Sunday, 18 November 2007

The cancer of Israeli apartheid

It's not always easy making the case for basic political justice, human rights and an end to Israel's apartheid treatment of the Palestinian people. But we try.

Three young Israeli men appeared recently at our Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign stall, with, quite obviously, more than a passing interest in what we were doing. One, in particular, spoke in dismissive tones about the Palestinians, asking me, rather mockingly, if I'd ever actually been to Israel and whether I knew anything about how the Palestinians live. I replied that, no, I'd never been to Israel, only to Palestine, quite recently, in fact, and that, yes, my colleagues and I had been able to see first-hand the shocking ways in which the Palestinians are being forced to live under an illegal occupation.

A little annoyed, he asked whether I, at least, accepted that, being "a democracy," Israel has the right to exist and defend itself. But Israel is not a democracy, I corrected him. It's an apartheid state. Two contradictory entities. He seemed genuinely puzzled by this possibility, apparently struggling to understand that a state with a discriminatory polity akin to apartheid South Africa is not a functioning democracy even in the conventional liberal sense of the term.

Apartheid state, he demanded. Says who? Well, Desmond Tutu, who knows a bit about such matters, and ex-US President Jimmy Carter, for starters. He gave up on me at this point and moved-on to one of my friends.

The walk-away-with-shaking-head routine is usually reasonable evidence of a bankrupt argument. And, when making sure to maintain one's own calm demeanour, it's always helpful to remember that the Palestinians' case is actually fixed in international law. In short, it has legal, as well as moral, right on it's side.

But, such exchanges also reaffirm to me that these young people are themselves products of a siege-mentality state with no actual concern for the legalities and moralities of the issue. More basically, they see themselves as upholders of something which they already have and fully intend to keep. In effect, right and wrong doesn't actually feature in their comprehension of the problem. The more revealing point, rather, is their own incomprehension at the thought of having to relinquish what they've taken and now assume to be their own.

Ask such people how they can justify the illegal settlements pock-marking the West Bank? They can't. Certainly not in any legally-convincing way, given all the UN resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw. So, they evade or dismiss the question.

What about the illegality of the 'separation' wall, as decreed by the International Court? Again, there's no rational argument offered, only standard, convenient rationalisations, such as, 'the wall is there to keep terrorists out.' No mention of its primary purpose in annexing yet more Palestinian land. It's the same shrugging evasions and denials acutely evident in the body language and responses of young conscripts at Israeli checkpoints.

Another seemingly obvious question, thus, arises: how can a person or group acting in a human rights capacity ever hope to persuade such people to observe others' rights when those people have no functioning interest in human rights? If nothing else, there's useful lessons to be learned here in observing the psychology of denial and capacity of people to remain locked-into such a defensive mindset.

Yet, that psychology is itself deeply-informed by Israel's state apartheid policies - de jure and de facto. And from this comes a naturalised language of casual racism, a rooted indifference to others' pain; a socialised grooming in doctrinaire-speak which allows and validates the dehumanisation of an entire people.

The Palestinians, thus, become socially framed as 'a problem' - not a people - to be contained, managed, corralled, humiliated, ground-down and demoralised until they themselves have no reasonable expectation of being treated as human equals.

The courageous Jewish writer/academic Ilan Pappe has documented the historical origins of this discriminatory treatment in his fine tome, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Here, and in other definitive writings, Pappe records how the removal and brutalisation of a people since the Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948 became a vital and accepted narrative for Israelis, part of their 'national duty' to 'defend the homeland'. Thus, the racist treatment of Palestinians is still largely unrecognised:
"The plan decided upon on 10 March 1948, and above all its systematic implementation in the following months, was a clear-cut case of an ethic cleansing operation, regarded under international law today as a crime against humanity." (1)
The subsequent denial and hiding of this mass crime has been facilitated by official Israeli historiography, such as the concocted story of Palestinian "voluntary transfers". (2) This, Pappe reminds us, is part of "the cognitive system that allowed the world to forget, and enabled the perpetrators to deny, the crime the Zionist movement committed against the Palestinian people in 1948...I have no doubt that the absence so far of a paradigm of ethnic cleansing is part of the reason why the denial of the catastrophe has been able to go on for so long." (3)

And from this flows a message of ethnic superiority and refusal to admit culpability which permeates Israeli society today.

Here's a particularly shocking illustration of that "cognitive system", revealing such discriminatory indifference even in the area of critical health-care for Palestinian children.

Farah's story

Jamal Harma and his family eke-out a living in Balata refugee camp, Nablus. In January 2005, Jamal's daughter Farah, then ten, was diagnosed with bone cancer in her right knee. Through an arrangement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Assuta Hospital in Tel Aviv, she was permitted to be seen by doctors there instead of the rudimentary clinics in the West Bank. Jamal was prohibited from accompanying her as he didn't have a travel permit. Instead, Farah made the arduous daily journeys from Nablus with her grandmother.

At the initial consultation, Farah received the most cursory of examinations and was sent home with an ink mark around the tumour indicating the area to be treated with radiation. No interdisciplinary team saw Farah, as standard practice, and no effort was made by an oncologist to determine the precise form of cancer. Her 'case notes' amounted to a paltry two pages.

