by Akiva Eldar
Israel’s State Comptroller Joseph Shapira is not exactly considered a champion of human rights or a great revolutionary. The opposition contends that he does not relish taking on the government and treats public representatives and civil servants with kid gloves. On May 14, Shapira surprised his critics. On the second anniversary of his appointment, he fired an arrow straight into the apple of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eye, one of his government flagship projects: the uncompromising war on African asylum seekers.
In the most pointed chapter of his annual report, Shapira determined that the government’s policy on the issue of “nondeportable aliens” (as the chapter is titled) does not conform to the laws of the state and the rules of international law. Not only that, but in reaction to reservations voiced by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein about this criticism, Shapira suggested that Weinstein reassess his stand. At the same time, he rebuffed pressure from Netanyahu’s office to censor parts of that chapter on the worn pretext of “preserving state security.”
Actually, Shapira took a stand alongside the human rights organizations that advocate on behalf of the refugees seeking asylum in Israel. He noted that the government has focused on blocking infiltration into the country, reducing the number of asylum seekers in the cities and encouraging their voluntary departure, but has not formulated a plan to deal with the tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese citizens currently in Israel. He placed the blame on the minister of interior and the minister of justice and demanded that they put together a proposal as soon as possible to ensure the dignified basic existence of all the aliens who cannot be deported.
The government cannot punish Shapira for his criticism of the damage done to the most defenseless group in Israel. For the moment, it is resorting to a fight against the asylum seekers and their backers. Thus, the authorities have declared war on human rights organizations, among them Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
Lacking authority to shut down the organization, the government has decided to shut off its oxygen. The Finance Ministry announced a decision to revoke recognition of PHR as a public organization, a status that grants tax breaks to donors. This status, conferred on thousands of Israeli organizations, makes it easier for them to raise the funds they need to operate.
The Treasury, headed by the leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid, wrote PHR in January: “It might appear that one of your non-profit’s goals is a struggle against government policy that is the root cause of the violation of human rights and of the right to health (in your words).”
The Treasury also contends that PHR’s struggle to end the occupation “is a deeply controversial goal, with political overtones, the achievement of which entails a political struggle.” One can infer from the letter that any move or political stand opposed to government policy cannot be considered a legitimate political end deserving of tax breaks.
In a conversation with Al-Monitor, PHR’s Chairman Rafi Walden said he had no doubt the Finance Ministry’s initiative was designed to harm the organization, which operates outside the current government’s comfort zone.
“The trend of persecuting us for our political stands is completely transparent,” said Walden, who also serves as deputy director of the Sheba Medical Center and as personal physician to President Shimon Peres. He said, “Most of the claims raised by the Treasury relate to activity that has been the organization’s core mission since its founding 26 years ago, and is not the product of the past year.”
He noted right-wing organizations, among them quite a few that promote deeply controversial goals, enjoy tax exempt donations. Walden cites as examples organizations devoted to the establishment of the Third Temple, a nonprofit dedicated to land allocation to Jews only, another one aimed at preventing deals for the release of Palestinian political prisoners, among them vicious terrorists, and promoting freedom for jailed Jewish political prisoners, among them cruel terrorists.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: Perhaps the role of an organization such as Physicians for Human Rights is to focus on providing humanitarian medical help to populations in need and not to protest against government policy?
Walden: The aims and activities of the organization are to promote the right to health of all the populations under Israel’s responsibility. We are proud of the fact that we do not make do with presenting a humanitarian face. Our job is also to direct a critical look at government policy that brings patients to our doors or prevents them from getting to us, and to advocate change. We apply this approach also in our diverse activity within Israel to strengthen the country’s public health system, help the poor who cannot afford to buy medications, regulate human experiments, provide treatment to refugees and undocumented aliens, ensure fair medical treatment for prisoners and more.
We believe that with this activity we carry out the deep professional and ethical commitment of the medical community. We will not stand on the sidelines when we witness the violation of our patients’ right to health.
Al-Monitor: Is it not legitimate for the government to refuse help, directly or indirectly, for the funding of an organization that slanders it?
Walden: Harnessing the bureaucratic machine to achieve political ends constitutes further deterioration in the campaign to delegitimize human rights groups and civil society in Israel. Any time the authorities are worried about publicly confronting political-humanitarian activities which do not conform to government policy, they recruit the bureaucracy. Under the guise of a supposedly genuine examination, they pose questions and impose conditions. These tools were proven effective in the campaign against recognition of Bedouin ownership of lands on which they have lived for generations. Using such means, it prevents family reunification of Palestinians with their Israeli spouses and this is also how they exhaust the asylum seekers. Now these same means are being used against human rights organizations fighting for basic human rights such as medical care and food. This is what is known as the “tyranny of bureaucracy.”