Monday, May 26, 2008

Non-Governmental Organizations May Be Aiding the Occupation

This lecture, given by Naomi Mark of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel), discusses the difficult position human rights organizations often face when attempting to assist Palestinians under occupation. Mark argues that effective humanitarian organizations not only try to help individual Palestinians who are victims of the occupation, they also struggle against the occupation itself. But these two goals are often at odds: sometimes helping an individual would basically require the organization to collaborate with the occupiers. She gives a heart-breaking example of this dilemma, where PHR-Israel would have only been able to help secure medical help for Palestinian patients by turning them over to the Israeli security service to act as informers and collaborators.

Of course there is a deeper level of moral ambiguity in all humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories, namely that it relieves the Israeli government of the responsibility (that it has under international law) to provide for the medical, nutritional, educational needs of the population under occupation. In a sense, the Israeli government is outsourcing its responsibility to humanitarian organizations. Groups such as PHR-Israel respond to this challenge with great integrity and even heroism, but it is an abhorrent effect of the Israeli government's abhorrent policies that they create situations in which there is no right thing to do.

Judith Norman and Alistair Welchman

Rebecca Vilkomerson adds:

Even the activist groups and non-governmental organizations dedicated exclusively to working against the occupation struggle with the question of whether we are simply making the occupation more palatable (and thus serving Israel's needs). Whether by monitoring the checkpoints, getting road blocks removed, "illegal" outposts removed (as if there were any other kind), food convoys through the siege etc, etc: all of these actions do serve individuals suffering under the occupation, but also can promote Israel's image as democratic, tolerant, and responsive to its own citizens, at least. Even what is perhaps the biggest recent "victory"--moving the route of the Wall in Bil'in (not yet implemented) through a combination of grassroots activism and courtroom struggle -- brings up this issue. I don't think anyone is arguing against these kinds of actions, but it is important to keep struggling with the larger strategic and moral goals of our work.

PHR-Israel: NGOs May Be Aiding the Occupation

1 Mar 2008

Naomi Mark, Intervention Coordinator in PHR-Israel's Occupied Territories Department, gave a lecture in a UN conference in Amman about civil society in Israel and PHR-Israel's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "There is always a risk", she stresses, "that our help can be used to serve the government policy against which we struggle":

I was asked to talk about civil society in Israel and about our place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli society in my opinion is very militaristic. I see it in our educational system and certainly in our politics, so that sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between civil society and the military. Still, I will try to define how I see our role as individuals, and as a human rights organization, in regards to the continuing occupation of the territories. And I will discuss some of the dilemmas that we face in our work. The main dilemma stems from the tension that exists between political and humanitarian work. We want to struggle for change in government policy and we want to help individuals. But in order to help individuals we must gain a degree of cooperation from an oppressive government bureaucracy. There is always a risk that our help can be used to serve the government policy against which we struggle.

On a personal level I could say that my first civil act was a few years ago, when I turned 18, and I was called upon to enlist in the army. In Israel military service is obligatory for Jewish boys and girls. I chose to refuse it. My idea of serving society did not fit the definition of the state. The State has done a good job in erasing the separation between military and civilian life, making it hard for any civil movement to wage an effective struggle. I chose to be a civilian who opposes Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and who opposes the militaristic atmosphere in my society. For the past two and a half years I have been trying to contribute something towards change by working for Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel was established in 1988 and has over 1,500 members. This is a non-governmental organization, which works to obtain human rights in general, and health rights in particular, for those whose rights are violated in Israel and in the occupied territories. The organization represents and assists prisoners and detainees, migrant workers, undocumented persons and refugees, Bedouins from unrecognized villages, citizens who have medical insurance and Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory.

In the occupied territories we work to establish solidarity with the Palestinians on two levels: One level is by providing direct medical assistance that is severely lacking. Every Saturday we operate a mobile clinic in different villages in the West Bank.

On another level we advance health rights through political human rights work. Raising awareness through publications, in the courts, and through lobbying and legislation we attempt to pressure the Israeli government to acknowledge its responsibility and to respect the health rights of the Palestinians under occupation. This includes a struggle for access to health for Palestinian patients whose treatments are not available in hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza.

