The West Bank is a region of Palestine but has been occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967. Due to this occupation, as well as the West Bank’s landlocked location, citizens often struggle to gain access to healthcare. Without sufficient medical resources, individuals living in the West Bank are subject to higher infant mortality rates, untreated psychological ailments and the risk for chronic disease to become acute. Despite these barriers, both physical and political, there are Israeli and Palestinian organizations working to aid people most at risk in the West Bank including women, children, elderly, disabled and the rural poor.
Five Obstacles in Access to Healthcare
- Mental Health Stigma: Mental health in occupied areas is an immediate and crucial concern, but it is often stigmatized by locals and, therefore, is unaddressed and unrecognized. Of the patients who manage to get access to a medical practitioner, adults will frequently complain of PTSD related symptoms like headaches, generalized weakness and palpitations. Children are also overlooked when it comes to mental health. According to the Palestine Medical Relief Society (PMRS), an NGO working to increase access to healthcare, 54.7 percent of children in a sample of 1,000 have experienced at least one instance of trauma. Despite the high rates of trauma in children, however, parents are often unaware and unable to recognize the signs of PTSD present in their children like nightmares, insomnia and bedwetting. Instead, they assume the symptoms are normal child behaviors.
- Infant Mortality Rates: Children are at a high risk of death when there is impaired access to medical services. World Bank data shows the infant mortality rate in the West Bank and Gaza is 18 per 1,000 live births and 21 per 1,000 live births for children under 5. Compared to Israel’s three and four live births per 1000 respectively, these are extremely high numbers and show the direct consequences of poor healthcare access.
- Limited Access to Essential Drugs: In an article about Palestine, the World Health Organization notes that for people low on the socio-economic scale, healthcare expenditures are one of the most financially burdensome household expenses. The unavailability or unaffordability of medicine enormously impacts patients dealing with a chronic disease like hypertension, asthma and diabetes.
- Long Ambulance Rides: Numerous military checkpoints and barriers physically obstruct the ability of ambulances to bring patients from the West Bank to hospitals in Israel. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, wait times at checkpoints can last up to 15 minutes. For a patient in critical condition, delays like these can hinder their ability to get the right medical treatment in time.
- Revoked Treatment in Israeli Hospitals: A recent declaration by the Palestinian Ministry of Health to cease funding in Israeli hospitals means that many patients, especially those in poor rural areas, are unable to gain access to healthcare. There are few other options available for these individuals to seek treatment, especially those living in poor areas that cannot incur travel costs.
NGOs Improving Access to Healthcare
Healthcare access on the West Bank is limited due to a number of interrelated reasons. In order to make it more accessible to those who are most affected, NGOs have been developed in both Palestine and Israel. In particular, the Palestine Medical Relief Society was founded in 1979 to aid the most vulnerable members of society. They have a mobile clinic program that includes a first-aid training program to help people gain access to healthcare in remote areas.
Another prominent NGO is Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Founded in 1988 by Israeli physicians, this organization focuses on humanitarian aid and policy change. Furthermore, there are volunteer medics who provide free services to people with limited or no access. PHR serves more than 20,000 individuals each year.
Both of these organizations recognize the importance of addressing the fundamental issue through and data collection, policy and education, and they are working to improve access to healthcare on the West Bank.
– Tera Hofmann