When Medicine is Polluted by Israel’s Occupation

By Dr. Samah Jabr

When Hillary Clinton wrote a letter to the Israeli-American donor Haim Saban against the popular and peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, she described “the Jewish state” as a “vibrant democracy in a region dominated by autocracy… a modern day miracle — a vibrant bloom in the middle of a desert.” For good measure, she vowed that “we must nurture and protect it.” Unlike Clinton, though, we Palestinians experience the effects of the racism and discrimination which seep into even the most humane professions under Israel’s brutal military occupation.

An Israeli soldier was caught on video last month executing a wounded and unconscious Palestinian man. Abed Al-Fattah Al-Sharif was suspected of a “terrorist attack”; a knife attack aimed not at a civilian but at a soldier at a military checkpoint in the occupied city of Hebron. The Israeli who shot him in the head as he lay on the ground was not just a soldier, but also a medic. While his action was condemned by many Israelis initially, it has since been celebrated and there are serious proposals to award him a medal. The same camera which documented the execution also caught a number of Israeli medical personnel providing first aid to a wounded soldier (he had a minor wound on his arm) but ignoring the prone Palestinian without attempting to provide any intervention whatsoever until after he was killed. At that point, medical personnel only stepped in to carry his body away.

Extrajudicial execution is an Israeli policy reserved solely for Palestinians; approximately two hundred Palestinians have been killed by Israel over the past six months. The security forces could, of course, have restrained and disarmed them, as they did Yishai Schlissel, an Ultra-Orthodox Jew who on two separate occasions attacked participants in the gay pride parade, killing one. Schlissel was not shot on sight and executed; he was arrested and will face due legal process, unlike the 200 Palestinians killed, many of them students.

I am surprised that someone managed to record the execution of Al-Sharif, but not surprised by the execution itself; Israeli soldiers execute Palestinians routinely as an exercise of their power so as to intimidate the community. A more unacknowledged scandal, however, is the complicity of the Israeli medical staff seen in the video and their subsequent silence.

A wave of support for the soldier was initiated by the infamous settler Baruch Marzel (a man known to distribute pizza to soldiers after they have killed Palestinians); he organised a rally in support of the soldier in the vicinity of the military court in Jaffa. The local government in Beit Shemesh organised a similar rally to defend the murderer medic; posters hailed him as a “national hero”. A poll conducted by Channel 2 TV found that 57 per cent of the Israeli public held that there was no need to arrest the soldier or to investigate the incident, while 42 per cent described his action as “responsible”; another 24 per cent maintained that his response to the situation was only natural.

Although abhorrent, the above is not the only example of medicine polluted by politics in Israel. Recent reports from hospitals around the country, especially in Jerusalem, suggest that it is routine to segregate Arab Israeli patients from Jewish Israelis, especially new mothers; Arab Palestinian women are given crowded and inferior conditions. Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich tweeted bluntly, “It is only natural that my wife would not want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby that might murder her baby in another 20 years.”

However, medical officials either denied or sought to rationalize such reports: “Arab women are happy to be assigned to recovery rooms for six people because they like talking,” said some; “Jewish women need rooms of two because they can’t tolerate Arab parties,” claimed others. A Palestinian nurse observed that her Israeli colleagues in the delivery suite make comments such as “here’s another terrorist” after the delivery of a Palestinian baby.

The harsh attitude of Israeli medical personnel towards Palestinians is both commonplace and longstanding. Twenty years ago, when my nephew was born, I recall going with my mother and brother-in-law to visit my sister and meet the baby. The hospital security staff stopped us in the hall, claiming that it was not visiting time; at the same moment, they permitted Jewish Israelis to enter the maternity department. When my brother-in-law questioned this he was pulled away and pushed around, leaving him bruised and with his spectacles broken. This took place in the Shaare Zedek Hospital, under the noses of silent doctors and nurses.

The discriminatory practice of Israeli hospitals pales in comparison to reports of medical services in Israeli prisons. Palestinian political prisoners allege that medical personnel and torturers are allies in the mission to break their will. Many independent reports verify such claims. Prisoners report that medical professionals check their fitness to be tortured or revive them so that they can continue to be tortured. After his release, one prisoner told me that a medic in prison fabricated the story that he was a suicide risk in order to legitimize him being suspended, “to protect him from harming himself”. Another man’s skull was fractured when a guard deliberately knocked him to the floor; this prisoner was “examined” by several doctors after the event, although not one of them documented the incident accurately or his physical state: some ignored the large swelling and bruises around the eye; some reported that the prisoner had fallen on the stairs; some reported it as the result of a bee sting.

The force-feeding of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike is another medical practice that serves political purposes, violating medical ethics and human dignity in the process. Legislation has been passed in the Israeli parliament that allows for the force-feeding of hunger strikers. While the alleged principle behind the law is “sanctity of life”, the real motivation is to silence and undermine the will of Palestinian prisoners in their struggle to be freed from administrative detention (being held without charge or trial). While there is no record of a single Palestinian prisoner dying from a hunger strike, there is documentation proving that five prisoners have died from force-feeding between 1970 and 1992. Those unfortunate individuals were force-fed and killed by medical personnel.

Medicine is not just a profession to gain bread, it is a vocation. It is a calling that addresses human well-being in domains beyond mere physical health. Neutrality and impartiality are core tenets of the ethical code of medical professionals, but we see some of our Israeli colleagues surrendering to popular bigotry, instead of supporting the patient’s rights when they are Palestinians. Israeli medical professionals should support their Palestinian colleagues who are shot in ambulances and the Palestinian patients who are arrested at checkpoints or forced to collaborate in exchange for health services. They should condemn the bombardment of hospitals in Gaza and raids into Palestinian hospitals in the occupied West Bank for the purpose of kidnapping injured people.

Disappointingly, though, the vast majority of Israeli medical professionals fail to do any of these things. We observe instead that the occupation erodes all ethical considerations and that hatred of Palestinians overrides professional concerns and behavior. There can be no “vibrant democracy” within a colonial system, Mrs Clinton; there is no purity, even of the medical professionalism, in colonial domination. Israel’s military occupation is polluting it all.

– Samah Jabr is a Jerusalemite psychiatrist and psychotherapist who cares about the wellbeing of her community – beyond issues of mental illness. (This article was originally published in MEMO)

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