A discussion with Physicians for Human Rights Israel

“We are a human rights organization focusing on the right to health” said Kifah el Halim, as she began our interview about the organization she works with, Physicians for Human Rights- Israel (PHR-I), in Jaffa, Israel.

Physicians for Human Rights is an international network that uses “science and medicine to stop mass atrocities and human rights abuses.”[1] I was excited to speak with PHR after hearing a lot about their work with Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli prisons shortly after I arrived in the West Bank in May. Much had been reported about Israeli prison staff shackling hunger strikers to beds, restricting their movement and humiliating them by allowing soldiers into their rooms to heckle and harass. At the time of writing, dozens of Palestinian men have been on hunger strike against Israeli policies of arbitrary administrative detention. Some have held on for as long as 104 days without food, access to private medical care, family visits or independent physicians. In this context, physicians working with PHR-I work as advocates. The organization supports transparent and impartial treatment of inmates in Israeli prisons, by public media campaigns, professional advocacy platforms and social media outreach.

But it also does much more.

PHR is an interesting organization in its steadfast commitment to human rights principles and practical application of technical assistance. In one of their programs in the occupied Palestinian territories, volunteer Israeli doctors and health professionals staff mobile clinics and provide primary care to those who lack access to it because of the Israeli separation barrier. “We bring people to the West Bank and this challenges the separation we feel in our everyday lives’ Kifah tells me, “this is the thing we are able to do.” By bringing two groups into contact, albeit with a power imbalance, PHR-I still pushes the envelope in terms of peace and reconciliation efforts.

To learn more about the organization, check out their website:http://www.phr.org.il/default.asp?PageID=4

Please watch the interview and reflect on how people from one group in a conflict can opt to work in peace promoting, life-giving ways while their government does the opposite.

At InterChange, we hope to showcase how peace and health promotion work actually works, and what it looks like. I hope the interview conveys this.

You can find my interview with PHR here:

Some of the questions I asked  Kifah were;

Could you tell me who you are and what your organization does? [0:02]

Do you partner with any other organizations? [1:00]

Do you have examples of health and peace workers coming together? [1:56]

Here Kifah talked about one of PHR’s largest programs, which involves Israeli physicians volunteering their time to staff mobile medical clinics in the occupied Palestinian territories. She spoke about how bringing both groups face to face in the context of a patient-doctor interaction had been eye-opening and positive for both parties in the conflict. Kifah reported that one doctor said “The last time I was here, I was in the army and I had a gun- now I come with band-aids and medicine” which I think shows how powerful this type of work is, in relation to both health and peace.

Later on, I tried to dig into what were the discrete linkages PHR saw between peace and health and whether or not the organization employed similar strategies to address the two goals [6:15]. The advocacy organization has a specific focus on the right to health, and sees their biggest success being the legitimacy they enjoy to work in both zones, and protect the right of Palestinians and Israelis without discrimination. “We are willing to protect the right to health and we are saying this from inside Israel” said Kifah [13:04]. Involving the medical community was also cited as a major accomplishment for the group.

My interest in PHR stems from their nonpartisan commitment and dedication to protecting and promoting human rights for all people living in the area they work. My interview with Kifah caused me to question what the role of government here is? Is it only under the auspices of health that the initiative is tolerated by the Israeli administration? Would it be helpful or harmful to PHR if a mainstream political party were to visibly support their work? Does political coverage make peace and health promotion more simple or does it threaten the very foundations such work is trying to build? When a post-conflict country moves toward establishing its own health systems, usually with foreign monetary assistance, how can that transition build health systems that promote peaceful environmental conditions?



[1] Physicians for Human Rights. Available at: http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/about/