The Occupation, Coronavirus and Palestinian Mental Health
Because of Corona lockdowns, now everyone around the world knows what it is like to be under Israeli “occupation”, say the authors of a recent article published in The International Journal of Human Rights in Health Care. The journal is peer-reviewed and seeks to be a bridge between policy makers, researchers and practitioners and to explore barriers to health care and suggest how to overcome discriminatory practices. This, of course, seems to assume that policy makers in places that violate human rights will have any interest in making any changes to the way they run things in their countries. But that is beside the point for this critique. .
If the authors of this article were more concerned with the mental health of the people living in the Palestinian Authority (PA) than they were with bashing Israel they would have told the truth. They would have provided a balanced picture of what is happening in the PA. But they did neither. Of course I can understand how many people in the PA are frightened to tell the truth. After all, if you are a journalist it can get you tortured in prison and threatened and there is no reason to think that an academic would be treated any differently. However, I expect a peer-reviewed international journal to try to maintain some semblance of critical analysis when considering manuscripts for publication and make sure they are only approving legitimate scholarship. Yet, given the multitude of academics who regurgitate unsubstantiated claims when it comes to Israel I should not be surprised to find article after article after article repeating the same catchwords about the evils committed by Israel. I doubt these same academics would be able to hold their own were they challenged to a debate with someone who actually understands the international law they bring to bear for this purpose.
The article under consideration here is called “Analysis of the mental health response to COVID-19 and human rights concerns in the occupied Palestinian territories“. It was written by Maria Helbich, a clinical psychologist who has been working in the PA until recently and Samah Jabr, a Palestinian Arab psychiatrist who heads up the mental health unit at the Ministry of Health in the PA. Helbich has no Internet presence and I was unable to find out anything about her.
The article was first submitted in June 2020, pretty early in the pandemic when everyone was basically still scrambling to undertand what hit us. It underwent three revisions until it was finally accepted for publication last month (Feb 2021). I would really like to see the kinds of revisions that were requested and if reviewers asked that the authors tone down their accusations against Israel, ramp them up or totally ignored them. We will never know.
In the abstract Heibich and Jabr clearly state that:
The purpose of this paper is to examine the mental health response to COVID-19 in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) in relation to mental health concerns and the political situation.
There are two ways to understand “political situation”. One is the domestic political manner by which the PA is run and the other is the conflict between Israel and the PA. I know it was too naive of me to even hope that they meant the former. Of course they meant “the occupation”!
There are many problems with this article. Out of space considerations, I will cover only a few of these.
Some of the most popular catchwords used in anti-semitic criticism of Israel can be found in their introduction:
- systemic violence
- structural discrimination
- settler colonial regime that imposes severe restrictions and violates human rights on a daily basis
While use of this terminology may immediately ingratiate the user into the (antisemitic) anti-Zionist progressive crowd, they are actually rarely, if ever, defined or substantiated in the articles claiming such abuses. However, a critique of these terms can only be carried out in a dedicated article and so I will leave that for another time.
Of course, no anti-Israeli article would be worth its weight in gold (or at least the paper it was printed on, or the digital space it occupies) if it did not blame Israel for all the wrongs in the PA because, of course, the so-called Israeli occupation is illegal. And the authors raise the issue to accuse Israel of not following through on its obligation as an occupier to provide free vaccinations to all residents of the PA:
As the occupying power, Israel has the responsibility to ensure and maintain medical services, as stated in Article 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention (4th Geneva Convention of 1949). This obligation is not acknowledged by Israel,. . .
Of course this obligation is not acknowledged by Israel — because Israel has no such obligation. As legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich writes, those who rely on Article 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention are either ignorant or purposefully distorting the truth. In order to proclaim such an obligation, Kontorovich says, one must deny the validity of the Oslo Accords, an agreement signed by Israel and the PLO, a legally binding contract creating the Palestinian Authority which was assigned responsibility for the Arab residents of Judea & Samaria (named The West Bank by Jordan) and Gaza. Kontorovich reminds readers that the Oslo Agreement clearly states that:
“Powers and responsibilities in the sphere of Health in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian sides.” It also makes clear that this includes vaccination.
