News

Group of British doctors call for a boycott of the Israel Medical Association

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39196.455613.DB (Published 26 April 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:871
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    A group of British doctors has called for a boycott of the Israeli Medical Association (IMA) and its expulsion from the World Medical Association (WMA) in a letter published in the Guardian newspaper. The petition, signed by 130 doctors, argues that by refusing to criticise Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, the IMA is failing to uphold international medical ethical standards.

    The Israel Defense Forces “have systematically flouted the fourth Geneva convention guaranteeing a civilian population unfettered access to medical services and immunity for medical staff,” the letter says, citing reports of soldiers attacking ambulances; patients and essential drugs obstructed at checkpoints, and bombing of the public health infrastructure.

    “The Israeli Medical Association has a duty to protest about war crimes of this kind but has refused to do so,” it continues. “Eighteen leading Palestinian health organisations have appealed to fellow professionals abroad to recognise how the IMA has forfeited its right to membership of the international medical community.”

    Derek Summerfield of the Institute of Psychiatry, one of the letter's organisers, said a boycott was the only remaining option when all normal channels have been exhausted. “We've sent exhaustive reports, with evidence carefully documented by leading human rights organisations, to the IMA, the World Medical Association, and the BMA, but they've been ignored.”

    Dr Summerfield said that the BMA “is very brave when standing up for patients' privacy in Britain, but on this issue seems completely cowed by fear of a powerful internal pro-Israel lobby.”

    He said that the BMA “now hides behind the mantra of changing minds through education. But the BMA supported the exclusion of the Medical Association of South Africa from the WMA, in the time of the apartheid regime.”

    Vivienne Nathanson, BMA head of science and ethics, said the South African case was different because the Medical Association of South Africa was never expelled from the World Medical Association. “We temporarily opposed their application to rejoin, but they had left on their own accord.”

    She added, “If we looked hard enough, any national medical association could find something to criticise in any other. We prefer to work through education and example, not exclusion, hoping that the IMA will become a major advocate for human rights and for universal access to medical care. In fact, they have already contacted us over this letter, hoping to meet with some of the Palestinian medical groups who first urged this boycott. We have put them in touch with someone who should be able to arrange a dialogue.”

    Otmar Kloiber, secretary general of the World Medical Association, declined to comment on the letter.

    The Israeli Medical Association was unable to respond directly to inquiries before press today, due to a public holiday, but provided a letter that it had sent to the BMA at the beginning of April, in which Yoram Blachar, the association's president, had responded to a call for a boycott of the association by a group of Palestinian organisations.

    He said, “It was brought to our attention that a group of Palestinian organisations have called for a boycott of the IMA because of its, in their words, ‘violation of medical ethics and its collaboration with the Israeli illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.'

    “Upon reading their list of ‘charges' against the IMA, we were struck by the sheer enormity of the lies and twisted assertions they have collected, which rise to the level of defamation. First of all, their statement that ‘the IMA's medical ethics record in torture is well documented' and ‘the IMA has never denounced . . . torture' is totally false. The IMA has, on many occasions, denounced the use of torture and any involvement by physicians in it. We are full signatories to the Declaration of Tokyo and stand behind it. We have also released an ethics statement calling for the humane treatment of prisoners in hospitals and a 14 point statement calling for the assurance of health services during times of conflict.

    “Their assertion that ‘the IMA is charged with being the executive arm of the Israeli establishment working to support political imperatives rather than serving universal medical ethics' is patently absurd. The IMA is not, and has never been, the ‘executive arm of the Israeli establishment.' In fact, on many issues we find ourselves, like many other NMAs [national medical associations], fighting the position of the establishment.

    “We are an apolitical organisation that, like every other national medical organisation, concerns itself with medical and health issues and not the establishment or support of any sort of political policy.

    “The Palestinian organisations' statement that ‘the IMA has . . . contributed directly to maintaining, defending, or justifying oppression and wars, or has stood silently in the face of civilian deaths in the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] and Lebanon and the destruction of the Palestinian and Lebanese health system . . .' is not only untrue but the height of gall.

    “The charge that the IMA has justified oppression and wars does not merit a response. In any event, we do not recall hearing one voice from the Palestinian community speaking out against the terror, murder, and kidnappings that have led to war. As to the charge that we have in any way contributed or stood silently by in the face of the destruction of the Palestinian and Lebanese health systems, to our regret, this destruction is the result of mismanagement of funds by the Palestinian leadership and boycotts by the EU [European Union] and the US [United States]. Not only has the IMA not stood silently by, we called for funds to be transferred not in kind but in the form of food and medicine so that help could be given where it is truly needed.

    “In addition to the above, tens if not hundreds of Palestinian patients receive medical care in Israel each year, usually at a cost absorbed by the Israeli government. The IMA has intervened on occasions where a patient was about to be evicted from an Israeli hospital for lack of funds. The IMA has also intervened on many occasions of Palestinian patients, physicians, and medical students who encountered difficulties at Israeli checkpoints, including petitions to the High Court of Justice on certain matters.

    “We have, at several points in the past, attempted to meet with our Palestinian counterparts in an effort to foster mutual cooperation and better understanding, including the release of a joint statement. Almost none of these meetings have taken place, because of refusal on the Palestinian side. We would be more than happy for the BMA or the WMA to take the lead in arranging such a meeting.”