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For me, the path to medical school was never clear; my main interest was always human rights and I was never sure that I could not be more effective working elsewhere. However, having just returned from a trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, for the first time I have had a powerful experience of the direct relationship between health and human rights. An international group of volunteers ranging from 17 to 75 years joined the work of the NGO, the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD), which addresses housing demolitions as part of the wider human rights violations that Palestinians face as a result of the illegal Israeli occupation.1
Over a 2-week camp - together with Palestinians and Israelis - we rebuilt the home of the Palestinian couple Salim and Arabiya (and their six children) which has been demolished five times (TLS Editor: corrected from "four times" Aug 30, 2012) under Israel's demolition policy. It was destroyed on the premise that they didn’t have a permit to build on their land in Area C of the West Bank - 94% of applications are unsuccessful.2 What is the meaning of home? When stripped to its bare bones a house provides you with security - both physical and psychological. For me, witnessing the devastation of losing this was overwhelming and difficult to comprehend. But for the family, without any power of redress, it was clearly an unbearably painful and traumatic experience. Why is this medically relevant? In the night, as Israeli helicopters flew low over the rebuilding camp we witnessed Arabiya’s terror and heard about how the tear-gassing3 and demolition of her home had left her initially unconscious and then, due to her distress, mute for a month. Both Arabiya and her children still bear the marks of that psychological trauma, her daughter went temporarily blind and her small son, found cowering under a rock, has never fully recovered. Both the psychological impact and the wider impact on health have been documented by Save the Children in their report ‘Broken Homes.’4
Beyond the 26 000 Palestinians who have had their homes demolished,5 the UN estimates there are over 3000 outstanding demolition orders threatening both homes and schools.6 Those that we met described the anxiety of waking up every day unsure whether their house would be demolished; families are only given 15 minutes to remove themselves and their possessions.7,8 Even if medical help was accessible in the Occupied Territories it cannot address the psychological impact of these demolitions. Providing Aid isn’t going to allow Palestinians of the West Bank access to specialist medical care in East Jerusalem - which they are separated from by a security barrier and a complex permit system - and it certainly isn’t going to get governments worldwide to challenge the abuse of Palestinian human rights. We talk a lot about human rights in my medical school course but as I stood before the security barrier (an 8 foot concrete wall) that runs throughout Bethlehem, I saw a piece of graffiti - "Now that I have seen, I am responsible". This confirmed that I as an individual, and we as a medical community, are responsible for advocating for the human rights of those worldwide. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".
1. United Nations. Israel's Belligerent Occupation of the Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem and International Humanitarian Law. In: Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations. Conference of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention on Measures to Enforce the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, 15th July 1999, Geneva, Switzerland. http://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/6B939C57EA9EF32785256F33006B9F8D (Accessed 3 August 2012)
2. ICAHD. Demolishing homes, demolishing peace. ICAHD. 2012. http://www.scribd.com/doc/86911029/ Demolishing-Homes-Demolishing-Peace-Political-and-Normative-Analysis-of-Israel-s-Displacement- Policy-in-the-OPT#download (Accessed 3 August 2012)
3. Halper J. An Israeli in Palestine resisting dispossession, redeeming Israel. 2nd Edition. London: Plutopress; 2010. Pg 19.
4. Save the Children UK. Broken Homes. April 2009. http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/docs/Broken-Homes-... (Accessed 3 August 2012)
5. Epshtain I, Schaeffer E. Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territory Parallel report to the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination (CERD). February 2012. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/docs/ngos/ICAHD_Israel_CERD80.pdf (Accessed 3 August 2012)
6. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory. Humanitarian Factsheet on Area C of the West Bank. http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_Area_C_Fact_Sheet_July_2011.pdf (Accessed 3 August 2012)
7. Halper J. An Israeli in Palestine resisting dispossession, redeeming Israel. 2nd Edition. London: Plutopress; 2010. Pg 18.
8. Halper J. Obstacles to peace. A reframing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 4th Edition. Jerusalem: ICAHD; 2009. Pg 46.