In March 2005, increasingly anxious about his daughter's condition, Jamal took Farah to Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, where they saw Dr. Yehuda Kollender, deputy head of orthopaedic oncology. Here's Jamal's painful recollection of that meeting:

"When we met Kollender," says Jamal, "he asked me: 'Why did you come to us so late?' I told him: 'She's being treated at Assuta.' He asked me: 'What are you doing there at Assuta?' I said: 'What do you mean? Radiation.' Kollender took off his glasses, looked at me and clutched his head in his hands. He told his secretary not to let anyone else in the room. 'We're in big trouble,' he told me. I didn't understand what was happening. He called Assuta Hospital, while I was sitting there. I don't know whom he spoke to there. 'How could such a thing happen?' he asked them. 'You'll be responsible. This wouldn't happen to a child from Israel.'"
Dr. Kollender later recalled:
"A little girl came to me with an advanced and neglected tumor, and when her father told me that the girl was getting radiation at Assuta, my hair stood on end. Every expert in oncology, actually every specialist in oncology or orthopedics, knows that the standard treatment all over the world for such a case is chemotherapy, followed by limb-preserving surgery, and then another round of chemotherapy."
But the damage to Farah had been done. The case is now subject to a civil suit against Assuta. The lawsuit papers show that Farah was also treated with a long-outdated Cobalt 60 radiation machine, reserved only for Palestinian patients. Two investigators were subsequently told by Assuta's medical director that the machine did not fulfil the necessary requirements for treating Israelis and was being used only to meet the 'needs' of the PA. The investigators confirmed the director's admission that the machine was being used just to make money, noting, with shock, her concluding remark: "It's not my problem".

The human rights-based attorney Michael Sfard who filed the case describes it as a "constitutional lawsuit"; "a suit about constitutional injustices when an organization or individual infringes on the rights of another person". Safrd's indictment comes with this scathing conclusion: "when Assuta was asked to clarify its numerous faults, what was uncovered was an indifferent and racist system motivated by financial considerations".

That "indifferent and racist system" is beyond Jamal's comprehension, and was, tragically, the difference between life and death for Farah:

"Eventually, the doctors said they had done all they could. Farah was very sick. The tumor had spread to her lungs. She had trouble breathing and had to rely on an oxygen tank. "I'm a devout man. As a Muslim, I believe that everything is in God's hands. At that point I understood that her fate was in God's hands, and we came back home." "
Little Farah died. But her death is not only due to medical negligence. It's rooted in a system of state discrimination.

Hayah's story

Farah's story is connected with the case of Hayah Abu-Qabatya, another Palestinian child discarded by the system. Hayah also died never having received proper treatment. Her case is party to the lawsuit:
"As in the case of Farah Harma, [the same doctor] looked at her leg and drew with a marker to designate the area meant to receive radiation. The lawsuit says that he subsequently sent her for radiation treatment without doing any medical tests to obtain a more precise diagnosis of the type of cancer and of the girl`s medical condition. In this case, too, he failed to go through standard treatment planning or consult with a pediatric oncologist...No physical examination was performed and she also received radiation from the Cobalt 60 machine."
Hayah's father recalls how the true extent of the problem, as with Farah, was discovered too late:

"When my daughter finished the treatments, they asked us to come back in two months,` says the father. `A week later, my daughter said that her stomach hurt. I took her to Al-Husseini Hospital. She had an X-ray. When the doctor saw the film he went nuts. He said: 'I don`t understand, I don`t understand! How did the disease spread like this?'...Further examination found that the cancer had spread into the girl`s abdominal cavity and lungs. Hayah began chemotherapy at Al-Husseini Hospital, but her condition rapidly deteriorated, and the treatments were halted. `At the hospital they told me, 'Take her home, it will be better that way,' says Abu-Qabatya."
There's the pain of losing a child. The knowledge of medical mistreatment is a terrible added burden. But how more awful to know that such loss is symptomatic of a state's racist treatment of an entire people?

"Hayah Abu-Qabatya died at home in the village of Yata, on Thursday, October 13, 2005. She was just 12 years old. In the last days of her life, she slept because of the strong painkillers she was given. "The whole time she was being treated at Assuta, I tried to hide from her that it was cancer, so as not to break her," says her father. "But she quickly understood what was going on. A few days after we came back from the hospital, she asked me, 'Daddy, am I going to die?' and I didn't know what to answer. On the Friday of the Ramadan holiday, I came back from prayers and sat beside her. It was 12 noon. She opened her eyes for a moment, looked at me and then closed them."
But, as the responses of some Israeli doctors and officials in this report shows, there is also a strong and enduring capacity for those on the dominant side to care about their fellow human beings.

Hayah's father retains kind praise for the human rights volunteers who were always there to help his daughter through the checkpoints en route to hospital and to offer stay-over accommodation.

This aspect of the story is a ray of hope, a reminder of how people are ever-capable of acting in a spirit of humanity, able to contemplate the possibility of a just political system and equitable society.

Ilan Pappe and other key anti-Zionist campaigners participated in a major conference recently on the case for a one-state solution, the most alarming of all scenarios for Israel's apartheid state and its adherents. For it would not only force a post-apartheid structure of equal political and civil rights. It would necessitate the humane treatment of Palestinians as equal people.

Alas, all that's too late for Farah and Hayah. One can only hope for a day when their brothers and sisters can live in a land of open justice, equal health-care and common dignity.



(1) Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p x111 (2006, Oneworld Pub.).
(2) Ibid, p xiv.
(3) Ibid, p xvi.

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