A disturbing diagnosis

Where's the outrage when sick Palestinians are used as fodder by terrorist groups?

palestinian injured 224. (photo credit: AP)
palestinian injured 224.
(photo credit: AP)
Amidst the clangor of NGO criticisms that target Israel for its behavior it is difficult to know which ones to take seriously. Whether they allege "collective punishment" based on a simplistic calculus divorced from context, or claim that Israel is obligated to provide Gaza with the entirety of its fuel and foodstuffs, which has no basis in international law, various human rights NGOs discredit themselves with relative ease. Despite the "halo affect" these NGOs enjoy and the credibility they are afforded in international forums, many Israelis are beginning to take these claims less seriously. But there is still one community of NGOs that the general public has a hard time expressing skepticism towards. The community of medical humanitarians is perhaps the most trusted of all NGO actors. Organizations like Medicins Sans Frontiers, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I), Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP UK) and others are presumed to be the most credible sources in this conflict zone. Indeed, their mandate is to "come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice" as stipulated by the Hippocratic oath. Impartiality is their modus operandi. However, evidence demonstrates that even these groups are succumbing to partisanship and the facile oppressor-victim paradigm of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And most disturbing is their lack of moral outrage when sick Palestinians are used as fodder by terrorist groups. IN NOVEMBER 2007, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) issued an appeal for medical supplies for Gaza, citing "the prolonged siege imposed by the Israeli government," as the sole cause for such shortages. This assertion quickly made it up the information chain and was force-multiplied when it was repeated by major international NGOs and news publications, bolstering its credibility. With no mention of the 120 Kassams launched from Gaza that same month, the international community was led to believe Israel was simply perpetrating crimes against Gazans rather than being forced into making excruciating decisions in which security interests must be weighed against humanitarian ones. Other issues were ignored as well. Firstly, not only was Israel continuing to transfer medical supplies to Gaza, albeit in fewer quantities then before the daily barrages, but Palestinian doctors were waiting until the last minute to order supplies "so they can create the image of a crisis," according to IDF Col. Nir Press. Hamas was endangering its own people for the purpose of "spin." In March 2008, Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that Hamas was diverting medical supplies to its own clients. In April, the Palestinian Petroleum Authority reported that Hamas was attacking fuel trucks bound for the Nahal Oz crossing and hospitals and clinics. Fuel that did not reach these destinations was taken to Hamas-controlled security installations. And yesterday Hamas gunmen stole around 60,000 liters of fuel meant for a Gaza fuel station, where hospitals receive some of their power. None of these incidents have been reported by medical humanitarian NGOs. PHR-I went on the offensive again this month, claiming that Israel was denying entry permits for Palestinian patients seeking medical attention in Israel. (A now familiar mantra also voiced by NGO superpowers including, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch). Israel stood accused of denying entry to sick Palestinians for "arbitrary" and malevolent reasons, though this too was a distortion. Last week, it was reported by The Jerusalem Post that Palestinians from Gaza have been bribing local doctors to declare they need urgent medical treatment in Israel. According to the Shin Bet, "there has been an increase in the exploitation of Israel's humanitarian policy by way of fraudulent medical permits in return for bribes to doctors in the Gaza Strip." Cases in which law-abiding Palestinians are denied access to Israeli medical facilities do exist, but rarely do medical humanitarians provide nuanced analyses which consider the issues' complexity. Take the case of Nael al-Kurdi, a Gazan who was diagnosed with cancer last spring. Despite the treatments he received in Egypt and Gaza, his conditioned worsened and he sought treatment in Israel. Israeli Security Services denied his request and al-Kurdi died in waiting. The medical NGOs, which took up his case and others, blamed only Israel. Human Rights Watch, which often quotes PHR-I, said in November that "Israel is punishing sick civilians as a way to hurt Hamas, and that's legally and morally wrong." This ignores the real "moral wrong" when Palestinians that require genuine medical treatment in Israel are recruited by terrorist organizations after they receive entry permits (as reported by the Israeli Security Agency in January), or when Palestinian doctors' requests for supplies are deliberately delayed for political capital. Allowing entry to all Palestinians requesting medical treatment and hoping for the best is a game of Russian roulette. In May 2007, two female suicide bombers were caught using false medical information to gain authentic entry permits into Israel in order to carry out a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and Netanya. This is precisely the type of behavior which forces Israel to weigh security and humanitarian concerns - a calculus fraught with moral complexity. The medical human rights NGOs that are responsible for issuing these reports should return to their medical books and recognize these facts. Properly diagnosing a patient requires thorough consideration of "diagnostic criteria" - signs, symptoms and tests. This entails investigations, interviewing all relevant actors, and making sound conclusions based on previous behavior. Reports based on a rigorous analysis of the real factors affecting access to healthcare would be a welcome addition to the defense of Palestinian human rights. But simply repeating half-truths and partisan claims will in no way result in improved medical services for the beneficiaries whom these organization's mandates are intended to serve. The writer is the coordinator of government affairs of NGO Monitor.