The Israeli branch of the international nongovernmental organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) recently published an eight-page color pamphlet, distributed in the Israeli national newspaper, Haaretz, in both the Hebrew and English editions, a copy of which can be found at www.phr.org.il. PHR claimed that the "images depict the current state of health rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories." The Haaretz English edition is widely read by foreign diplomats, journalists, aid workers and many foreign policy makers with an interest in the Middle East. One can presume PHR was embarking on a marketing drive to appeal to this audience, as well as to use this form of advertising to influence Israeli public opinion.
Many readers protested the unbalanced and biased stance and the failure to acknowledge the moral dilemmas and tough security issues facing the Israeli government and army. Foreign funders and journalists praised the document precisely because it was produced in Israel, and therefore seemed to legitimize harsh criticism of Israeli policies.
This article seeks to examine four questions:
What were PHR’s apparent underlying objectives?
How does this pamphlet reflect PHR’s own mission statement?
How does this pamphlet fit into PHR’s other recent activities?
How would the funders react?
The pamphlet itself
The pamphlet took the form of color cartoons, purportedly revealing human rights abuses taking place on a regular basis within the West Bank, Gaza Strip and in Israel. Examples include a depiction of a humiliating scene at a checkpoint, an old lady living in poverty because she pays too many taxes, abuse of foreign workers, an Israeli prison and "apartheid" on roads in the West Bank. A few lines of text were included at the bottom of each page giving facts and explaining how PHR is attempting to respond.
PHR’s mission statement and work
PHR, like many other NGOs, claims to have set itself the noble aim of campaigning against all inequalities and injustices in society. Its mission statement, as it appears on its website (www.phr.org.il), declares:
Physicians for Human Rights — Israel (PHR-Israel)…is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization, dedicated to promoting and protecting the medical human rights of all residents of Israel and the Occupied Territories….PHR-Israel opposes the subjugation of medical care to political considerations of any kind.
Moreover, on its brochure, highlighted in bold red print, PHR-Israel adds a strongly worded ideological statement:
There exists an international citizenry which has its rights…which promises to raise itself up against every abuse of power, no matter who the author or the victims.
To their credit, members of PHR, along with many other Israeli physicians, provide important services, including professional medical care and mobile clinics. PHR also produces regular reports on related issues and even present petitions to the Israeli courts, in addition to their other political and ideological activities.
Why the pamphlet is misleading and what were PHR’s apparent underlying objectives?
PHR international describes itself as "an alliance between science and conscience." Even a casual glance at this publication shows that in this case, PHR failed to live up to this worthy objective. It is unbalanced and biased for two reasons. Firstly, it tells nothing of the moral dilemmas inherent in the humanitarian situations depicted and ignores the steps the Israeli government is taking to manage these crises. No one would deny that the Palestinians face harsh conditions and have difficulty crossing into Israel or moving between cities in the West Bank to receive medical care; that the economic crisis in Israel has hit the elderly and children in particular; or that Israel shares the problem of considerable numbers of illegal foreign workers, as do all industrialized countries. However, it is absurd to claim that this situation is the result of deliberate policies of the Israeli government designed to increase poverty, abuse foreign workers and limit Palestinian access.
Secondly, the report does nothing to protest or even acknowledge the human rights abuses against Israelis. There is no mention of official Palestinian television condoning suicide bombing attacks against civilians, be they Jewish, Arab or foreign workers inside Israel. Thousands have been wounded and mutilated in these attacks, in addition to the hundreds that have been killed. PHR does discredit to its cause by contradicting its own ideal of "opposing the subjugation of medical care to political considerations of any kind…no matter who the author or the victims." Presenting the publication without any context renders it misleading and demonstrates the centrality of PHR’s ideological dimension and objective.
How PHR could have been truer to their mission statement?
There are four very different approaches that, to quote from the PHR mission statement, "a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, dedicated to promoting and protecting the medical human rights of all resident of Israel and the Occupied Territories" should have taken to produce a balanced, informative brochure.
They would have depicted the moral dilemmas relating to human rights which Israeli soldiers and policy makers face on a daily basis. Instead of, or, at least, in addition to, a cartoon of soldiers, brandishing disproportionately large weapons, laughing at a young, obviously pregnant, Palestinian woman trying to get through a checkpoint, saying "she is only fat", one could have drawn attention to the documented use of ambulances and baby carriages to carry bombers and explosives and the relentless environment of Palestinian terrorism which have caused more than 600 civilian casualties on the Israeli side. No serious analyst would deny that weapons and explosives have been smuggled into Israel precisely this way. It is for this reason that military analysts advise against the removal of checkpoints. Without denying the suffering of many sick and pregnant people who need to cross checkpoints in order to receive medical attention, the issue of Israel’s responsibility and right to prevent the slaughter of its own citizens is bound together with Palestinian suffering.
