Preliminary Critique of PHR-I "Independent Medical Fact-Finding Mission"
See here for NGO Monitor’s full report, “Physicians for Human Rights- Israel Gaza Mission: No Independence, No Facts, No Evidence.”
See here for more on Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
- On January 21, 2015, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) published “Gaza, 2014: Findings of an independent medical fact-finding mission,” alleging Israeli violations of human rights and international legal norms during the 2014 Gaza War. PHR-I also set up a unique website to accompany the report.
- According to PHR-I, the report demonstrates “The failure of the warning mechanisms, the absence of escape routes, the collapse of the mechanism for evacuating the wounded, and the strikes against rescue teams increased the number of civilian casualties.”
- However, to accurately draw such conclusions requires considerable expertise, as well as complete access to comprehensive data from both the Israeli army and from within Gaza, in particular during and after the fighting. The report does not meet these standards, nor does it address central issues such as the types of weapons and fighting methods used by both sides, the obstacles of asymmetric warfare, and the use of civilians as human shields by Hamas.
- There are numerous methodological flaws in the report and inherent limitations on the research (see pp 25-26), which cast doubt on PHR-I’s ability to draw accurate and independent conclusions. PHR-I solely places blame on Israel and ignores the war crimes of Hamas, reflecting its underlying political motivation.
- Further highlighting the political, as opposed to legal and human rights, agenda, PHR-I official Hadas Ziv stated, “The discourse surrounding Gaza is often times limited to the question of whether there were war crimes — but as far as I’m concerned, that’s not the issue. The more important question is why do we take for granted that such things happen every two years. The report’s conclusion, in my opinion, is that you don’t need to fix this or that about the army’s actions, but that we need to prevent the next war.”
- From the outset, “the principal mandate” of the fact-finding was expressly one-sided, “to investigate the health and human rights impact of events in the Gaza Strip” (pg. 25). Nevertheless, one of the members of the mission met with three Israeli doctors; it is unclear whether they were active in and around Gaza during the fighting. The delegation did not meet with Israeli government and military officials or injured civilians and soldiers. In addition, as discussed below, PHR-I ignored Hamas’ systematic exploitation of medical facilities to illegally shield combatants from Israeli counterattacks. Hamas hid its leadership in hospitals; stored weapons in medical buildings, schools, mosques, and private homes; used ambulances to transport combatants and weapons; conducted military operations from within civilian areas,including medical facilities, placing them in extreme danger; and stole humanitarian aid.
- PHR-I is funded by the European Commission, Sweden (via Diakonia), Germany (via Medico International and EED), the Netherlands, and Switzerland (via HEKS-EPER). In 2008-2013, the New Israel Fund (NIF) authorized grants worth $1,090,553 to PHR-I (2008, 2009,2010, 2011, 2012, 2013).
- The following individuals and organizations provided support, “financial and otherwise” to PHR-I for the report: “Marwan Diab and Rafeeq Musallam, ActiveStills/ Anne Paq, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Science and Human Rights Program, British Shalom-Salaam Trust (UK), Christian Aid (UK), Comboni Sisters, HEKS-EPER, (Switzerland), Manos Unidas (Spain), Medact (UK), Medico International (Germany), Dignity Institute (Denmark), Inge Genefke and Bent Sørensen Anti Torture Support Foundation (Denmark), IRCT (Denmark), Open Society Foundations.”
Panel of “independent medical experts”
- In order to conduct this study, PHR-I “recruited 8 independent international medical experts, unaffiliated with Israeli or Palestinian parties involved in the conflict” (p.8). However, many of the fact-finding members are political activists with an history of biased remarks:
- Alicia Vacas – Published a letter in support of Kairos Palestine, a document written by Palestinian-Christian activists that calls for boycotts, divesment and sanctions (BDS) and denies the Jewish historical connection to Israel. In an article she published following her visit to Gaza, she refuse to call the conflict a war, but rather a “massacre” and referred to Israel’s “devilishly sophisticated and flourishing industry of death.”
- Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven – In an article published in The Lancet medical journal (August 30, 2014), Baldwin and others compared Israel to an apartheid state and called “on South Africa to expel the Israeli ambassador during this current conflict.”
- Jennifer Leaning – Steering Group member of the highly politicized Lancet Palestine Health Alliance (LPHA). In 2009, she co-authored a piece in The Lancet, showing a photo of a damaged building described as the Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza. In fact, the picture was off an adjacent building. (The article has been removed.)
