It is probably not a good idea to write a blog after two glasses of wine, particularly after three weeks of abstinence (except for that lovely Taybeh Beer), but sometimes drastic measures are needed.
I have checked into a funky old hostel in Jaffa that was clearly a Palestinian home before everything happened and I am sitting in a caf? watching the flow of beautiful people: the hipsters and the yuppies and the old-lumpy-young-at-heart like me. The sidewalk restaurant spilling into the street feels like a cross between Soho and San Francisco; gentrification on steroids and delicately rolled cigarettes (have any of you gorgeous people ever heard of lung cancer?); a stream of beautiful millennials with tattoos and fancy dogs and partially shaved heads. I feel like I am back in the good old USA where our troops are off doing Allah-knows-what in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc., etc., and we are obliviously obsessing about our lattes.
After two weeks mostly in the West Bank, the women look pretty naked, there is more than enough cleavage and thigh, men are stroking their lady friends in overtly sexual ways, and I am taking a long, hard look at “Western norms.” I order a shrimp and eggplant dish drenched in garlic and olive oil as a metaphoric culturally transitional meal. I must admit I have a strong urge to just get up and walk away without paying the overpriced bill, just charge it to the occupation I will say (this is my version of civil disobedience), but I don’t. Most of the folks I have been sharing lives and hummus with cannot legally be here, let’s not even mention their yearning for a little dip in that gorgeous Mediterranean water, waves cresting, stretches of white sand (“they” do like to swim you know)? and I have to admit I kind of got used to being called “habibti,” and my Arabic pet name, “Alusi” (my spelling with apologies).
The day started in the Old City in the Austrian Hospice with a predictable conversation with two lovely, older, guilt-ridden Germans who talked about how hard it is to say anything critical of Israel because? (the HOLOCAUST) is literally screaming at our table between the German Rye and the labneh, and I am trying to introduce the concept that it is actually okay. In fact, as a Jewish American, I think that it is imperative; the Germans (after the unforgiveable horror) have done their share of breast-beating and reflection and reparations; as some famous Israeli wrote, The Holocaust is Over. They take my website enthusiastically and I assure them that my book was translated into German, though of course I have no idea what the actual title was, given the wild world of publishing.
Last night I tried to make small talk with my first-in-a-while Jewish Israeli cab driver. Me: “It’s been really hot here.” Him: “No it’s not.” Oh right, the people who do not know how to say I’m sorry. Unfortunately, this morning I was bullied while standing in line for my train ticket, got yelled at by some pretty girl at a counter at the central bus station in Jerusalem when I asked for directions, and got no reassurance from the bus driver that this was indeed #480 to Arlozoroff in Tel Aviv. When I finally worked up my crumpled courage to confirm my hopes about the bus, this blond something said abruptly, “Of course.” On the bus, a bearded Orthodox Jewish father with a gentle demeanor and friendly smile debated with his two teenage sons, “How can we know Hashem when Hashem is unknowable, is everywhere?” We all have our psychopathologies, but really?
I spent the afternoon at an extraordinary organization called Physicians for Human Rights Israel. Ran Cohen was somewhat more optimistic than usual. Although the Knesset is probably about to pass the forced-feeding bill, the prisoners’ hunger strike ended (resolution unclear), and this has taken a lot of energy. “We won the battle but lost the war.” For the first time in history, “We got the Israeli Medical Association aboard and this is surprising. They were vocal and said clearly physicians do not do this and discussed this [forced-feeding] as torture.” The IMA was clear that forced-feeding actually involves the cooperation of doctors and that they would not be able to protect them in a court or even at the International Hague. This change in attitude may be related to a new head of the medical ethics committee, Dr. Tami Karni, as well as intense international pressure. Ran was very excited to see the commitment on the part of the doctors, the understanding that medicine and doctors were being used as political tools. The new law that is being argued in the Knesset today states that each case of forced-feeding will be brought to a civil regional court (like Tel Aviv), and then if it is allowed, a doctor may participate without risk of punishment.
The Israeli government is framing this as a desire to save lives (not).
On a TV program, when some big macher said that there will be no doctors willing to do forced-feeding, the government’s legal advisor replied, “We will find the Zionist doctors who are concerned of Israeli security.” So much for Zionism. Framing is obviously the key. The United States does it, so why not Israel?
Last week, PHR Israel had a big success when a committee (that had seemed hopeless) decided to take private health services outside of public hospitals. Until now, in public hospitals, there were private patients that doctors would see and charge, using the hospital facilities, thus creating a boutique type practice on the back of the public system. There was a long campaign against this and, “We succeeded, after it lost in the Supreme Court! This was a public campaign, seven million citizens will benefit with a more equal health care system, oriented towards the public,” as well as bucking the Israeli trend towards privatization (as I say, learning the worst from the American health care system).
Another recent PHR I success involves the citizenship law.