A balanced, non-political organization would have included images of how the IDF is trying to mitigate the human tragedy in areas under its control. Many Israeli physicians and hospitals, as well as the IDF, are active in attempting to relieve the humanitarian costs. As IDF deputy medical corps commander, Colonel Dr. Nissim Ohana has emphasized, "It is our moral duty as doctors to assist anyone who needs our help." The colonel noted that for many years the IDF has used pediatric medical equipment to treat Palestinian civilians under its control, and in the last two years, the equipment has been given to reserve forces as well. Lieutenant Colonel, Ziar Dabor, Head of the Medical Equipment Department announced that from December 2002, the medical staff in the West Bank have even been equipped with new equipment necessary to deal appropriately with situations such as Palestinian women who give birth prematurely. Inclusion of such material would be particularly appropriate because PHR–Israel recently produced a report claiming that Israeli policies are responsible for a 500% increase in premature childbirth among Palestinians in the last two years. Perhaps PHR could even claim some credit for the changes introduced by the IDF. Instead, this pamphlet not only failed to take into account the reasons for the deteriorating health care situation in the areas under Palestinian control, but it also chose to ignore the steps the IDF has taken to relieve suffering.
Through these omissions, PHR demonstrates that its primary objectives are political and ideological — aspects that are beyond its remit to promote medical human rights. While PHR is promoting its political agenda, many Israeli doctors and hospital staff provide high quality medical care to Palestinians and others, despite the environment of hate.
Even one image of the terror felt on the Israeli side of the border would demonstrate real concern for "protecting the medical human rights of all residents of Israel and the Occupied Territories," as advocated in the PHR mission statement. Freedom of movement also includes the right to ride buses and drive on the roads without the threat of terror attacks. Suicide bombers seek to infiltrate into the pre-1967 borders of Israel to murder as many civilians as possible — be they Jews, Arabs or foreign workers and to sow maximum fear and panic. It is entirely within the remit of PHR’s human rights work to draw attention to images presented practically every hour on official Palestinian television encouraging suicide bombings against civilians in Israel. To qualify as a human rights organization, PHR needs to advocate human rights consistently and without bias.
Most worrisome of all, in the course of correspondence with PHR, they admitted that they deliberately chose to use crude stereotypes in the pamphlet. The PHR spokesman claimed that these "stark images" were used in order to "draw the attention of more readers." PHR works in sensitive areas on a professional and supposedly "nonpartisan" basis. It is not a political party and neither needs nor should canvass in the streets on political and ideological issues. Unfortunately, PHR has embarked on a blind rampage against Israeli policies, with complete disregard to background or context.
How does this pamphlet fit into PHR’s recent output?
In November 2002, PHR produced a 70-page report, A Legacy of Injustice A Critique of Israeli Approaches to the Right to Health of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories
This report was unrestrained in its political tone and went far beyond the issues of medical human rights. While engaging in overtly ideological arguments, the report failed to examine the record of the Palestinian Authority in medical human rights, as its mission statement demands. It also attacks the Israel Medical Association, Magen David Adom and the High Court of Justice for cooperating with the Israeli government and "the occupation." Such attacks on Israeli democratic and professional institutions are far removed from PHR’s own mission statement. It is startling that an ostensibly non-partisan organization, which is very selective and partisan in its criticism, chooses to criticize non-partisan organizations for not being ideological and political enough!
The quotes below illustrate the style and tone of the report:
…the attitude of the State of Israel toward the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian residents living within them is clearly characterized by exploitation. While seeking to utilize the resources of the Palestinian economy (particularly cheap labor, water and land), Israel has evaded its obligation to ensure the fair implementation of social rights for the Palestinian community. Thus it has maximized its profit from the occupation, without taking responsibility…
…accordingly, we believe that local responses to distress must always be accompanied by constant pressure to remove the roadblocks, closures and curfews that cause this distress.
To prevent any misunderstanding, we must emphasize that we have no desire to see the return of the Civil Administration, which was — and can only be — a tool to implement a policy of occupation.
…an unequivocal demand that Israel cease to violate human rights in the Occupied Territories, act to find a political resolution, and immediately remove all restrictions on freedom of movement in the Occupied Territories: internal closure, siege and curfew.
