Striving for Health and Social Justice in the Galilee

Health care is on everyone’s mind. The Galilee Society, which has been supported by our Pontifical Mission since its inception, attempts to address the health care crisis of Israel’s Arab population.

text by Lise Grande
photos by Karen Lagerquist

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In 1981, a group of Palestinian doctors and health professionals founded the Galilee Society for Health Research and Services in the small Arab town of Rama in Israel. Long celebrated for its beauty and sacred history, the Galilee is home to most of Israel’s Arab population.

According to Dr. Hatim Kana’aneh, one of the Society’s original members and its current president, Arab communities in the Galilee have suffered from substandard health care for decades, consistently ranking far above the Israeli average in rates of childhood diseases and infant mortality and below the norm in terns of life expectancy. Nearly 40 percent of all stillbirths and deaths under the age of five in Israel occur in Arab communities despite the fact that Arabs comprise less than 20 percent of the country’s total population. Israeli Jews live longer than Arabs, have access to more and better health care facilities and benefit from a significantly higher overall standard of living.

In contrast, the people most at risk in the Galilee, Arab mothers and young children, are the ones least likely to receive proper medical care and the ones most likely to live in poverty. Poor health among Israeli Arabs reflects a long-standing pattern ofneglect by Israeli health care providers and social welfare institutions, a situation the Galilee Society was created to change.

“Our goal today is the same as it was when we first started – to work for equitable health opportunities and to improve the overall level of health care to Arabs by closing the gap between the services the two communities receive,” Dr. Kana’aneh explained during a recent visit to the New York headquarters of Catholic Near East Welfare Association. “We want the Israeli state to offer the same level of care to its Arab citizens as it does to its Jewish citizens.”

Dr. Kana’aneh feels that persuading Israel to treat Arab communities equitably is an uphill struggle and the Galilee Society has been forced to develop a strategy combining advocacy, education and civil initiative.

“This community,” he continued, “needs a voice before it will have any kind of impact at the policy level and that’s what we try to provide at the Galilee Society – a strong voice.”

One of the Galilee Society’s most successful strategies is to set up programs that the government is then encouraged to take over. Since its creation, the Society has built seven health clinics in Galilee communities with no medical facilities. Four of these clinics have been turned over to Israel’s Ministry of Health and the remaining three are scheduled for transfer. Where the Ministry has taken over Galilee Society clinics, the quality of government health care in these locations has improved dramatically.

According to Dr. Kana’aneh, one of the Society’s main goals is to pressure the Health Ministry into providing health services even in poor and outlying areas. In many cases, the only way to push the Ministry into delivering care is for the Society to provide it first.

“It would be better if the government did what it should, but since it doesn’t always, the Society is here to take the initiative,” he explained.

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Tags: Israel Health Care Poor/Poverty Water Arabs