Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Polluted by Israel’s occupation

Even the medical profession in Israel has been infected by the false imperatives of the Israeli occupation, writes Samah Jabr

Al-Ahram Weekly

When US presidential elections candidate Hillary Clinton wrote a letter to the Israeli-American donor Haim Saban protesting 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 and a vibrant bloom in the middle of a desert.”

For good measure, she vowed, “We must nurture and protect it.” Unlike Clinton, we Palestinians living under Israel’s brutal military occupation experience the effects of the racism and discrimination, which seep into even the most humane professions.

An Israeli soldier was caught on video last month executing a wounded and unconscious Palestinian man. Abdel-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 initially condemned by many Israelis, it has since been celebrated and there have been serious proposals to award him a medal.

The same camera that 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, not attempting to provide any intervention whatsoever until after he was killed.

At that point, medical personnel only stepped in to carry the body away.

Extrajudicial execution is an Israeli policy reserved solely for Palestinians, with approximately 200 Palestinians having been killed by Israelis 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 Israeli gay pride parade, killing one. Schlissel was not shot on sight and executed, but was arrested and will face due legal process. In this he is 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 routinely execute Palestinians 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 who has been known to distribute pizza to Israeli soldiers after they have killed Palestinians. Marzel 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 medic murderer, with posters hailing him as a “national hero”.

A poll conducted by Israel’s 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 “natural”.

Although abhorrent, the above is not the only example of medicine being 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 put in crowded and inferior conditions. Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich tweeted: “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.”

Medical officials in Israel have either denied or sought to rationalise such reports. “Arab women are happy to be assigned to recovery rooms for six people because they like talking,” one said. “Jewish women need rooms for two because they can’t tolerate Arab parties,” claimed another. A Palestinian nurse observed that her Israeli colleagues in the delivery suite made 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. When my nephew was born 20 years ago I went 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.

But 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 Medical Centre under the noses of silent doctors and nurses.

The discriminatory practice of Israeli hospitals pales in comparison to reports of the medical services in Israeli prisons, however. Palestinian political prisoners allege that medical personnel and torturers are allies in a 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 had fabricated the story that he was a suicide risk in order to legitimise his 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, but not one of them documented the incident accurately or his physical state. Some ignored the large swelling and bruises around his eye; some reported that the prisoner had fallen on the stairs; some reported the injury 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 the “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, or being held without charge or trial.

There is no record of a Palestinian prisoner dying from a hunger strike, but there is documentation proving that five prisoners died from force-feeding in Israeli prisons between 1970 and 1992. These unfortunate individuals were force-fed and killed by medical personnel.

Medicine is not just a profession that allows its practitioners to earn a living. It is a vocation and 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 patients’ 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 on 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 these things. We observe instead that the occupation erodes all ethical considerations and that hatred of Palestinians overrides professional concerns and behaviour.

There can be no “vibrant democracy” within a colonial system, and there is no purity, even of medical professionalism, under colonial domination. Israel’s military occupation is polluting to all.


The writer is a Jerusalem-based psychiatrist and psychotherapist who cares about the well-being of her community beyond issues of mental health.

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