Skip to content

Killing Healthcare Workers is an Amoral Slippery Slope, even for Israel

To actively target and kill a healthcare worker truly transgresses all bounds of barbarity, writes Dr Aayesha J Soni

 “We have one goal- to save lives and evacuate wounded people”- these were the words of 21 year old volunteer paramedic Razan Al-Najjar in an interview with the New York Times last month. Today, she lays buried after being shot in the chest by Israeli snipers. At the time of her murder over the weekend, Razan’s hands were in the air as she moved towards an injured protestor, wearing her white medical coat and clear identification of her being medical personnel. This was obviously no deterrent to the Israeli sniper who murdered her, and is indicative of the culture of plain disregard of basic human rights, wanton intention to harm and kill and a flagrant abuse of power and destruction that the Israeli Defence Force has adopted.

The (1949) Fourth Geneva Convention (to which Israel was a signatory a year after its formulation in 1950) has two protocols that afford special protection to medical personnel and humanitarian staff; these are enshrined in articles 14-24. The Convention also guarantees respect for the freedom of movement of medical personnel, and ensures that they are granted all necessary material facilities for them to perform their duties, including removal of victims and attending to and transferring injured and sick civilians. One can argue that besides breaking international law, the murder devastates all human instincts of decency. The Israeli military said on Saturday that it would investigate Razan’s death but that its troops worked “in accordance with standard operating procedures.” To actively target and kill; as surely we cannot excuse shooting a medic through her chest as collateral damage; a healthcare worker truly transgresses all bounds of barbarity. As a doctor and human I can say with confidence that indeed, Israel has crossed all limits with its latest actions and this is a dangerous slippery slope of amorality and brazen disregard for consequences that it is embarking on.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been protesting in the Gaza strip since March 30, intending to shed light on the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza, and also calling for the “right of return” for the 750 000 Palestinian refugees displaced during 1948. I have had the privilege of visiting Gaza as a medical student in 2013. The devastation of Israel’s blockade on all supplies (especially medical), its routine massacres and bombardment of the civilian population and the evidence everywhere of what is obviously a debilitating system of oppression was evident in every daily living activity. My experience in the Al-shifa hospital was that it was just as short supplied and struggling as all of the public hospitals I work in in South Africa. How Al-shifa is managing with the casualties in Gaza since March 30 is baffling. Any healthcare system in a first world country would collapse if it had to treat as many gunshot wounds in a single day as there are in the Gaza Strip, yet Gaza’s medical system, which for years has been on the brink of collapse as a result of the Israeli blockade, copes amazingly well with the challenge.

From March 30 to May 22, a total of 13,190 people, including 1,136 children, were injured in the demonstrations along the border with Israel, according to a World Health Organization report. Of these, 3,360 were injured by live ammunition. On May 14, a paramedic from the Palestinian Civil Defense was killed, shot on the way to rescuing an injured protester. For around 20 minutes, his colleagues tried to reach him but failed, deterred by the heavy gunfire. The paramedic died. In the week of May 13-20, an additional 24 medical personnel were injured — eight by live ammunition, six by bullet shrapnel, one by a tear gas grenade and nine by exposure to tear gas. Twelve ambulances were damaged. Since the peaceful protests have begun, a total of 238 medical personnel have been injured and 38 ambulances damaged.

Whilst these may simply read as statistics to most, I am flabbergasted by the abolishment of the sanctity that usually accompanies being a healthcare worker. We take oaths, dedicate hours above and beyond and sacrifice so much in the hope of serving humanity. Razan was dedicated to this cause completely, and for that not to be respected is an unethical line of no return that Israel is towing. Why Israel is no longer held to the same standards of morality as the rest of the world is a question that has long been left unanswered. On Friday, the United States vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have condemned Israel’s “excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate force” against Palestinians. As long as these two countries continue to disregard all basic human rights, there is little hope for peace in the region.

It has become apparent to me that the healthcare workers in Gaza put their lives in danger in a more serious manner than any other healthcare worker across the globe. By taking an active decision to be on duty for the civilian population of Gaza, they knowingly jeopardise their own lives- and yet with every single doctor I met in Gaza it became apparent that this was a sacrifice they would be willing to make over and over again. Razan will forever be immortalised as a hero, however, how many more young people must lose their lives in the line of duty as healthcare workers before Israeli occupation will be recognised for the monster that it is?

Dr Aayesha J Soni is a medical doctor and member of the Media Review Network (MRN). She was named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans of 2017.