The Unusual but Dangerous Connection Between Gaza and Ebola

Two of the gravest crises in the world today may soon converge. The outcome could be disastrous for nearly everyone on the planet.

According to news reports, the Palestinian Authority is currently weighing whether or not to join the International Criminal Court, which could potentially lead to war crimes charges for alleged crimes committed in Gaza. This is in part a way to pursue justice for victims of the recent fighting, but also a manifestation Palestinians’ long-term strategy to secure the trappings of statehood by joining international institutions.

Palestine has already been accepted as a member state of UNESCO, the UN’s scientific and cultural organization. It was also granted “non-member observer state” status at the UN General Assembly in 2012. The Palestinian leadership had promised to hold off joining the ICC and various UN bodies pending the conclusion of the John Kerry-lead peace talks. But since those talks broke down in April leading to fighting in Gaza, all bets are off.

The Palestinian Authority is now more likely than ever to join a variety of international institutions and UN agencies. Should that include the World Health Organization, the current fight against the spread of Ebola in west Africa would be severely undermined.

Of course, the conflict in Gaza and the ebola outbreak should have nothing to do with each other. But a pair of US laws on the books since the 1990s blocks the United States government from funding any United Nations entity that accepts Palestine as a member. There are no waivers built into the law, meaning that as soon as Palestine joins a UN-backed institution, American funding for that institution is automatically cut off. This happened in 2012, when UNESCO’s member states admitted Palestine. Up to then, the USA had funded about a third of UNESCO’s operations (including Holocaust education programs and a tsunami early warning system) but promptly cut that funding once Palestine was admitted as a member of UNESCO.

This brings us to Ebola.  Health systems in West Africa are overwhelmed and the World Health Organization has appealed for $100 million to contain the outbreak. This includes buying more protective equipment, expanding isolation wards in hospitals, and boosting epidemiological surveillance and public awareness campaigns. The USA is the largest contributor to the WHO’s $4 billion budget, and has so far contributed over $5 million to the Ebola emergency response plan. But under current U.S. law, if Palestine joins the WHO, the USA would be prevented from funding the WHO at all–let alone contribute to its Ebola emergency response plan.

As it stands, it is highly likely that Palestine will seek membership to the World Health Organization in the near future. It is also highly unlikely that US Congress will any time soon amend those decades-old laws that punish UN bodies for admitting Palestine as members.  This means there will come a time — probably sooner than you think — that the USA will pull its funding from the World Health Organization’s disease-fighting efforts around the world.

This is myopic public policy. It’s also insane–and somewhat detrimental to the survival of human beings as a species.