At a time of increasing Israeli-Palestinian violence in Israel and the West Bank, and ongoing tensions in and around Gaza, my organization, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontiėres (MSF), has been accused by some members of the Jewish community, including longtime MSF supporters, of harboring an anti-Israel bias. Some have charged MSF with anti-Semitism.
It is critical that MSF address allegations that challenge the very principles that have guided our medical humanitarian work for 45 years.
The critiques stem in large part from an article I wrote in Foreign Policy last summer, from isolated statements by a former MSF president and from a recent MSF exhibit in Paris depicting the humanitarian hardships Palestinians face, as witnessed by MSF teams.
We are perceived by some as taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when communicating about the West Bank and Gaza, where MSF has been operating medical programs for more than 20 years.
Our critics allege that we have lost sight of our core humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality, upon which MSF’s integrity and ability to care for populations in distress depends.
We take the concerns seriously, and we understand and appreciate the sensitivities surrounding the conflict. I can state unequivocally that MSF also takes extremely seriously any allegations of anti-Semitism.
While any large organization — even a humanitarian one — may have individuals in its ranks who harbor discriminatory views, we strongly reject any allegation that MSF is institutionally anti-Semitic. At any given time, MSF has roughly 35,000 people working in the field and in headquarter offices. To be clear, any form of bigotry or discrimination expressed by staff, be it racism, sexism or religious hatred, is unacceptable.
Recent comments by the former president of MSF France equated the wearing of the yarmulke with support of Israeli state policies. Such statements are ill-informed, offensive and just plain wrong. While later retracted, the remarks are condemnable, and in no way represent or reflect any official MSF position.
We do, though, take issue with the notion that criticism of Israel is equivalent to anti-Semitism. No state is above criticism. Indeed, vociferous criticisms of Israeli government policies and actions in the West Bank and Gaza feature daily in Israel’s lively, vibrant media.
Fundamental to MSF’s work are the humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality. These principles mean that we stand apart from political interests, that we don’t take sides and that we provide care to anyone, regardless of any religious, political or ethnic affiliation.
Bearing witness and speaking out publicly about the suffering of our patients are also at the core of our work, which is based on our medical data and on the direct witnessing of our personnel on the ground.
My article in Foreign Policy focused on the experience of our medical teams working in Gaza and the West Bank, drawing predominantly on data from MSF facilities and on the testimony of our patients and staff. It drew attention to the psychological impact on our Palestinian patients of night raids and other violence in the West Bank. The article also examined ongoing medical consequences of the 2014 conflict in Gaza, including the backlog of patients requiring reconstructive surgery, and large numbers of child burn cases stemming from unsafe living conditions in war-affected areas of the strip.
Yet my focus on the situation of Palestinians in no way represents an unwillingness to consider the broader dynamics of the conflict, or the evident suffering borne by Israelis, of which we are very much aware.
But MSF does not work in Israel — not because of any bias, but because Israel can cover its medical needs. While MSF has offered medical support at various times, including during the 2006 Lebanon war, these offers were respectfully declined, given Israel’s strong emergency medical capabilities. We are therefore not in a position to make medically based observations regarding Israeli suffering. To be clear, Palestinians are by no means the sole victims in this conflict. Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, other factions and so-called lone-wolf attackers are in no uncertain terms responsible for crimes and violations of the laws of war, such as indiscriminate attacks.
Palestinian leaders bear direct responsibility for their actions, including firing into civilian areas rockets that have killed and wounded Israelis and perpetuated fear and psychological trauma among so many.
While not witnessed directly by MSF teams, allegations of Hamas and other fighters placing weapons or command centers near or inside health facilities and other civilian structures would amount to grave violations of the Geneva Conventions. Such tactics directly endanger noncombatants, including medical personnel and patients, and are explicitly forbidden under international law. Responsibility for other obstacles to health care must also be forthrightly assigned.
Hamas-initiated bans on the use of certain painkillers — as noted in my article — have exacerbated the suffering of Palestinians. Restrictions on the types of mental health services our teams can perform also limit the scope of services available to Gazans. For us, as a medical humanitarian organization, speaking out is fraught with challenges. It is an act that has drawn the ire of many governments and non-state groups over the decades. We have been charged with being pro-Shiite in Bahrain, anti-Shiite in Syria, pro-Tamil in Sri Lanka and anti-Buddhist in Myanmar, to name just a few examples.
Finally, Pro-Israeli” and “Pro-Palestinian” groups have criticized MSF throughout the 20-plus years of its operations in the West Bank and Gaza.
We have, essentially, satisfied none of the parties with our actions or with our speaking out. In essence, this is a true testament to our principle of independence.
Yet we remain committed to the victims who lack humanitarian assistance and medical care. This is where MSF needs to be — alongside the victims, satisfying none of the powers responsible for their suffering, wherever or whoever they are. We do indeed take a side: that of our patients.
Jason Cone is the executive director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontiėres (MSF) USA. Follow him on Twitter @jtcone1977