Since 2003, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who married Palestinians with Israeli citizenship were not allowed what is called family reunification, I.e., they could not get legal status to live in Israel with their spouse. The implication of this cruel bill is that one of the couple, usually the woman, is left with no status, either cannot live with her husband or more likely is here illegally. Their children born in Israel are Israeli citizens. This is reminiscent of the undocumented in the United States. At this point, since 2003, twenty to twenty-five thousand couples got married and did not get status for the spouse, who can be deported at any time, has no health care, cannot enter most bus stations, malls, or any place where racial profiling increases the risk of being asked for an ID.
They cannot drive legally, attend university, or obtain welfare benefits. After the NGOs in the human rights community took the battle to the Supreme Court and failed, PHR I started a long campaign to promote social residency, which separates legal status from social rights. This allows people access to health care and welfare regardless of their status. The State of Israel will not give one new Palestinian citizenship due to the demographic war, but PHR argued that the Palestinians are here, they are not temporary, they are married to Israelis, and they are human. PHR became aware of this issue when they started seeing desperate Palestinian women in their Open Clinic. Now, with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Kayan (a Palestinian feminist organization), they have “a foot in the door”; they won a court case that allows spouses with permits but no status to register for health funds. This covers eight thousand families, “so this is beginning, from nothing to something is big.” This work is part of PHR I’s advocacy for the right to health for all.
The refugee issue also keeps PHR busy. Since 2003, fifty thousand refugees or asylum seekers (or if you are Netanyahu, “infiltrators”) have crossed the Egyptian Sinai into Israel, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. Many of them (an estimated 25% of the Eritreans) were kidnapped, tortured, raped, or held for ransom in the Sinai by a Bedouin clan. The Israeli response, wrapped in the hysteria of the threat to the Jewish nature of the state by these disease carrying, Muslim criminal elements, was to build a fence along the border with Sinai, so new refugees are no longer entering and the border is sealed. Sound familiar?
They also built a detention center called Holot, which means Sands, where asylum seekers and refugees are sent without a trial or judicial review for an indefinite period of time. It is “open” in that they can step out into the desert, but they need to be there for three roll calls per day and from eleven p.m. To six a.m. It is an utterly miserable place. Two days ago, six hundred men defiantly marched to Egypt, stating they want to go someplace where they can move their lives forward. They were brutally arrested again and sent back to prison, all documented on video and PHR I was there to help the sick, mostly suffering from dehydration and injuries related to the attack by the security forces. Ran explains that the Israeli government is working to make these people miserable and has actually sent a few hundred to Sudan where many are reported to be detained, in danger, tortured, or imprisoned. Thirteen families have reported their loved ones missing, imprisoned, or murdered.
A few have been sent by plane to third countries, mostly Rwanda and Uganda; Israel has some unofficial agreement with these folks.
In Rwanda, a few have been detained, as documented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
At this point Ran notes, there are fifty thousand refugees here, this is not a demographic catastrophe. Israel is a first world country; it could be a model for refugee absorption, and it has done it before with one million Russians (many of whom were not Jewish, but at least they were white). Meanwhile, Lebanon and Syria are both faced with one million Syrian refugees, each with much fewer resources. The least the Israeli government should do is to investigate each person’s refugee and asylum issues and protect them until it is safe for them to return. Ran notes ironically that the whole discussion about protecting the “Jewish nature of the state” really leaves out the nature of Jewish values; this is all about numbers.
PHR is once again working on the separation of legal status from social rights and they have had some successes. In January 2014, the government adopted a plan to treat HIV-positive refugees and established a small mental health clinic for these deeply traumatized people, so there is a glimmer of recognition regarding the right of health, even for people who are African and poor and so desperate they will walk across deserts and endure unbearable suffering to come to a place that might provide work and opportunity.
PHR I also focuses on the occupied territories, and Ran describes a report that will be published in a month investigating basic health indicators for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and comparing them to Israelis. Let’s just say that everything looks bad; even basic life expectancy is divergent by more than ten years, as well as maternal and infant mortality, availability of medications, clinicians, specialists, etc., etc. This gives PHR the opportunity to talk about responsibility and control; if the Israeli government controls the territories as the occupying force (which it is), then it is responsible for the health needs of the population under its control. Netanyahu brags that, “Israel saves lives of Palestinian children while Palestinians are kidnapping teenagers”; this is nonsense.
The Palestinian Authority is paying for the care in Israel, and for decades, the Israeli government has prevented development and actually “dedeveloped” the Palestinian health care system as well as controlled and reduced access to the major East Jerusalem hospitals.
The facts speak for themselves as we say.
And then there are all the other projects: “torture always an issue, the victims are refugees and prisoners.” There is work on the freedom of movement of doctors and patients in the occupied territories, the Saturday mobile clinic as usual, the Tel Aviv open clinic and much efforts to educate Israeli students in universities on the right to health by taking them on tours of East Jerusalem, the Negev, Bedouin villages, south Tel Aviv, Lod, Ramle. Ran notes, “The students are more and more open to it, the problem was with faculty not wanting us to come and talk, but things are getting better.”