were completely demolished and an additional 65,000 homes were partially destroyed.2 This strategic destruction has disrupted access to sanitation, fuel, electricity, and potable water in the Palestinian occupied territories. Basic survival has been threatened as Palestinians have been left with one of the most acute water scarcities in the world today. Palestinian people consume an average of 320 m3 of water per person per year, while the threshold for water shortage is 1,700 m3 and the absolute minimum is 500 m3. While this is occurring, Israeli settlers living in the West Bank use over nine times more water per person than do Palestinians. On top of this, Israeli protocols strictly prohibit Palestinians from digging new wells, effectively destroying Palestinian agricultural potential.2 Additionally, Israeli destruction of crops, especially of the olive trees, has been especially traumatic. Besides purposefully wrecking Palestinian livelihood, the olive tree is central to Palestinian cultural identity. As economic conditions deteriorate, 35% of Palestinians are living on less than 2 dollars a day, unemployment has risen to nearly 50%, and 80% of people receive humanitarian aid.6 The UN reported in 2009 that over 50,000 Palestinian people sought refuge in the UN Relief and Works Agency’s shelter.2 A recent report conducted by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has warned that if current trends persist, the Palestinian occupied territories could become completely uninhabitable.8

In 2005, investigators using the WHO Quality of Life scales, found Palestinian quality of life to be ‘very poor’. In fact, Palestinian scores were substantially lower in all four measured domains (physical, psychological, social and environmental) when compared to nearly all other participating countries. The report found that over half of Palestinians fear for themselves in their daily life, over half live with distress, anxiety, worry, and grief, and more than one third of Palestinian people feel fed up with life.9 It is clear that the unwavering resilience of the Palestinian people is severely eroding. At the hands of Israel, Palestinians have endured violence, displacement, and oppression. Additionally, because the occupying power of Israel has failed to provide Palestinians with adequate living conditions, civilians are vulnerable to poor heath outcomes as reflected by the significant health disparities between Israelis and Palestinians. The considerable violation of human rights laws draws attention to the urgency of this deeply troubling situation. The international community must acknowledge the tremendous challenges that Israel has created for the Palestinian people and must endeavor to relieve the situation before it worsens.


  1.  Gordon N. Palestinian health care: Neglect and crisis. Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture. Accessed February 20, 2017.
  2.  Batniji R, Rabaia Y, Nguyen–GillhamViet, et al. Health as human security in the occupied Palestinian territory. The Lancet. 2009;373(9669):1133–1143. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60110-0.
  3.  Salomon JA, Wang H, Freeman MK, et al. Healthy life expectancy for 187 countries, 1990–2010: A systematic analysis for the global burden disease study 2010. The Lancet. 2012;380(9859):2144–2162. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(12)61690-0.
  4.  Report of the independent commission of inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Published June 24, 2015. Accessed February 20, 2017.
  5. HEALTH fact sheet. Health Development, Information, and Policy Institute. Accessed March 5, 2017.
  6.  Koning AbuZayd K. This brutal siege of Gaza can only breed violence. The Guardian. January 23, 2008. Accessed February 20, 2017.
  7. Amnesty International. Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review. Published July 21, 2008. Accessed March 5, 2017.
  8.  Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people: Developments in the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Published July 06, 2015. Accessed February 20, 2017.
  9. Giacaman R, Rabaia Y, Nguyen-Gillham V, Batniji R, Punamäki R-L, Summerfield D. Mental health, social distress and political oppression: The case of the occupied Palestinian territory. Global Public Health. 2011;6(5):547–559. doi:10.1080/17441692.2010.528443.