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Lobbying the Lancet: how Israel’s apologists smeared ‘doctors for terrorism’

Over 50 days in July-August, the Israeli army subjected the 1.8 million residents of the fenced-in, blockaded Gaza Strip to an unprecedented assault. 2,131 Palestinians were killed, including 501 children. At least 142 families lost three or more family members in the same incident. Israel’s attacks left 11,231 injured, including 3,436 children – many now have permanent disabilities.

The aerial bombing and shelling destroyed or otherwise damaged 55,650 housing units in the Gaza Strip – a third of those were left uninhabitable. 62 hospitals and clinics, 220 schools, and 419 businesses and workshops were also damaged by the Israeli army’s firepower.

This “carnage“, this “killing of children and the slaughter of civilians”, in the words of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, has produced substantial evidence of Israeli war crimes, as documented and reported on by Palestinian eyewitnesses, local NGOs, Israeli groups like B’Tselem and Adalah, as well as international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

A letter in The Lancet

Two weeks after ‘Operation Protective Edge’ began, a letter by 24 medical professionals was published in medical journal The Lancet, “denouncing” the attack on Gaza. The co-signatories cited the Israeli army’s tactics and their impact on the Palestinian population, and the political context in which the assault was taking place. Readers were invited to add their own signatures, and 20,000 did so in just one week (the names are no longer displayed due to concern “about several threatening statements to those signatories, which have recently been posted on social media.)”

The backlash was severe. The Israeli government led calls for the letter to be removed from the journal’s website, as Health Minister Yael German attacked the “one-sided and political” text. “Israel did not go to war to kill,” she said, even as Gaza was being pummelled by airstrikes and artillery fire. Health Ministry Director-General Arnon Afek slammed the letter as “a radical, one-sided scandal, which borders on a blood libel”, and promised: “We will launch a harsh protest against the journal.”

Soon a petition was drawn up, declaring a boycott of the Lancet until Richard Horton was dismissed from his position as Editor. Threatening the Lancet and its publisher Elsevier with “various options” including a wider boycott and cancellation of subscriptions, the petition concluded by claiming that the medical journal was “indirectly supporting terrorist organizations.”

The petition was widelyshared, with U.S.-based cardiologist Ori Ben-Yehuda gathering support via his email address at the Cardiovascular Research Foundation. Canada’s Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies urged a retraction and investigation, while pro-Israel advocacy group ‘Scholars for Peace in the Middle East’ accused the letters’ authors of “financial and intellectual links to terrorism.” Horton received numerous other letters, often copying in the journal’s ombudsman.

The backlash intensifies

Leading the charge was NGO Monitor, an Israel advocacy group which smears human rightsdefenders, and whose head Gerald Steinberg has worked for the Israeli government. During the first half of August, NGO Monitor published an item on The Lancet’s “history of exploiting medicine for political warfare against Israel”, a separate piece on the “anti-Israel campaigners” behind the letter, and a Steinberg op-ed in Israel Hayom under the title: ‘Doctors for terrorism.’ Yet almost a month on from the original publication of the letter, there was no indication – at least in public – that The Lancet was going to buckle under pressure.

Israel’s apologists got their ‘breakthrough’ when NGO Monitor found that letter author Dr. Paola Manduca had forwarded an email to a Google group on August 14 from fellow signatory Dr. Swee Ang, containing a link to a video by former Ku Klux Klan-leader David Duke. On September 1, NGO Monitor shared this with senior executives of The Lancet‘s publisher Elsevier, copying in, amongst others, Richard Horton, the journal’s advisory board and ombudsman, and “members of the media.”

This discovery was publicised on NGO Monitor’s website in Hebrew on September 1 and inEnglish on September 10 – but it attracted little attention until a report appeared in the UK’sTelegraph on September 22 under the headline: ‘Lancet ‘hijacked in anti-Israel campaign‘.’ This article was written by Jake Wallis Simons, a journalist who has quoted from and cited NGO Monitor in previous attacks on Oxfam and Israeli soldiers’ whistleblowing group Breaking the Silence. Among the first to share the article after Simons tweeted it out – the Israeli embassy in London and NGO Monitor itself.

Horton heads to Israel

The pressure had become too much, and at the end of September, Horton embarked on a trip to Israel, invited by two senior officials at Haifa’s Rambam hospital: Director of Medical Research Karl Skorecki and Director Rafi Beyar. As he embarked on his visit, NGO Monitor continued the pressure, including with an op-ed by Gerald Steinberg in The Jerusalem Post.

The trip was supported by Israel’s Health Ministry, and Horton’s itinerary included meeting the Minister of Health. According to Rambam, the aim of the visit was to expose Horton to Israel’s “multicultural medical institutions” that – imagine! – even “treat people from the West Bank and Gaza.” The intention was, they said, “to showcase the diversity of the facility’s staff and patients.” One wonders if Horton literally had ‘Arabs’ pointed out to him as he walked around.

The “multicultural diversity” of Israel’s hospitals has long been a hasbara talking point. In fact, Rambam itself had already featured on the itinerary of a political propaganda tour – with the active participation of Skorecki and Beyar. Commenting on Horton’s visit, Israel’s former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon summarised it thus: “thank you Rambam Hospital for beautiful and effective Hasbara.”

The visit also included an event with Asa Kasher, author of the Israeli military’s ‘code of ethics’, and “physicians who had worked in the battlefield during the Gaza conflict.” However, the highlight of Horton’s trip was his own speech, where he expressed regret for “the completely unnecessary polarization” caused by the letter and his horror “at the offensive video that was forwarded by two of the authors.” He called the visit “a turning point for me and my relationship with this region.”

The Lancet on probation

The response from Horton’s attackers was mixed. NGO Monitor drew attention to what itpresented as an expression of regret (although the URL records their original claim that it constituted a retraction), and Steinberg declared himself “impressed“. NGO Monitor wasted no time in issuing a series of demands, including the creation of “follow-up mechanisms” and a review of every article related to Israel published by The Lancet since 2001.

Horton’s post-trip, “turning point” editorial appeared, in which he expressed opposition to boycott, announced some rather general guidelines for ‘political’ submissions, and confirmed that The Lancet would “initiate a new partnership to publish a Series on Israel’s health and medical research system.” This was hailed by NGO Monitor as starting the “rollback of immoral exploitation of medicine vs Israel”, but they also pointed out that Horton did not “retract or apologize for his own central responsibility for the mendacious [letter].”

Israeli Health Ministry’s Afek praised the editorial as “brave”, and Rambam’s Skorecki judged Horton’s “clear-cut statement of The Lancet’s opposition to ‘all forms of boycott'” as “especially noteworthy” (an indication of priorities). In his most recent interview, Horton declared that The Lancet would “never publish a letter like that again.” The journal’s future series on the Israeli health system will, he said, include articles by Rambam staff and the Health Minister.

NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg, meanwhile, will soon address participants of an “educational medical mission” to Israel called ‘Responding to the abuse of civilian populations for political goals in an era of asymmetrical warfare’. The tour, coordinated with the Israel Medical Association, will include visits to medical centres, as well as contributions from the IDF, media lobby group CAMERA, and social media hasbara activists. These are busy times for war crimes apologists.

Published first by Middle East Monitor

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