Amid Pandemic, WHO Assembly Devotes Four Hours to Condemning Israel

Patrick Goodenough | November 13, 2020 | 4:22am EST
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 World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a previous World Health Assembly in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a previous World Health Assembly in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The world may be grappling with a once-in-a-century pandemic, but World Health Organization member-states dedicated four hours of its annual gathering in Geneva on Thursday to discuss and condemn Israel, accusing it of violating the health rights of Palestinians in the disputed territories and Syrians in the Golan Heights.

Israel was the only country among 194 WHO members to attract a critical focus during the WHO’s 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA).

Representatives of autocracies including Iran, Cuba, Turkey, the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and Syria’s Assad regime, appeared on screen in the mostly virtual session to denounce Israel, before a vote – a long and tedious process during which each member was required to appear on screen and indicate their vote.

The resolution passed by 78-14, with 32 abstentions. (The “no” votes came from the United States, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Cameroon, Canada, Czech Republic, Eswatini, Germany, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, Micronesia, and Slovenia.)

During the discussion, Cuban representative Lester Delgado Sánchez charged that Palestinians are “lacking access to healthcare,” complaining that “violations of the right to health in those territories continue deteriorating and remain unpunished.”

“Palestinian people have been living under occupation for decades,” said a Turkish delegate. “Despite the hurdle of the COVID-19 pandemic the continuing expansion of illegal settlements by Israel is a source of concern for us.”

Hitting back, Israeli Ambassador Meirav Eilon Shahar said, “Let me tell you what is really happening on the ground.”

“Understanding that epidemics know no borders, Israel has strengthened its cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, in order to prevent, mitigate, and address the spread of the virus in the region,” she said.

“The ongoing cooperation includes consultation, training, information-sharing, cooperation with Palestinian medical teams, and the delivery of COVID-10-related PPE, personal protection equipment,” Eilon Shahar said. “As you well know, this cooperation also extends to Palestinians being treated in Israeli hospitals on a daily basis.”

U.S. Ambassador Andrew Bremberg said the text did not meet a shared objective of a WHA “focused purely on public health, and that refrains from singling out countries on a political basis.”

“Rather, the draft decision before us perpetuates such politicization,” he said.

“The United States cannot let this decision pass without objection,” Bremberg said. “As it stands, this decision falls short in its attempt to improve the health of Palestinians, and does not help advance the cause of a lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

“We fail in our duty to serve people around the world who are facing vitally important health needs, particularly those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic if we allow the WHO to become politicized,” said British Ambassador Julian Braithwaite, noting that “this decision is the only country-specific resolution at the World Health Assembly.”

‘Four-hour assault on Israel’

U.S. taxpayers account for the largest share of the WHO budget, by far. The Trump administration earlier this year gave the agency notice of its intention to withdraw – a move which Joe Biden has pledged to reverse.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based NGO UN Watch, observed after Thursday’s session that “there was no agenda item or resolution on any other country, conflict, civil war or political impasse – not on Syria, where hospitals and other medical infrastructure are repeatedly and deliberately bombed by Syrian and Russian forces; not on war-torn Yemen, where 14 million are in dire need of health assistance; and not on Venezuela, where the health system is in a state of collapse and seven million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.”

“Today’s four-hour assault on Israel at the WHO promoted the lie that Israel is harming Palestinian health rights,” said Neuer. “The opposite is true. Despite the conflict, Israel grants entry to tens of thousands of Palestinians who receive top-level medical care at Israeli hospitals. Even the U.N.’s own Middle East peace envoy [Nickolay Mladenov] hailed Israel’s ‘excellent’ coordination and cooperation with Palestinians amid the coronavirus pandemic.”

Other decisions taken at the WHA dealt with the pandemic, meningitis, epilepsy, “neglected” tropical diseases, and primary healthcare. None related to health issues arising in conflict situations anywhere else in the world, including the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.

The WHA did find the time to reject a request by Taiwan’s diplomatic allies for the island democracy to be allowed to take part in the assembly, as an observer.

The U.S. had earlier urged WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to invite Taiwan, given its accomplishments in countering the outbreak that emerged in nearby China late last year.

“Taiwan is a shining success in how to fight COVID-19, so understanding its response would be highly beneficial as many member-states struggle with another wave of cases,” Garrett Grigsby, director of the HHS Office of Global Affairs, told the assembly. “Blocking Taiwan from participating in WHA as an observer therefore is counterproductive.”

China led the opposition, claiming that allowing Taiwan to participate as an observer would violate the “one China” policy.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin afterwards accused Taiwan and its supporters of trying to “undermine international anti-pandemic cooperation.”

“We are happy to see that the majority of countries reaffirmed their firm adherence to the one-China principle.”

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