Ghosting Palestine: Hiding Health and Human Rights Violations – July 26, 2021

published in the Health and Human Rights Journal

Journals in the medical, social, and political sciences have begun to highlight an appreciation of structural racism, and the personal and public health costs of bigotry and chronic stress. For oppressed populations, understanding these forces is critical to the establishment of basic human rights, including the right to health in its broadest sense: access to health services, clean water, sanitation, nutrition, housing, education, employment, and freedom of movement. International human rights law requires states to support these rights and calls out governments, groups, or individuals who violate these principles. However, there is one area of scholarship where these insights often do not apply, and that is Palestine.

The recent retraction of the article in Scientific American, “As Health Care Workers, We Stand in Support of Palestine,” is the latest example. The COVID-19 pandemic and repeated Israeli assaults have made it clear that the health of Palestinians is dependent on their liberation and the end of the Israeli occupation and siege.

Stimulated by the 11 day Israeli assault in May 2021, a group of health workers and public health professionals began communicating about the impact of the attacks on Palestinians and the Palestinian healthcare infrastructure, and the silencing and macro as well as micro-aggressions they constantly experience. This resulted in a Policy & Ethics Opinion piece published June 2 in Scientific American on Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel (now only available in a pdf not on the original website).

The opinion piece referred to the devastating impact of the latest Israeli attack, the violations of international law, and the complicity of the US government. The authors called on US health care systems, institutions, and workers to condemn Israeli aggression, the continued destruction of Palestinian health care, and the ongoing blockade. They noted the disproportionality of deaths and the “structural violence of the Israeli occupation.” They called out the impact of over 70 years of settler colonial rule, violence, human rights violations, and the resultant impact on health outcomes, now painfully visible during the pandemic and the Israeli policy of vaccine apartheid. The essay was thoroughly fact-checked and vetted by Scientific American staff prior to publication.

Nine days later, the entire piece was removed from the website with the statement “This article fell outside the scope of Scientific American and has been removed.” The title was changed to “Health Care Workers Call for Support of Palestinians,” effectively erasing the concept of Palestine as a recognized, legitimate place. A source stated that the editor’s language intended to convey that the retraction “was not due to any factual errors in the article itself.” It is unusual to retract an opinion piece if the information is accurate; this is a clear example of directly silencing uncomfortable discourse on Palestine. 

Two organizations publically claimed victory. Voice4Israel organized a letter signed by physicians and scientists calling the essay inaccurate, anti-Israel political indoctrination. One of the op-ed’s authors noted on Twitter that it was ironic that a nonviolent resistance strategy to end oppression (boycott, divestment, sanction movement – BDS) was the same tool used to “pressure scientific journals to violate academic freedom and allow censorship.” CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis) called the op-ed “a pastiche of cliched, anti-Israel libels and pro-terrorist propaganda devoid of truth” and accused Scientific American of  “shill[ing] for terrorists.”

These are classic talking points, weaponizing accusations of terrorism and anti-Semitism, and aggressively attacking anyone who frames the conversation based on anti-colonialism, human rights, and international law and/or supports the BDS movement. Academics and others have lost their jobs, tenure, scholarships, and careers through the actions of these groups and others like it. There is also a relentless campaign on the local and federal level to criminalize the BDS movement and to claim that any criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, as currently seen in the State Department definition of anti-Semitism.

This skirmish is part of a long, tormented history when it comes to the academy and tolerance of information about Palestinian history, health care, and ramifications when it conflicts with the confines of Israel messaging, dating back to 1981. In the 21st century, articles in the Journal of Medical Ethics, their blog, the British Medical JournalThe Lancet, and their blog have been aggressively attackedretracted, and villified.

Since the founding of Israel, efforts to document Palestinian history and rights has consistently been met by well-organized protests that include a large number of letters to journals and media outlets and hostile personal attacks on authors and editors. These campaigns share messaging that is supplied by monitoring organizations, use denial rather than actual arguments, demand apologies and resignations, enlist people unfamiliar with the topic but responding to the call, and often resort to obscenity and the accusation of anti-Semitism. This is far from the intellectual scientific debate that should characterize the tone and rigor of scientific or medical journals and far from a discourse that leads to greater understanding and the exchange of ideas based on facts. These efforts are more about shutting down conversation, vilifying one side, destroying careers, and making editors afraid to enter the fray in the future.

The idea that there are two equally weighted sides to a story when it comes to health in Palestine ignores the power imbalance between the settler colonial state and the colonized, and is thus a form of “epistemicide” of Palestinian realities. Thus, the narrative of the powerful and the exceptionalism of Israel is seen as normative and defining.

The Global Alliance on War, Conflict and Health, a growing movement of “academic health, humanitarian, and conflict researchers, practitioners and advocates,” just published a call to action, “to put war, violence against health care, settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation, wherever it occurs, on the global health agenda,” with an urgent focus on the occupied Palestinian territories. The Alliance joins a growing movement of principled investigators who understand that supporting Palestinian human rights requires recognition of the realities of Palestinian lives and documentation of facts without censorship and ad hominen attacks.

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author, filmmaker, and human rights activist with a focus on Israel/Palestine. She practiced obstetrics and gynecology for almost 40 years and served as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. She writes and lectures widely and is on the board of several Middle East focused organizations. Email: this:FacebookTwitterLinkedInReddit

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