SEATTLE — (ANALYSIS) Late last month, Israeli and Jewish media were filled with outrage at a letter signed by 71 British physicians, demanding the Israeli Medical Association’s expulsion from the World Medical Association.
There were hearings in the Knesset and indignant articles were penned, castigating the chutzpah of these physicians in insulting the Israeli medical establishment. If expelled from the WMA, the IMA would be banned from participating in international medical conferences and publishing in journals. The action was perceived as yet another insult to Israel, this time directed at its doctors and medical researchers, mounted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Curiously, none of these reports mention anything about the letter itself. They did not reveal the substance of the letter, any of the arguments in it, or anything about the signatories except that they are British. They did not seek comment from the doctors who wrote the letter. They did not explain their intent.
I obtained the letter drafted by Drs. Chris Burns-Cox and Derek Summerfield and signed by 71 British physicians, who demand that the WMA expel the IMA because of repeated ethics violations in its treatment of Palestinian prisoners under medical care.
The letter follows a 2009 letter which protested the selection of Dr. Yoram Blachar, a former president of the IMA, as president of the WMA. That letter was signed by more than 700 WMA doctors from 43 countries.
Both letters accuse Blachar, the IMA and Israeli physicians of long-term collusion with the Israeli security apparatus in the torture of Palestinian security prisoners. The doctors assert that such practices violate medical ethics and the principles of the WMA, as outlined in the group’s 1975 Tokyo Declaration, which states:
“The physician shall not countenance, condone or participate in the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading procedures, whatever the offense of which the victim of such procedures is suspected, accused or guilty, and whatever the victim’s beliefs or motives, and in all situations, including armed conflict and civil strife.”
A history of active collaboration with the security apparatus
The Israeli medical establishment actively collaborates with the country’s security apparatus in abusing and torturing Palestinian prisoners. Israeli physicians and psychologists have supervised the medical care of tortured prisoners.
Dr. Blachar has even endorsed the “use of moderate physical pressure,” which he falsely claims is not torture. In a 1997 letter to The Lancet, he wrote:
“Israel recognises its responsibility to protect both Jews and Arabs from harm by terrorists. The guidelines on interrogation recommend that only ‘moderate physical pressure’ (in accordance with international law, and not unknown in other democratic countries) be sanctioned. Even this is restricted to cases defined in terms of a ‘ticking bomb’, where the degree of anticipated danger poses a grave threat to citizens. Furthermore, the European Human Rights Court has previously ruled with regard to interrogations in Northern Ireland that ill treatment must reach a certain severe level to be deemed torture.”
While Blachar claims “moderate physical pressure” is in accordance with “international law,” the U.N. Committee Against Torture defines it as torture.
In another paragraph, he undermines his earlier claim of sensitivity to the issue of torture by claiming that Palestinian torture victims are “anti-Israel” malingerers:
“…[I]t should be noted that individuals [Author’s Note: Here, he is referring to Palestinians, not Jews] have personal and political motives for fabricating claims of maltreatment, including the desire to have a confession ruled inadmissible at trial, to present oneself as a martyr, or to spread anti-Israel propaganda.”
The 2009 letter from WMA members quotes Dr. Eran Dolev, the IMA’s director of medical ethics at the time, as saying that “’a couple of broken fingers’ during the interrogation of Palestinians was worthwhile for the information it might garner.”
The letter also summarizes a 2007 report by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, which named Israeli physicians who collude in the torture regime of the Israel Security Agency, or Shabak:
“Doctors, several of whom are actually named, saw the prisoners at various points between episodes of torture (which in one case led to spinal cord damage), did not take a proper history, did not protest on these men’s behalf, and typically prescribed simple analgesia before returning them to their interrogators. They did not need to ask the prisoners what had happened to them because they knew perfectly well.
It is also remarkable that doctors in position of authority were directly involved in several of these cases, and are also named: the Chief Medical Officer of the Israeli Prison Service, Dr Alex Adler; the Chief Medical Officer of Israeli Police Dr.Tzvi Lankovski; and- most telling of all- no less than the Chairman of the Ethics board of the Israeli Medical Association, Professor Avinoam Reches.”
“We believed that the IMA might be able to curb the appalling deterioration in the attitude of Israeli military forces towards Palestinian health and rescue services. Yet despite severe injury to medical personnel and to the ability of physicians to act in safety to advance their patients’ interests; despite Israeli shells that have fallen on Palestinian hospitals;despite the killing of medical personnel on duty- IMA has chosen to remain silent.”
The 2009 letter also notes: “As the Executive Director of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel put it in the Lancet in 2003, the IMA’s collusion with torture is part of ‘its long tradition of siding with “national Israeli considerations” rather than with universal medical ethics.’” Blachar, in contrast, has indignantly and repeatedly denied that Israeli physicians condone torture and defended use of abusive methods which he claims aren’t torture.
From 2008 until last year, the IMA’s rules regarding the treatment of terror attack casualties directed that victims be treated prior to perpetrators. Rather than upholding the standard of medical neutrality, the rules quoted the dictum, “charity begins at home.” Such standards violate international medical ethics, which demand that patients be treated according to the severity of their wounds, regardless of their role in any incident. After PHRI pointed out the conflict, the IMA rewrote the rules to bring them into compliance.