We must emphasize that PHR-Israel believes that the State of Israel has no authority to erect checkpoints or roadblocks as a form of total control of the movement of Palestinian residents within the West Bank and Gaza Strip
PHR’s political distortions are also featured in petitions presented before the Israeli High Court of Justice. For example, in the case of a Palestinian boy, Shams Ad-Din Tabia, suffering from cancer, PHR claimed:
Israel argues categorically that it bears no responsibility for the healthcare of Palestinian residents in the Occupied Territories.
This is a simplistic misrepresentation. The High Court allowed the child to be sent to an Israeli hospital for treatment. Moreover, thousands of Palestinians regularly receive treatment from IDF doctors. PHR could have embarked on a more serious, thorough and honest assessment of the situation, but the results would not promote its political agenda.
A second PHR article, posted permanently on its website, which talks of the Medical Situation in East Jerusalem, (www.phr.org.il/phr/Pages/PhrArticle) claims:
Israeli authorities force Palestinian residents out of Jerusalem by severely limiting options for building. Residents in need of housing have to leave the city in order to find it. Once they leave, their residency status is revoked, leaving them cut off from medical services to which they are entitled as residents. In addition, medical services that are provided to East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents do not measure up to the national standard..
Again, PHR is taking on an ideological and partisan stance in the form of a subjective judgment in an area far beyond its mandate. Building (both legal and illegal) in East Jerusalem and the appropriate policy responses are controversial and difficult issues and the debates are ongoing. The members of PHR, like other Israeli citizens, have the right to express their views, but this political activity is not consistent with PHR’s mission statement. Its complexities extend far beyond the brief of this article, as it does beyond the scope of PHR’s remit.
How would the funders react?
PHR enjoys support from many sources of funding, including the European Union and a number of church groups. Two PHR leaders, president Dr. Ruchama Marton and fieldwork director Salah Haj-Yehya were awarded from a group of 100 nominees the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights on May 30, 2002. The $20,000 cash prize was awarded in recognition for being "compelling voices for peace and reconciliation and offer the greatest hope for a human resolution of the current Middle East conflict." The Global Health Council presents the award for "champions of international health and human rights." The council is the largest international alliance of health-related NGOs and institutes in terms of membership and carries prestige in the world of health. In receiving an award of this kind, PHR benefits immensely in terms of influence and prestige.
This funding and recognition also increases their responsibility to live up to their claims and stated objectives and to refrain from activities, that are, in fact, in direct contradiction to its declared goals. Unfortunately, many PHR activities are totally inconsistent with these objectives, including the brochure under discussion. It is not at all clear that the funders realize the extent to which PHR has gone beyond its declared aims. Moreover, it is also unclear to what extent it is influencing well-intentioned, pro-human rights and pro-democracy funds with these professionally produced yet politicized and misleading reports.
A spokesperson for the Delegation of the EU Commission to Israel, which provides funding for PHR activities under the EU’s Human Rights and Democracy Program, was quoted as praising the "eye-catching pamphlet." Brussels allocates huge sums every year to human rights NGOs and institutes, which lobby for democracy. When one looks, however, at the potentially damaging effect some of these organizations have, one has to ask what checks and balances the EU is using to prevent their funds being misused to support a narrow ideological or political agenda. Equally important is the question to what extent are they inappropriately influencing the democratic process in Israel.
Similarly, one wonders how the EU would react to American government sponsorship of public relations pamphlets showing stereotyped French or Italian officials abusing migrant workers living in appalling conditions while sending smiling troops off to man checkpoints preventing Croatians entering Serbian territory.
Funders also include the Finnish Embassy and the New Israel Fund. Would either of these two entities knowingly allocate funds to an organization whose activities are primarily aimed at achieving ideological and political goals rather than the universal human rights claimed in PHR’s mission statement?
Human rights work is sensitive and important. The cartoons are hard-hitting. The facts and figures explaining the cartoons are even more so. However, the surface level depictions and simplistic stereotypes fall far short of explaining the harsh and complex realities that has led to this states of affairs. Anyone engaging in non-partisan human rights work takes on a huge moral and ethical responsibility. This responsibility includes advocating universal human rights including the right to self-defense and fair representation. PHR, unfortunately, has crossed an ideological line. Whatever its success in the field, it needs to remain non-partisan and balanced in its reports.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has taken a considerable toll on both sides. If one’s mission is "dedicated to promoting and protecting the medical human rights of all resident of Israel and the Occupied Territories…oppos[ing] the subjugation of medical care to political considerations of any kind", then subjective blame is not only out of place, but counterproductive. In addition, the moral imperative to defend the rights of both sides must go beyond the superficial depictions of this publication.