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Op-Ed: Rights groups undeterred by government gibes

TEL AVIV (JTA) — The recent reflux of local sentiment directed against Israeli human rights and civil society organizations by Israeli officials is both disheartening and obtuse.

While representatives of the top echelons of Israeli government pass their time wrangling with European leaders or sleuthing around the “bad parts of town,” the unheralded actions of thousands of Israelis help to console and remind me that I, as an employee of such an organization, am not singlehandedly bringing about an irreversible change in the character of the State of Israel, as my accusers might have me believe. I’m actually doing my job with the strong support of many mainstream Israelis.

It’s like this: Israeli human rights organizations spent the greater part of 2008 closely monitoring the humanitarian situation in Gaza; Physicians for Human Rights-Israel monitored the health situation in particular. Over the course of the year we initiated news conferences, published updates and articles in Hebrew and English, and met with representatives of embassies and diplomatic missions and members of Knesset in a concerted effort to convince the Israeli public and the international community of the grave obstacles facing patients in Gaza, most of whom were not able to access treatment others might consider common and readily accessible. They could not pursue corrective procedures for cataracts, undergo bypass surgery or receive radiation for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the most prevalent, yet curable, forms of cancer.

That’s why on Dec. 27, 2008, as the Israeli Air Force began its attack on Gaza, we had a very clear sense of just what physicians in Gaza were up against. We already knew that more than 60 percent of patients who had submitted permit requests to travel to hospitals in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Israel, Egypt or Jordan had been denied exit. We already knew, thanks to the World Health Organization, that over 20 percent of essential medicines had been lacking — for nearly five months. We asked ourselves in stricken disbelief: “How would Gaza’s medical community withstand this added strain?”

That first morning after the attacks I arrived at work to learn that our clinic’s coordinator had just spoken with doctors at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Scores of people had been brought in throughout the night. Lacking proper supplies, physicians were performing surgery without gauze, proper anesthetics or sanitized tools.

I immediately sat down at my desk and did what any sane fund-raiser would do — I typed up the list of supplies e-mailed to us by Gaza physicians, addressed the note to “those who have so generously supported PHR-Israel in the past,” and asked that people send donations so that we could purchase and transfer medical supplies immediately. Only after I had sent out the appeal through our members’ lists in English did I translate it and send it out via our Hebrew lists.

Good thing I did.

Within the first 14 days of the incursion into Gaza, as Israel’s air operation was enlarged to a ground offensive, with collateral damage increasing by the day, and more and more homes crashing to the ground, it was Israelis — Jewish, Muslim and Christian; Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, Palestinian Arab and Bedouin — who first answered our call and rallied to provide us with support so we could assist our counterparts in Gaza. The international community responded as well — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — their concern for the wounded and injured no less great.

But during those first days and still today, donations came in shekels — hundreds of thousands of them — and thank-you notes came in Hebrew, telling us we were doing "avodat kodesh," holy work.

The point is not only that Israelis from all walks of life were concerned for the suffering of Gaza’s civilian population, or that Israeli support for Israeli human rights work should defend our legitimacy. As human rights organizations, we’re not so much concerned with nationalist ideologies and ethos.

Our legitimacy comes from our commitment to protect and fulfill basic human rights, which no interior or foreign minister — or even the prime minister himself — has ever had the authority to override.

(Gila Norich is the director of development of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, an Israeli human rights organization.)

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