In spite of the lack of obligation, Israel did offer to vaccinate all PA residents who went to the Temple Mount to pray at the mosque. PA President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the offer, saying accepting it would give legitimacy to Jewish presence on what they claim is Islam’s third-holiest site. Funny how this cynical politicization of the vaccine issue is ignored by Heibich and Jabr even as they claim that Israel is trying to make political hay out of the Coronavirus pandemic by appearing to be benevolent “occupiers”:
. . . Israel, which portrays itself as supportive to Palestinians in this time of crisis, highlighting that it allowed the entry of critical supplies and equipment into Gaza, that health workers were allowed to move in and out of the West Bank and Gaza and that 25m dollars in previously withheld tax money were transferred to the PA (Ahren, 2020). While these measures are important and will save lives, Palestinians should not have to rely on the generosity of their occupier, which is neither predictable nor will it result in a permanent system change.
I think that many countries at war would be happy to have an Israel-style unpredictability in the form of transfer of vital goods (foods, medicines, fuel) across a hostile border while they are being shot at by missiles. The only thing that temporarily stopped these shipments was Hamas attacking the very checkpoints through which the supplies moved.
I find it rather ironic that the PA seeks to make money off the vaccines that anti-Zionists think Israel should offer for free:
but they wanted Israel to give them vaccines for free… https://t.co/esuNNajWIm
— Eugene Kontorovich (@EVKontorovich) March 24, 2021
But this kind of cynical abuse of their own people never seems to disturb those who blame Israel for all that is wrong in the PA.
Look at this ridiculous statement in the Heibich and Jabr article, which they bring as an explanation for lack of belief in the reality of a pandemic:
Palestinians are, for example, arguing that the PA is trying to prevent them from demonstrating against the Israeli annexation plans by putting lockdown measurements in place, and thus question the validity of the sanctions to get the virus under control.
Does it seem reasonable that the PA would prevent demonstrations against Israeli annexation plans? Not at all. In fact, demonstrations that took place two years ago and again last spring were against the corrupt PA leadership. I have no doubt that the authors of this article knew that.
More lies and distortions:
The system of institutionalized inequality and apartheid leaves Palestinians with a fear of prioritization that is not in their favor and exacerbates their distrust of the Israeli system. People without residency status, who are considered illegal by the Israeli government, are particularly affected by these inequalities and by the anxiety of where they would receive treatment if they contracted the virus.
First of all, people without residency status or other permit to reside in a given place ARE illegal. Furthermore, residents of the PA are not Israeli citizens by mutual agreement under the Oslo Accords and, as mentioned above, their health care is the responsibility of the PA. Nobody will be anxious “of where they would receive treatment” because they know they receive treatment from any of the PA hospitals near them. They may be anxious because the level of medical care is not as high as in Israel and it should be noted that, not only do many residents of the PA get treated in Israel but also many doctors in the PA receive advanced training in Israeli hospitals.
Furthermore, the authors are lying when they claim that:
The situation is especially hard for Palestinians in East Jerusalem without an Israeli ID or regularized status who are not covered by the Israeli health and social insurance system and are, therefore, in need of basic services.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem may not be Israeli citizens, but they are recognized as residents and, according to the WHO:
With regards to health coverage, Palestinians with residency status in east Jerusalem have access to Israeli health insurance.
Also, according to an article in the Institute of Palestine Studies, they do pay into and receive benefits from the national Social Insurance Agency of Israel. In fact, there is a branch of the Social Insurance Agency in East Jerusalem.
Now, if the authors wanted to talk about apartheid and discrimination, they could have looked northward toward Lebanon. It is reported that three times more Palestinian refugees than Lebanese citizens are likely to die from COVID-19. And this is definitely because of the fact that:
Lebanese authorities bar Palestinians from obtaining Lebanese nationality or working in many skilled professions, so the refugees largely make a living doing low-paid labour in construction and crafts, or as street vendors.
