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Israeli amendment surprisingly passes World Health Assembly

The amendment, which calls for release of the hostages and condemns Gazan terror groups for militarizing hospitals, roiled the group of Arab countries.

The fifth day of the 77th World Health Assembly, May 31, 2024. Credit: Pan American Health Organization/Creative Commons.
The fifth day of the 77th World Health Assembly, May 31, 2024. Credit: Pan American Health Organization/Creative Commons.

Israel scored a rare and significant victory over the Arab Group at the World Health Assembly, as an amendment that the Jewish state introduced to a longstanding resolution of the international forum passed unexpectedly on Wednesday.

The Israeli-drafted amendment calls for the release of the hostages whom Hamas and other terrorists continue to hold in Gaza and denounces the militarization of hospitals by armed Gazan groups. The resolution, as amended, passed on Friday. 

The World Health Assembly is the forum through which the 194 member states of the World Health Organization govern the United Nations agency and it is the highest international health policy-setting body.

During the assembly’s annual session in Geneva this week, Israel offered the amendment to a resolution, which has passed every year since 1968 and which criticizes Israel for the state of health in Palestinian-controlled territories. 

The amendment passed 50 to 44, with 83 abstentions or absences. That margin forced the Arab Group of countries at the United Nations to either accept the amended resolution or to attempt to vote it down or to abstain.

The resolution is a recurring item, with which member states tinker here and there year after year. Algeria drafted this year’s iteration on behalf of the Arab Group. Iran, Russia, Cuba, Columbia, Venezuela and others supported it.

Once an amendment to a resolution passes at the World Health Assembly, that resolution cannot be withdrawn without the consent of the country whose amendment was passed—in this case Israel.

Egypt asked Israel to withdraw the resolution on behalf of the Arab Group. Before Israel could give a response, Egypt took back its request, and introduced a further series of amendments instead.

The attempt of the Arab Group to withdraw the resolution “exposed their hypocrisy,” because they “cannot recognize the horrors faced by Israeli hostages at the hands of Hamas in Gaza, or to condemn the systematic use of health facilities by terrorists,” the Israeli mission to the United Nations in Geneva stated.

The resolution’s annual passage “has never been about the health of the Palestinian people—as they have claimed since 1968—but always about hatred for Israel,” the Israeli delegation added. “Today this is more clear than ever.” 

During debate on the resolution, Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said that “a decision that does not also condemn the militarization of health facilities by terrorists in Gaza has no intention of improving the health conditions on the ground.”

“A decision on health that does not demand the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, who are held by a terrorist organization, raped and tortured, is an unforgivable moral failure,” the Israeli diplomat added.

The Israeli amendment “calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages held in Gaza, including children, women and older persons, and condemns the use, by armed groups, of health facilities, including hospitals and ambulances, that endangers the civilian population.”

The amendment received a wide range of support—from traditional allies, like the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, to countries that often oppose Israel in international forums, such as Iceland, Spain and the Philippines. (Israel barred the Spanish consulate in Jerusalem from serving residents of the Palestinian Authority, after Spain recognized an independent Palestinian state last week.)

The resolution passed on Friday by a 102-6 vote, with 28 abstentions and 41 absences. Among those who abstained were Iran, Syria, Turkey and Libya, which are typically expected to vote against the Jewish state at all times.

The assembly passed a separate Gaza-related resolution on Friday, calling on “all parties to fully comply with their obligations” under the 1949 Geneva conventions, and ensure “unimpeded, safe and unobstructed” passage for medical personnel. 

That resolution was already passed by consensus during a World Health Organization executive board special session in December and held U.S. support.

Asher Salmon, a physician and head of international relations at the Israeli Health Ministry, was elected to a three-year term on the World Health Organization’s executive board, during the session on Friday.

European member states of the World Health Organization endorsed his candidacy. Salmon will be among the 34 members of the board, whose powers include outlining policy and setting the U.N. agency’s priorities.

The Palestinians and their allies opposed Salmon’s candidacy. That included Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, Yemen and Tunisia, all of which have documented violations of human and health rights.

“I intend to work together with all member states,” Salmon stated. “I believe that health crosses borders and that through health, we can promote solidarity and peace among nations.”

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