But the physician who wrote the original 2008 directive, Pini Halperin, director of Emergency Medicine at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, objected to the new rules. Times of Israel reported:
“‘If there is, for example, a decision of life or death for the casualties, it is appropriate to first treat “what matters to me,” that is to say the victims of terror — and only after the enemy who is carrying out a terror attack,’ he told Israel Hayom.”
The most recent letter lists scores of violations of medical ethics and international law by the Israeli medical establishment. It also documents the signatories’ own attempts to bring these violations to the attention of the Israeli medical establishment, and the continuing refusal of that body to respond affirmatively to their complaints.
Mohammed al-Qeeq: ‘Hanging between life and death’
Perhaps the most recent example of Shabak torture of Palestinian prisoners is the case of Mohammed al-Qeeq, the 33-year-old journalist for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Majd TV. He has been held for more than two months under administrative detention, a holdover from the British Mandatory period which allows for prisoners to be held without trial and without being charged with any crime.
UPDATE: On Saturday, convinced that al Qeeq was likely to die, the Israeli Supreme Court suspended the prisoner’s administrative detention. However, suspension of this status does not mean that he has been released. He is still in custody and he continues his hunger strike. He has also refused an Israeli offer to release him in May. His goal is to win his immediate freedom.
The armed police woman in this picture (right) indicates the level of paranoia of the Israeli police, who appear to fear an armed uprising to free the nonviolent activist, al-Qeeq.
He was been charged with aiding Hamas military operations, though no evidence has ever been produced. His wife responded to the charges by noting that when he was in college, he did support Hamas. But he is not a member of Hamas now.
His Shabak inquisitors tortured him with sleep deprivation and placed him in a stress position tied to a small chair for 15 hours. This is known in the torture trade as “The Banana,” a name that comes from the shape of the body when it’s tied to the chair.
Al-Qeeq began a hunger strike in November, just four days after his arrest.
“Mohammed is hanging between life and death,” Islam al-Qeeq told MintPress News from Ramallah as his brother approached the 70th day of his hunger strike on Tuesday. “The coming hours could be very crucial in his battle for freedom and physical survival.”
Last month, an independent PHRI physician attempted to visit al-Qeeq in HaEmek Medical Center in Afula. The facility refused the doctor entry, claiming it could not find a hospital physician to accompany him. Human rights activists have claimed that the refusal of access came not from the hospital, but from the Shabak:
“At first, HaEmek refused to permit the visit on the grounds that such a decision was the responsibility of the Prison Service, since al-Qeeq was an administrative detainee. Then, after the agency did approve the visit and set a time for it, the hospital raised renewed opposition. This behavior violates medical ethics and the rights of the patient, and raises the grave suspicion that ‘the hands are those of the medical system, but the voice is that of the Shabak’ [a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob’s cheating of Esau out of his birthright].”
This is yet another example of the Israeli medical establishment colluding with security forces, rather than respecting the rights and interests of patients.
However, two encouraging factors are present: Eventually, after much struggle, the hospital did approve visits from PHRI’s own physician. He found that al-Qeeq is on the verge of death. Other reports say the patient has lost the ability of speak and 60 percent of his hearing.
Also, although the hospital’s ethics committee has approved the force-feeding of al-Qeeq (a position which violates international medical standards), the hospital itself has refused. PHRI notes that it is not the hospital’s responsibility to save al-Qeeq’s life, but rather the responsibility of the political-security apparatus which arrested and imprisoned him without formal charge or trial in violation of international law. Al-Qeeq has made clear that he will cease his fast when he is released, and his wishes to remain on fast should be honored, says PHRI.
The WMA responds
Returning to the IMA expulsion campaign, before the WMA even responded to the physicians’ latest letter, and only two weeks after it was sent, the international relations director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Michael Marmot, president of the WMA, had already rejected the proposal in a letter.
It seems odd that an organization known for its pro-Israel advocacy, and one without any medical affiliation, would be the one to announce the WMA’s response.
It would also seem to indicate, given the haste with which the response was announced, that the WMA hadn’t done even a cursory investigation of the charges described in the physicians’ letter.
In an email exchange, I requested from the WMA press relations consultant, Dr. Nigel Duncan, a copy of the organization’s letter to the Wiesenthal Center or its response to Drs. Burns-Cox and Summerfield’s letter. I also asked:
“Can you outline for me what procedures Dr. Marmot used to evaluate or review the Summerfield letter before rejecting it. And why he communicated that rejection to the Wiesenthal Center without communicating at all to Dr. Summerfield?”
Duncan ignored my request and responded:
“I don’t know if you are a journalist, a doctor or neither. I am the WMA’s press officer and I deal with enquiries from journalists.”
“I am a journalist and will be publishing a story for MintPress News. Could you please review my questions and answer them.”
His final message read, in part:
“You can say that a WMA spokesman declined to make any further statement.”
The campaign to expel Israeli doctors from the WMA comes on the heels of many other attempts to hold Israeli companies, universities and cultural institutions accountable for their support of the occupation and the Israeli regime of oppression and torture against Palestinians, which includes Israel’s unrestrained use of administrative detention on Palestinians. Late last year, Israel, for the first time, placed Palestinian girls as young as 14 under such detention for poems they posted to Facebook, among other charges. Often these arrests are under Shabak gag order, which prevents the few Israeli publications who might cover the story from doing so.
Read the full text of the letter by 71 British physicians to the WMA:
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