Advancing Equality in Healthcare

NIF’s action arm in Israel, Shatil, conducted three conferences alongside partner organizations this month to encourage politicians from a range of parties to publicly commit to improving health services for marginalized populations in Israel’s socio-economic and geographic periphery. Though Israel has led the world in vaccination rates, benefits have not been equally felt by all sectors of Israel’s population. A recent report by NIF grantee Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), called A Policy of Neglect: The First 100 Days of COVID-19 in Israel’s Healthcare System, lays bare the repercussions of Israel’s underfunded healthcare system—which requires more than $4 billion to bring it up to international standards—particularly for marginalized communities.

Beyond COVID-related issues, in Israel’s periphery – including the northern and southern regions of the country—the general situation is particularly acute. With fewer hospital beds per capita than in the center of Israel, and roughly half as many doctors, populations suffer from worse public health outcomes. In fact, in the Negev-Naqab region in Israel’s south, the average life expectancy is a full seven years less than in central Israel. Meanwhile, infant mortality rates in the north of Israel, home to some 1.43 million residents, are twice the rates of those who live in the center. These statistics are even more dire when you look just at Israel’s Palestinian citizens, whose life expectancy is three years less overall than their Jewish counterparts, and infant mortality over double that of Jewish society. And the number of those who suffer from at least one chronic disease has doubled in the past decade.

That is why civil society has mobilized to close the gaps in healthcare as a burning social justice issue.

Shatil-led health forums are dedicated to working with grassroots activists, local authorities, and national leaders to close these gaps. Hundreds participated in the online conferences, including representatives of a wide range of political parties. The majority of participating political leaders agreed on the need to improve health outcomes for Israel’s marginalized populations.

Politicians participating in a conference dedicated to promoting health in Palestinian society expressed willingness to advance Israel’s Ministry of Health’s plan on this issue, developed together with activist groups such as the Shatil-coordinated Arab-Jewish Citizens’ Forum for the Promotion of Health in the Galilee and HMO’s. Concrete progress toward this goal has unfortunately been mostly stalled due to the political impasse stemming from Israel’s continuous cycle of elections over the past two years.

A conference on health in the north, co-facilitated by Palestinian and Jewish Israelis, attracted new members to the Citizens’ Forum. And for the first time, activists in a conference devoted to health in Israel’s southern region raised the idea of creating national health priority areas that would provide a framework for advancing improvements in health outcomes in the periphery. Participants discussed the lack of sufficient budgets and medical personnel, as well as the recent High Court petition by local authorities and social justice activists to force the government to fulfill its 2014 decision to build a second hospital in the south, where Be’er Sheva’s Soroka Medical Centre serves as the sole public government hospital, with a 30% higher occupancy rate than any other in Israel.

Hovav Yannai, Shatil’s advocacy consultant and one of the conferences’ primary organizers, notes that, “There is a strong, multi-party consensus that ensuring public health is the government’s responsibility. This understanding has only been sharpened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following next week’s elections, we hope to help social change organizations advocate to translate this consensus into practical achievements for the periphery in general and Palestinian society in particular.”

Photo Credit: Mohamed Alinbari

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April 2021