- Önder Özkalipci – Coordinator and co-editor of the UN Istanbul Protocol, which alleged that Israel’s actions concerning the Mavi Marmara (2010) constituted torture. Since 2013, he is a freelance consultant to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and PHR-I.
- Regarding the essential question whether Hamas was operating from within medical facilities, PHR-I eliminated the Israeli perspective, using the following arguments:
- “The FFM teams did not have access to UNRWA facilities…They could therefore investigate neither the public health impact of displacement in these facilities, nor the allegations made by the Israeli government regarding the abuse of such facilities for military purposes – an allegation used to justify several attacks on such facilities.” (p.26)
- “The FFM also had no access to evidence regarding the conduct of Palestinian armed combatants within Gaza, and the teams were not able to examine official Israeli allegations regarding misuse of civilian or medical facilities for military purposes, beyond what its members were told by interviewees.” (p.26)
- Despite this approach regarding Israeli government claims, unverified accusations by Palestinian representatives are quoted extensively throughout the report. Even when the mission was unable to verify the claims or members of Hamas were present during the interview, PHR-I repeats inflammatory and provocative allegations despite the absence of any evidence or corroboration. This is a blatant violation of professional fact-finding standards:
- “Regarding relations with the Hamas authorities, the FFM teams were granted access to relevant evidence by officials of the Ministry of Health, but encountered difficulties and some lack of transparency regarding the necessary procedures for access to forensic pathology materials, specifically tissue samples and X-rays, which fall under the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. Despite meeting relevant officials from the Ministry of Health, the Forensics Department, the Ministry of Justice, a Ministry of Justice-led initiative called the Independent Documentation Committee… the FFM ultimately was not granted access….” (emphasis added)
- A prominent example of the exploitation of unauthenticated claims can be found on page 54 and onward of the publication. The authors of the report admit that they are unable to verify testimonies regarding the use of unconventional weaponry (such as DIME weapons, that may or may not even exist), yet publish them, nonetheless, implicating Israel in serious “war crimes.”
- “In this attack, they reported several phenomena they saw as strange or inexplicable. These were recorded by the team and ranged from the use of flechettes to other, less clearly identifiable weapons. The team could not independently verify any of these reports, but they are detailed here verbatim as described to the team” (p.54)
- “The forensic experts from the two FFM teams can make no further comment on the above observations because none of the tissue samples taken in the possession of the forensic experts of the Ministry of Justice of Gaza were taken out of Gaza for further toxicological, biological or chemical examinations to confirm or refute these allegations.” (p.55)
- The methods for collecting data raise numerous questions as to PHR-I’s ability to draw medical and military conclusions, and to examine their ramifications for the bigger picture of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
- Access and meetings were facilitated by PHR-I in partnership with Gaza-based political advocacy NGOs, which are involved in delegitimization campaigns against Israel and lack medical expertise: Al Mezan, Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), and Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). (p.8)
- “In addition, fieldworkers of PHR-Israel, Al Mezan, PCHR, GCMHP and a professional interpreter accompanied the FFM teams to interviews” (p.20), casting doubt on the independence and objectivity of the investigators.
- PHR-I was forced to rely on the Hamas government forensics department, which “is under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, and has been active in the last three or four wars. Authority for access to photographs, X-rays and tissue samples resides with the Ministry of Justice” (p.24). The overall dependency on an authority representing one-sided party to the conflict, and affiliated with Hamas, undermines the independence of the investigation and any forensic claims made in the report.
- “Meetings and site visits were held in medical facilities and in the community, and included interviews with victims, survivors and witnesses, healthcare professionals and human rights workers. The FFM teams also interviewed officials working with the World Health Organisation (WHO), as well as officials from the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Justice in Gaza. Additional representatives of medical bodies were interviewed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. “ (p.21)
- PHR-I claims that more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the war, and more than 11,000 were wounded. However, the broad and far-reaching allegations concerning “patterns of injury and attack” (pg. 26) are based on interviews with only “68 hospitalised patients who had been injured in the course of the attacks, in different hospitals, most of them outside Gaza.” Moreover, this was done after, not during, the fighting, which changes the significance of the data. Reflecting the ex post facto approach, PHR-I notes that “Wherever possible, forensic, medical and other material evidence was collected to support oral testimonies” (p.9).