All of the people in Gaza who ask for our help reach us after undergoing a long and unsuccessful bureaucratic process. Let me walk you through the steps of that process:

• In order to receive a permit to leave Gaza, a patient has to be referred for treatment, by a Palestinian doctor in Gaza. This has to be approved by the Palestinian ministry of health in Ramallah.

• She then has to get a referral to a hospital in Jordan, Israel or the West Bank.

• With the referral she has to obtain a promise for financial coverage (financial undertaking) from the ministry of health in Ramallah.

• With all of the above documents the patient approaches the Palestinian committee in Gaza that works in cooperation with the Israeli military at the Erez crossing. Now our patient waits and hopes that the Palestinian committee sent her documents to the Israeli side. I will not go into the Kafka-esque relations between the Palestinian committee and the Israeli Army, all I will say is that many requests fall "between the cracks" and never reach the army.

The patient can be waiting from one week to a couple of months for an answer from the Israeli side, or to be more exact, from the "Shabak," the Israeli General security Services. And even then, there is no guarantee that he will be granted a permit.

So you can imagine that when a patient calls Physicians for Human Rights it means that her medical condition has become even more critical, and she has probably missed her appointment, two or three times.

In September 2007 Yasser Abu Hiyya, a 37 year old resident of Gaza contacted me. He suffers from a heart disease and he was referred to Al Tachasusi hospital in Nablus for a life-saving operation. This operation is not available in Gaza. Yasser asked us to help him leave Gaza and travel to Nablus in the West Bank after he was denied a permit by the Shabak. I approached the Israeli authority at the Erez crossing (the office there is ironically called the "humanitarian center") on Yasser's behalf. After two weeks one of the soldiers, a young women my age, called to tell me that the request was granted and that Yasser can cross through the Erez crossing accompanied by his mother and travel to Nablus. Unfortunately our story does not end here.

On October 9 2007 Yasser and his mother came to the crossing, as planned. After the full body security check he was taken to a room in a basement for "security investigation" by the Shabak. In this investigation Yasser was told that if he cooperates with the secret police and if he gives them information about his brother and his friends, he will be allowed to travel to Nablus for his operation. "help us and we will help you…" is what the investigator said. Yasser said that he has no information, and at that point he was sent back to Gaza - not before the investigator "promised" him that he will never be allowed to go through the crossing, and that, I quote: "he can go back to Gaza and die." We submitted a petition to the Israeli high court of justice on Nov. 7 and Yasser was finally granted a permit to leave Gaza, through a different crossing, into Egypt, where he was treated.

This is a story of one heart patient who managed to leave for a life saving operation, after the intervention of an Israeli human rights organization, after exposing the story in the international and the local media and after appealing to the high court. It took us three months to deal with his case. I don't have any data about the hundreds who don't reach us or other Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, but we can not forget that a million and a half people are subjected to this inhumane treatment on a daily basis.

I do know that in 2007 alone we had a 400% increase in the number of people who contacted us from Gaza – if in early 2007 we were handling 20 to 40 cases per month, we are now handling between 140 and 160 applications per month from Gaza. At the same time our ability to assist them has dropped dramatically. As time passes there are more sick people in life threatening situations that stay in Gaza with no treatment.

Although it is hard to help patients leave Gaza, we still see that it is important again and again to demand the right of every patient to reach medical assistance. But this work is almost meaningless if our efforts are not tied to a political struggle against the inhumane policy that makes people choose between their life and collaboration with the enemy.
By political struggle we mean appeals, media coverage and public campaigns that expose the situation to the Israeli and international community.

Individual help and humanitarian work must always stem from the understanding that the problems will be solved only when the Israeli occupation will end. We must never forget that as long as Israel controls the crossings, the sea and the air of the Gaza Strip, Israel is also responsible for implementing human and health rights.

Unfortunately the challenges that we face in our work are growing, as can be seen in the graph.

Since June 2007 the Erez crossing is the only exit from Gaza and it is controlled by Israel.

Since June we see that shabak's policy is tougher. It is harder to get permits to leave Gaza for medical treatment.

