The moral abyss: Israeli doctors call for the bombing of hospitals

Nov 9, 2023
Wounded Palestinians wait for treatment at the overcrowded emergency ward of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City following an Israeli airstrike on October 11, 2023

Even as the moral abyss that is the war in Gaza had seemed as if it could not deepen, it now appears to be a bottomless pit. It is reported that about 100 medical doctors belonging to a group called Doctors for the Rights of Israeli Soldiers signed a letter last weekend stating that it is an “obligation” for the army to target hospitals in Gaza allegedly used to shelter Hamas, and specifically calling for the bombing of the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza.

The Israeli doctors’ letter said “The residents of Gaza saw fit to turn hospitals into terrorist nests to take advantage of western morality, they are the ones who brought destruction upon themselves…attacking terrorist headquarters is the right and the duty of the Israeli army.”

Doctors working under horrendous and dangerous conditions in Gaza stated in response “We as doctors are ambassadors of peace. We save lives” and that “Israeli doctors who signed a letter promoting [the] bombing of hospitals with patients inside have committed a betrayal to their noble profession and bear responsibility.” They called on the World Health Organisation and other healthcare bodies to help hold the signers of the letter accountable.

It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of this tragic departure from the most fundamental ethics of the medical profession. The letter from Israeli doctors represents a cold, calculated and flagrant rejection of the whole basis of those ethics, namely our common humanity and a commitment to the provision of health care regardless of who needs it.

The Declaration of Geneva is one of the oldest policies of the World Medical Association (WMA), and is known as the ‘modern Hippocratic oath’. It was adopted by the 2nd General Assembly of the WMA in Geneva in September 1948, but remains one of the most consistent WMA documents, having had only very few and careful revisions over the decades since. The Declaration states, in part:

As a member of the medical profession:

I will maintain the utmost respect for human life;

I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient;

Regardless of whether the Declaration is applied to an individual doctor-patient relationship or more broadly to the provision and delivery of health care, the intent is clear: health care must not be denied on the basis of nationality or any other marker of identity.

We’ve heard many times since October 7 that “Israel has a right to defend itself” (with that right rarely being cited in relation to Palestinians). It has become like a broken record, as massacre upon massacre is heaped upon Palestinian civilians, with even hospitals now being promoted as fair game.

And yet the constant repetition of the mantra of “self-defence” will never make the bombing of hospitals – full of the sick and wounded, those struggling around the clock to care for them, and thousands of people who have nowhere else to go – legitimate. Civilians are not suddenly rendered non-people, irrelevant or dispensable, simply on the basis of whether some combatants use the same building. Their rights and needs remain, undiminished. (This also sets aside the important question of whether claims of hospitals harbouring Hamas fighters are all correct, such claims being easy to make but impossible for outside observers to verify.)

Beneath attempts to justify the destruction of hospitals and the people within is the evil of racism. If the victims were anything but Palestinian – if, say, they were Australian or American – the notion of killing or injuring children and adults by the hundreds every day and terrorising many thousands more would be unthinkable, regardless of the rationalisations offered. But the victims are Palestinian and so the rules, or at least the vigour with which the rules are applied, are different. Crimes against them are more readily tolerated (not even acknowledged as crimes), the right words about the need to comply with the rules of war are uttered, the weapons to the aggressor state keep flowing, and the bloodbath continues.

Once we lose sight of the professional ethics that are intended to protect health care, including in times of war, we are on a very dark path. A small group of doctors in Israel are beckoning us down such a path. They do not reflect the many courageous and compelling Jewish voices who are calling for peace.

We must heed the call from doctors in Gaza for members of the medical profession who actively incite attacks on hospitals to be held accountable. This call must be repeated and reinforced at the highest levels, including in Australia.

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