Is There a Human Right to Health Care?

Dr. Marton (left), Dr. Wang and Dr. Jarrar. Israeli and Palestinian doctors say there is by Michael Monasky Allam Jarrar is an unassu...

Dr. Marton (left), Dr. Wang and Dr. Jarrar.
Israeli and Palestinian doctors say there is
by Michael Monasky

Allam Jarrar is an unassuming man with a passion to help his people. A physician and head of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS), he wants to “improve access to quality care” and says his goal is preservation of human rights and human dignity. Jarrar says that health care helps strengthen and make resilient the Palestinian people.

PMRS is a voluntary, grassroots organization responding to the needs of people in the areas occupied by the Israelis. “Health is not absence of disease, but well-being,” says Jarrar, and that social justice is the way to better health. He says that there is an “unstable political environment” with physical obstructions to access to health resources, resulting in social suffering and poverty. “Palestine is a country under siege,” says Jarrar, and the conflict has endured for over 64 years. There are millions of refugees suffering oppression, deprivation, humiliation, and exclusion.

The history of the regional conflict includes military occupation, colonization, racial discrimination (not unlike South African apartheid), and social injustice. The 1993 Oslo Accords were meant to resolve the conflict within five years, but, by 1999, Israel had begun building a wall in the West Bank of the Jordan River “destroying the cohesion of the Palestinians,” said Jarrar. This divided Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza with over 600 security checkpoints on the West Bank alone. Dr. Jarrar said that many women have delivered babies and died while delayed at those detention sites.

Dr. Jarrar said that poverty “affects overall health.” Social determinants include stunted growth in children due to poor nutrition, mental health issues, and a “rise in non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, coronary artery disease, and congestive heart failure.” He concluded that PMRS is responding to Palestinians in remote, isolated areas without health care resources, and added that “health rights of prisoners is very important” concern of his organization.

Ruchama Marton is a diminutive, soft-spoken woman, physician, and leader of the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI). Begun after the first intifada (“struggle”) 25 years ago, it claims over 2,000 members, half of whom are medical professionals. Dr. Marton said that 20 percent of Israel's population is Palestinian. PHRI works with many non-governmental organizations (NGO), “even Hamas,” she said.

As an Israeli physician, Marton said she is struggling against “wrongs done by men to men, to people by people.” Every Saturday, Q Shabbat is a mobile clinic that sees 200 to 500 people. Monthly clinics are held by women health professionals for Palestinian women. Semi-annual medical conferences are held in the West Bank for the benefit of Palestinian medical students and doctors to help overcome the blockade. PHRI also holds 2-3 day surgical visits at Palestinian hospitals; “you cannot go out, so we go in,” asserted Marton.

Dr. Marton said that there is “great anxiety... the sense of future is destroyed.” Many Palestinians are prisoners, some are on hunger strikes “one for over 100 days, who lost his sight trying to raise awareness for prisoners,” she said. They are imprisoned for political, not security, reasons; they are held without charge and without trial. Sixteen hundred Palestinian prisoners recently joined in a hunger strike for a month.

Only after prison officials became concerned about the outcomes of the hunger strikes did the Israelis agree to release some of them. There was never a court decision to do so. Dr. Marton said “life is cheap, in Israel, but also in the US.” When asked to compare access to health care resources in Palestine and the US, Marton conceded: “Maybe we are learning too much from each other...Israel is a 'little America.'” Dr. Jarrar said that there are many political and social commonalities, inequalities, and injustices in both societies. There is a “culture of death here and in Israel,” he said; the greatest gap between haves and have-nots are in Israel and the US, where emphasis is on prisons instead of schools.

An audio recording of the October 30, 2012 lecture and Q&A session, sponsored by the Sacramento branch of Physicians for Social Responsibility, can be heard at Radio4All.

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Michael Monasky said...

A Minor Correction...
The Right to Human Health Care event was co-sponsored by Sacramento Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR)and the Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP). David Mandel has worked many years with JVP. I first met him in 1998 when JVP joined with the Palestinian community as the Middle East Peace Project.

Michael Monasky

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