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The Disease of Settler Colonialism and Apartheid

When a rubber bullet pierces the eye of a child in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and when a woman is doused in “skunk water”, a cocktail of chemicals that smell like rotten eggs and sewerage, these are clear acts of violence and dehumanisation targeting Palestinians. But the oppression Palestinians suffer at the hands of Israel is not limited to such attacks.

There are multiple structures of exclusion and discrimination that govern Palestinian lives and that – like the violence unleashed upon them daily – affect their health and wellbeing. They all necessitate a humanitarian response from organisations like Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontieres, or MSF).

However, when MSF patches up a wound, treats a COVID-19 patient, provides mental healthcare, or receives trauma patients in an emergency room, we are not treating patients in a political vacuum. We are treating the consequences of settler colonialism and apartheid, for which we have no medical cure.

Settler colonialism, which has led to the forced displacement of Palestinians and the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, occurs in the context of the longest-running military occupation in history, now more than 70 years long. Settler colonialism includes the transfer of the occupying power’s citizens into the territory it occupies. This has been going on in Palestine since 1948 and the dispossession of Palestinians from their land in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood is the latest example of this continuing process.

Palestinians are forcibly displaced and isolated in enclaves where they are governed by rules that ensure their continuous dispossession and subjugation. The oppressive rules that govern Palestinian lives do not apply to the settlers who live on the hills above them, or in the confiscated houses next to them. This is apartheid in real time.

Humanitarian organisations like MSF have difficulties addressing the root causes of humanitarian crises. We are an emergency organisation, the ambulance of NGOs. This makes us ill-suited to treat the socioeconomic and political conditions designed to enrich a ruling class. But it is from this ambulance that we see how settler colonialism and apartheid affect the health of our patients and necessitate our work.

For example, only a few months ago, MSF medical teams witnessed how the population of Israel were vaccinated while Palestinians living in the occupied territories were purposefully excluded. Every day, our patients’ access to healthcare is impeded by checkpoints, barriers, permit requirements, discrimination, economic collapse and the devastation caused by a forever occupation.

Until today, our humanitarian action is not needed in Israel because even when rockets are fired on civilian areas, people have access to healthcare and protection from their state.

The crime of apartheid is defined as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”. Israel today is, by design, either the sole governing power or exerts primary control over Palestinians from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea; its policies towards the Palestinian people undeniably constitute apartheid.

Israeli apartheid policies have dispossessed, besieged, killed, maimed, jailed and orphaned Palestinians, with the unwavering support of some Western governments.

They forbid Palestinians from travelling on “Israeli only” roads and restrict them from crossing certain checkpoints without proper permits. They routinely result in the detention of children and torture of prisoners. They enable the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes. They protect armed Israeli settlers and enable the use of indiscriminate violence on Palestinians.

This reality has been denounced by Palestinians and acknowledged by civil society groups, jurists, human rights organisations and countless others. It is disputed only by the perpetrators and their backers.

Over the past week, bombs have continued to fall on Gaza, killing some 198 people, including multiple family members of MSF staff. An MSF clinic has been damaged and ambulances are barely able to pass the bomb craters in the road leading up the main al-Shifa Hospital. Elsewhere across Palestine, protesters continue to be mobbed, beaten and shot at with rubber bullets.

MSF will continue treating the wounds of this violence, but the cure for Palestinian suffering will only come with the end of settler colonialism and apartheid.

By Jonathan Whittall and Jehan Bseiso

This article was first published 17/05/2021 on

This article is written by the authors in their personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of MSF. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Landscape of the occupy territories and the houses of colons © Susanne Doettling, MSF, 2015

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