It is 20 years now that we accompanied the Mobile Clinic of Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHR‑I) on a mission in the West Bank and the Negev for our documentary film “1000 Women and a Dream”.* Back then, we portrayed Israeli psychiatrist Ruchama Marton, who has been campaigning against Israel’s claims to power and in favour of equal rights for all people living between Jordan and the Mediterranean since her military service in the 1950s. She founded PHR‑I in 1988 in response to the lack of healthcare in the occupied territories.

By Gabriela Neuhaus

Since then, mixed teams of Jewish and Arab health professionals have held regular consultations on-site to ensure that sick people receive medical help regardless of their religion or origin. PHR‑I have been repeatedly honoured for their commitment, including the Right Livelihood Award in 2010 “for their indomitable spirit in working for the right to health for all people in Israel and Palestine”.

Back in 2004, on the occasion of our filming, Dr. Ruchama Marton already criticised sharply Israel’s policy of separation, which was cemented by the construction of the wall: “So now, with this separation, the anti-separation thing is to cross the border and to meet the people on a personal level and also on a political, to tell them: We are against this, and we are willing to co-work.”

The now 86-year-old doctor still adheres to this credo. She is part of a tiny minority in Israel who continue to campaign for equality and human rights in Israel and Palestine. She wants her analysis of the current situation on the occasion of our telephone interview on 7 February 2024 to be understood as an appeal to the world, and especially to us people in Europe and the US.

Yes, I want a different Israel.
To accuse me of anti-Semitism
because of that is absurd.”

Here is the original interview with Ruchama Marton:

20 years ago, we accompanied you and the Mobile Clinic of the PHR‑I to the West Bank. Even then, the people there suffered enormously under the Israeli occupation régime. How do you assess the situation today?

It is as bad as it can be. There is no way to compare the situation 20 years ago with what is happening now within Israeli society and between Israelis and Palestinians. The right-wing has won in practically every aspect: In public life as well as in government. This also applies to religious thinking, which is at an almost primitive level. It is characterised by hatred and a desire for retribution. Since October 7, 2023, the desire for revenge has been the predominant feeling in the Israeli-Zionist public and government.

Are the population and the government so united on this issue? Last year, thousands protested in Israel against the right-wing government and its planned judicial reform. What has become of this movement?

I didn’t go to any of these demonstrations against the government because these protests were not about the occupation, the apartheid policy, or the terrible things that Israel is doing to the people in Gaza and the West Bank. I didn’t trust this movement – and unfortunately, I was right: after October 7th, many people who had previously taken to the streets reported to the army and wanted to kill Palestinians. Revenge has been the main theme ever since. This shows how deeply rooted anti-Palestinian feelings are in our society.

Nevertheless, a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that a majority of the population now considers the most important goal of the war to be rescuing the hostages rather than destroying the Palestinians.

The Israeli government doesn’t give a damn. We know this from the past. Twenty years ago, I wrote a letter to the Israeli government at the time in connection with a prisoner exchange in which I suggested: Please release all Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Let them take a hot shower, give them new clothes and a parcel with sweets and children’s toys. Put them on the best buses we have and bring them back to Gaza and the West Bank in a respectful way. Without asking for anything in return. – Such an unexpected move would be a «game changer» and could decisively change relations between Israel and the Palestinians, I am still convinced of that today. But it won’t happen. The current Israeli government is prepared to sacrifice the lives of all prisoners and doesn’t give a damn about their fate.

Failure of Human Rights Organisations

You have been campaigning for the end of the occupation and equal coexistence for years. How does the current mood in the country affect your everyday life?

Many so-called friends from the past… – We don’t talk to each other anymore. They see me as a traitor. In their eyes, I’m almost as bad as the Palestinians in Gaza. That’s bitter and sad. There are still a few friends in Israel who think like me. But we are not a group – a few individuals here and there. Like Nurit Peled-Elhanan**, for example. She is one of the very few. A courageous woman who thinks clearly and isn’t afraid of anyone.

How is PHR‑I dealing with the situation – the organisation that you founded and led for many years?

They work very hard, but – if you ask me – not in the right direction. They do wonderful philanthropic work, caring for the wounded and the sick. They try to do the best they can to be good. But at the political level, they are virtually inactive. I would have liked to see PHR‑I and the other human rights organisations in Israel speak out loudly and clearly in favour of the trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But that didn’t happen.

What are the reasons? Are they afraid of repression, or are their voices simply being suppressed?