“The focus here is on the economic elements — people go out because they can’t afford to go stay home,” Samra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The authors confabulate residents of the PA with Arab citizens of Israel, something the reviewers may not have noticed even if they were trying to be fair (which I doubt they were):
The pandemic highlighted the heightened marginalization of various groups and the fostering of a system of discriminatory incitement against the Arab population. The Palestinian population as a whole was, for example, falsely suspected of not abiding by the rules of the lockdown. This might be used as a tactic to divert attention from struggles with Jewish Orthodox neighborhoods which are reluctant to adhere to self-isolation regulations (Holmes and Kierszenbaum, 2020; Rothwell, 2020).
Referring to the Arab citizens of Israel as Palestinian hints at the fact that the authors regard all of Israel, and not just Gaza and the so-called West Bank, as occupied territory. The Israeli Arab population was not “falsely” suspected of violating rules of the lockdown – many openly did so and the far left Israeli news site, Haaretz, reported in November 2020 that 45% of active COVID-19 cases were among the Arabs of Israel. The references cited at the end of the above quote are articles published in The Guardian and The Telegraph, respectively, and only talk about the problem of virus containment in the Haredi community. Israel was struggling with finding ways to impress upon both the Haredim and the Arab towns and cities the importance of complying with the regulations that were set up to save lives. In any case, any discussion of domestic Israeli affairs is irrelevant to an article trying to show how the Israeli so-called occupation makes things worse for residents of the PA.
In their conclusion, Heibich and Jabr make this amazing statement:
For the first time in history, being isolated and locked down, experiences that are so well known to Palestinians in their struggle for liberation and self-determination, are shared by the rest of the world. This is creating a feeling of solidarity and collaboration that is often missing in times outside of COVID-19.
This is a brilliant manipulation. People around the world are supposed to now understand how it feels to be a Palestinian in the PA because they have undergone lockdown in their own homes! Residents of the PA are not confined to their homes and move more freely around from place to place than they would like the world to know. Curfews are placed only when there is intelligence regarding an imminent terrorist attack, something with which most of the rest of the world cannot identify.
Finally, the authors do mention the responsibility of the PA toward their own population:
The pandemic has also emphasized the lack of preparedness at the level of mental health response provision in Palestine. The bureaucracy in the governmental system is prone to create delays which opens the possibilities for different actors to compete for authority or influence in a way that is not necessarily in the best interest of the people in need and that does not support the most efficient use of resources.
Had Heibich and Jabr shown a bit of honesty, they may have produced an article similar to that published in the same journal that shows the serious mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic in Brazil. Are the Brazilian researchers not frightened by possible backlash on the part of the authoritarian regime in their country? At the same time, Heibich and Jabr could have referred to the work (also published in the same journal) by an Iranian team entitled, “Democracy, political freedom and health expenditures: evidence from Eastern Mediterranean countries”,. Here are some interesting points from the Iranian paper:
If the level of democracy in a country increases, health care expenditures will increase too. … It implies that the governors are forced to spend more on health in a democratic country. Spending on health is a key issue for voters. … health plays an important role in electoral debates. So the candidates and parties must promise to spend more in health expenditures for their victory in the elections.
But since very few parliamentary elections and no elections for the president have been held in the PA since its creation,leaders need not worry about their population’s concern for their own health and welfare. This perhaps has more of an effect on the health status of the PA than the supposed Israeli occupation.
And their second point:
In a democratic system with the most freedom in media and newspapers, people have more freedom to express their opinions and comments. Newspapers are the voice of society and they transfer the sound of them to the governors (Volokh, 2011). One of the most critical issues for people is health. Governments are obliged to expend more for health, and newspapers and web-sites are inductor of this (Volokh, 2011; Hilton and Hunt, 2011).
But already at the beginning of this article I remarked on the way journalists in the PA are imprisoned and threatened if they dare to criticize their corrupt regime. Perhaps this could have been mentioned as a barrier to effective management of the Coronavirus pandemic?
When Israel and the so-called occupation are accused of all the ills in the PA, the only result for the population of the PA is their continued suffering under an extremely corrupt leadership. If anyone really cares about the mental and physical health of Palestinians, THIS is what they should be writing about.