Since June the state policy has been that only people with "life threatening cases" can leave Gaza, and any other medical condition, even if one is in danger of losing an arm or a leg, does not fit the definition of life threatening. As a result we witnessed a sharp decrease in the distribution of permits and an increase in patients who ask for our help.

Since September Israel refers to Gaza as a "hostile entity" and the already – limited number of permits dropped significantly. Now even "life threatening" cases are rejected.

In January 2008 there was a change in the high court's position: we appealed on behalf of 15 patients, all were in life threatening situations, but the high court, for the first time, refused to intervene on behalf of eight of them, who were prohibited for "security reasons". Two of the patients passed "illegally" into Egypt a few weeks ago, and the rest are still in Gaza waiting either for a miracle or for their death. A second petition submitted on behalf of a leukemia patient was rejected immediately with no discussion.

About three months ago a heart patient from Gaza who we will call Marwan was referred to a hospital in the West Bank. Marwan went through the regular bureaucratic process and was refused passage to the West Bank. He asked for our help. I applied on his behalf and two weeks later a soldier called and told me that Marwan can come to the crossing for a "security investigation." After the investigation the authorities would decide whether he will get a permit.

As you remember in the previous story, Yasser didn't know in advance that he would be investigated. This time, with no shame, I was notified in advance. The soldier continued: "Tell Marwan to come next Monday at 9:00."

I was enraged. I already knew that what actually happens at these "investigations" was a demand for collaboration. I told the soldier that if the Shabak wants Marwan, let them call him by themselves. I will not be the Shabak's secretary. The soldier didn't understand my reaction. "Don't you want Marwan to leave for treatment? If he doesn't come I will have to close the file. Without the investigation there is no permit."

I told her to call him, but she made it clear that the shabak does not call patients. If I don't make the call the file will be closed.

I decided not to take part in their attempt to recruit me to the service of the secret police. For me it was clear that I should not call a Palestinian and tell him to show up for an investigation that, as I see it, involves a form of torture, since he must choose between collaboration and medical treatment.

A week passed and Marwan called to ask where the file stands. I told him what happened and that as of now the file is closed because I refused to cooperate with the Shabak. Marwan was very angry at me. He told me that this is his heart surgery, and that he is willing to collaborate with anyone who will grant him his exit from Gaza.

Marwan's case raises questions about the position of a civil organization in regards to the military. It also puts a focus on the tension between individual assistance - "Marwan's needs" and the political struggle against shabak's policies. While working on Marwan's case I was also confronted for the first time with how cynically we were used by the secret police. They push us into an impossible corner. We had to choose between the well-being of a patient, and our struggle. The cynicism does not stop there. By putting us in the position of cooperating with the shabak, the shabak tries to undermine our credibility with the Palestinians and makes us potential partners in crime.

What we did at PHR-Israel, is collect 9 sworn affidavits from patients who had undergone interrogation and were asked to collaborate in return for medical care. We publicized the case widely in Israeli newspapers (Maariv) and we submitted a High Court petition on the issue, which is still pending. But the general question on this issue still remains.

So what is our role?

Every organization or donor state which decides to help the Palestinian people by contributing to rebuilding their country, must also work to change the situation. There is no rehabilitation without independence, and there is no rehabilitation without seeing Gaza and West Bank as one entity.

There is little value in building hospitals in Gaza if Israel does not let doctors leave for training and specialization and if Israel refuses to allow medical equipment to enter Gaza. There is little value in building hospitals in the West Bank if you don't oppose Israel's checkpoints policy. A policy that denies free access for patients, ambulances and doctors.

I will be even more blunt: If you give humanitarian aid without seeing the political context of your aid, you are actually aiding the occupation. By enabling the occupation to continue more smoothly, by helping individuals to cope better under occupation, you are cooperating with policies that are illegal under international law.

If the contributing countries do not want to support the occupation, they must actively detach themselves from Israel's policy in the West Bank and in Gaza.

In any conflict, as complex as it may be, patients cannot be held hostages.

If we want real long-lasting security, both for Palestinians and for Israelis, you must help us redefine the term "security". The definition should not be left for the secret police. Personal security must be equal and available for every one, only then there is a chance for peace in our region.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
Jewish Peace News blog:
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