Medicine and Martyrs, the Palestinian Health Ministry

It was reported in the media that the Palestinian Health Ministry is the organization responsible for conferring martyrdom.  Accordingly, the terrorist who killed three people and wounded seven may be declared a “shahid” by the Palestinian Health Ministry despite the fact that of the three persons murdered, one is an Arab from the town of Lod. To the civilized mind, such a step is patently absurd and outrageous.  Promoting political violence is completely at odds with all standards of medical ethics.

My initial contact with the Palestinian Health Ministry was during reserve duty as a combat medic, around 1978 when there was a cholera outbreak in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Villagers in the Kidron Valley had been using raw, untreated sewage to irrigate tomatoes, parsley and other crops that grow close to the ground.  These crops were hidden from view by seed onions reaching a height of a meter or more.  The Kidron Valley (East Jerusalem) was under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Health Department; however, the IDF bore responsibility for security.  The Palestinian authorities decided to bulldoze the crops being irrigated by raw sewage.  The villagers were incensed, and my job as a combat medic was to protect the Palestinian Health Ministry officials and the bulldozer operator from being attacked by the Palestinian farmers, while crop after crop was destroyed.

In the 1990s, I and other Israeli anthropologists initiated a project to introduce Palestinian medical academics to physical anthropology.  Subsequently, I was invited to lecture on ancient disease (Paleopathology) at a pre-medical school near Kalandia.  I was warmly welcomed by the medical students, and the lecture went well.  While I was lecturing, a memorial at the back of the room caught my eye.  Following the lecture, I went to the memorial and immediately recognized the photo of Yahya Ayash, the Hamas operative known as the “Engineer.” Ayash, notorious for his expertise in bomb making, had been on Israel’s most wanted list for many years. His bombs, placed on buses and in other public places, had killed not only Jews, but Moslems and Arab Christians as well. As we left the building, I mentioned to the Palestinian academic who accompanied me, that this was perhaps inappropriate in a medical school.  He shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something about students and freedom of speech.  At that point, I decided that the time was not yet ripe to introduce physical anthropology into the world of Palestinian medicine.

Some years passed and I received a phone call from the faculty of the new medical school in Abu Dis, inviting me to give a public lecture to their first graduating class.  As some very prominent Palestinians would be speaking as well, I was honored by the invitation.  Subsequently, however, there was a request that I agree to be introduced not as an Israeli anthropologist, but as an American. I immediately responded that such an idea was objectionable, on a par with having someone named Mousa being referred to as Moshe in Israeli society, and that it was an affront to my identity. They said they would have to think it over. A day or two later they contacted me and apologized, but emphasized that I would be the only Israeli present. I agreed and, following the lecture, had the opportunity to tour the new facility which was impressive. I also met some of the Palestinian faculty, all young and  educated at the best medical institutions in the West.

In conclusion, I want to affirm my belief in the value of cooperation among all those in the global medical and scientific community.  There is, for example, a potential for great achievement and progress through such cooperation between the best Israeli and Palestinian minds.  Sadly, the ongoing influence of Hamas, and the Palestinian Health Ministry’s encouragement of martyrdom, raise obstacles to such cooperation.  If this can change, we may finally see medical graduates from the West Bank being licensed to practice in Israel.

About the Author
Joe is a retired curator of archaeology/anthropology with the Israeli government.
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