With the advent of a new Secretary of State for International Development, the UK Government has an opportunity to enter a new phase of development policy towards the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).
New Secretary of State Penny Mordaunt’s recent commitment to sustainable development, human rights and international law has been welcomed by many development and humanitarian organisations operating in the oPt, where such action on these issues is reaching a critical standpoint.
Significantly, for an organisation like Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), Ms Mordaunt has referenced “building health systems and helping countries to grow so that they can stand on their own two feet”. However, an understanding of the oPt’s intricate context will be required as sustainable health systems cannot be built under prolonged occupation.
This year has been mired by painful anniversaries for the Palestinian people. Palestinians have marked 100 years since the Balfour Declaration and 50 years of Israel’s ongoing military occupation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Living conditions in Gaza also continued to deteriorate as Israel’s imposition of blockade and closure entered its eleventh year despite the ICRC and UN having deemed it unlawful collective punishment of the people of Gaza. The UN has stated that Gaza is “de-developing” faster than expected, with aid agencies labelling the crisis a humanitarian emergency, and one even warning that Gaza’s one million children are now suffering “unliveable” conditions. International humanitarian law stipulates that, as the occupying power, Israel is responsible for the health and well-being of the Palestinian population under its control, yet it continues to sidestep its obligations. US President Trump’s announcements concerning Jerusalem can only serve as a green light for further violations to be committed with impunity and underline not only the importance of demanding adherence to international law but also the clear risk involved in the UK pinning its hopes for a meaningful peace process on such a partisan US foreign policy.
Life in the oPt is riddled with uncertainty for many. In Area C of the West Bank, which constitutes 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank where Israel continues to maintain full civil and military control, Palestinians live under the constant threat of demolitions to homes and livelihoods. Entire communities, such as those in Khan al Ahmar and Susiya, are at risk of forcible transfer, which could lead to hundreds of people being uprooted from their homes against their will. At the same time, illegal settlements continue to expand and develop around them. The forcible transfer of Palestinians living under occupation, amounts to a war crime under both the Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court.
Despite violations of international law and ever deteriorating humanitarian conditions, UK aid to the oPt has dropped significantly – from £74.5 million during the 2015/16 financial year to just £51.6 million committed for 2017/18.
In June, a conglomerate of UN agencies outlined their strategic programme framework for development assistance in support of the Palestinian people over the next five years. This UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) was the first of its kind for the oPt and includes crucial principal components, such as supporting Palestine’s path to independence, promoting sustainable development that “leaves no-one behind” and ensuring effective access to international accountability mechanisms. The UNDAF aims to increase support for Palestinian state and non-government institutions and strengthen the resilience of vulnerable Palestinian communities to enable them to effectively monitor, advocate and seek legal recourse for human rights violations by the occupying power.
This endeavour to strengthen the ability of Palestinians to hold Israel to account for it violations of international law is a welcome area of focus. Now, by the same principle, the UK government must use every diplomatic means to pursue accountability for all violations of international humanitarian law, including an end to forcible transfer and the closure of Gaza.
Accountability for the ongoing obstacles to access to healthcare, protection and development in the oPt is crucial. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face numerous physical and bureaucratic barriers to accessing effective treatment and care, primarily related to restrictions on freedom of movement as manifested by a complex Israeli permit system and the restricted access of ambulances through checkpoints.
In Gaza, hospitals have been forced to cut back on all but the most essential services, 43% of essential medicines are at zero stock (less than one month’s supply), and neonatal intensive care units across Gaza are experiencing dangerous levels of overcrowding, putting babies’ lives at risk. The collective effects of 50 years of occupation on the healthcare system have been devastating, and urgent international action is needed now.
The UK, through the Department for International Development, has a fresh opportunity to intervene in this protracted development crisis. They should not only work to ensure that immediate humanitarian needs are met, but that there is continued investment in the sustainable development of essential infrastructure and services, whilst also helping to address the root political causes of this crisis: prolonged occupation and blockade, and the persistent erosion of international law.