That’s difficult to say. I think fear is the main reason. They don’t want to be cut off from the so-called centre of society. It’s difficult to function completely outside the centre. But even the centre has become more extremist today. The right dominates the public mood.

In its first 10 years, PHR‑I was resolute and vocal against everything unjust in our eyes. These voices were silenced. Today, no organisation criticises publicly anymore. Perhaps their representatives think about it quietly – but they are not prepared to formulate things openly, courageously and clearly. But that would be exactly the task of human rights organisations. Because this is not happening, I no longer have a political home. At the moment, I don’t see any way of putting the spirit of resistance from back then into practice.

Call for boycott and sanctions

But the longer the war goes on, the more also the population in Israel suffers from the situation. Won’t this sooner or later lead to a rethink?

No, I don’t think that will happen soon. Unless we get help from groups outside Israel, or the trial in The Hague continues and the Israeli leadership receives a severe punishment. Without such a sanction, I see no prospect of a different future.

One possible way out would be economic punishment, as in the days when the world boycotted South Africa because of its apartheid policy. If the same were possible in the case of Israel, yes – then, and only then, would change be possible.

Since 2017, you have been a member of the international “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” campaign BDS, which aims to do just that. However, Western politicians and the media accuse BDS of anti-Semitism…

Anti-Semitism” is a slogan that people like to throw around instead of thinking and looking at what is happening. A boycott is the way to save Israel from itself. That has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Otherwise, I would be anti-Semitic too. Yes, I want a different Israel. To accuse me of anti-Semitism because of that is absurd.

The West supports Israeli policy and is very reluctant to criticise it – what do you think of this and what are your demands in this regard?

A drastic reversal in Western policy is needed. First, the United States and European countries should stop sending millions of dollars and weapons to Israel. They are the fuel that drives this machine of hatred and revenge. If this tap is turned off, the machine will no longer work.

Contact with Palestinians

Do you still maintain contact with your partners and friends in the occupied territories? What do you hear from them? How are they doing?

Many of my friends in Gaza no longer exist. They and their families were killed in the Israeli bombing raids in the Gaza Strip. I keep in touch with my people in the West Bank by phone. While the IDF has banned Jewish doctors from travelling to Gaza since 2007, I used to visit the West Bank at least once a week. Now I no longer have the energy for it. I am ashamed of what my government and my army are doing to the people there. What can I say to them? The situation is very painful – and I can’t offer them any support.

At the same time, none of my Palestinian friends who are still alive have broken off the relationship. That’s incredible for me. They still talk to me and welcome me when I visit them. They are in deepest despair and no longer believe that any organised action can improve their situation.

What particularly concerns me at the moment are the efforts to destroy UNRWA. If you try to analyse this plan and find out what the thinking behind it is, you come to a clear conclusion: our prime minister and his government aim to erase the memory of the Nabka along with UNRWA and thus deny the Palestinians their right to exist. They also say loud and clear that they want to kill the Palestinians and erase the Gaza Strip.

It is and remains incomprehensible to me how a people whose own history is characterised by expulsion and genocide can behave like this…

That is very sad, but easy to understand: They are good students of excellent teachers. Instead of contradicting, they copy. They know no inner shame that would prevent them from thinking and acting like this. They imitate the thoughts and actions of the National Socialists in Germany. I have no hesitation in comparing the actions of the terrible Nazi régime with what the Israeli government and public feel and do today.

You’re telling me this on the phone now. If you were to say this in Israel, wouldn’t that be dangerous for you?

Yes, that’s how it is. Nevertheless, I say it. I am addressing the world. I want the world to hear these words and try to understand how dangerous and ugly this way of thinking and acting is.

The people in the Gaza Strip are dying of hunger, lack of drinking water, and lack of medical care. They no longer have houses. How much longer can they continue to suffer like this? People in the West, especially in Europe and hopefully also in the United States must realise what a catastrophe is happening here. And stop it. Immediately! By cutting off the Israeli government’s money supply and sanctioning Israeli behaviour with boycotts of all kinds.

Even if people say I am a traitor because of this, it is the only moral path that is still open today to break the vicious circle of violence.

Perhaps today’s traitors will one day become heroes and heroines – but only in a different future that I don’t believe I will live to see.

1000 Women and a Dream, © Offroad Reports GmbH

** Peace activist and professor of education Nurit Peled-Elhanan has been campaigning against Israel’s oppressive policies for years. In November 2023, she was dismissed from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a quote in the university college group chat.

The original article can be found here