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Support pours in to save Israeli NGO Physicians for Human Rights

Despite the Israeli right's efforts to rein in human rights and anti-occupation groups, the Israeli public gave Physicians for Human Rights twice what it asked for in a last-ditch crowdfunding campaign.

“Amazement,” “hope,” “a bright spot in a great darkness” and “all is not lost” were just some of the reactions I heard from activists of Physicians of Human Rights (PHR) on June 27 after they raised one million shekels ($280 million) in a 48-hour crowdfunding campaign that will keep their doors open. Many of the donors were Israelis moved by the modest campaign featuring the queen of Israeli theater, actor Gila Almagor.

It was the first crowdfunding drive in the organization’s 30-year history, a response by its directors to a long-running and aggressive campaign by the Israeli right to delegitimize PHR and other human rights and anti-occupation bodies as “Israel-haters.”

Numerous tactics have been employed over the years to curb the activities of these groups and dry up their funding sources. Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked promoted legislation cynically named the “transparency law” designed to curtail nongovernmental organizations fundraising capacity abroad. The law, adopted in July 2016, was phrased in a way that does not affect right-wing NGOs, including radical ones that raise tens of millions of dollars for their activities from foreign donors who identify with the settlement enterprise.

“The public and its representatives have a right to know who is stirring the pot,” Shaked said when explaining the bill. In her view, support by foreign governments for certain NGOs “undermines the authority of the government elected by the people.” For her, an organization that does not toe the government line and opposes its occupation of Palestinian territory must be reined in as much as possible.

The Israeli government’s de-legitimization of human rights organizations has been effective. Donations from abroad have shrunk and in some cases stopped. The anti-left, anti-human rights discourse propounded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seeped deep into Israeli society, tainting human rights organizations with a mark of Cain. Physicians for Human Rights was one of the groups hard hit by the decline in foreign funding.

The organization was established in 1988, in the days of the first intifada, by psychiatrist Dr. Rouhama Marton, initially offering medical treatment to Palestinians injured in the territories. Over time, it expanded and today it provides medical care and administrative help for any person not covered by health insurance, such as refugees and labor migrants.

World-renowned oncologist Dr. Bella Kaufman, director of the Breast Cancer Institute at Sheba Medical Center and a member of the PHR’s executive board, admitted to Al-Monitor that she and her fellow activists were concerned about the campaign. “Crowdfunding has clear rules of goal and time,” she says. “But there was no choice. The goal we set of a half million shekels appeared impossible, but after 48 hours, we were amazed to see that reality was surpassing all imagination and the sum raised was double the goal. And the donations are still pouring in.”

Kaufman says, “The happiness and excitement are not just because we achieved the monetary target that will allow our important work to continue, but also due to the realization that all is not lost. In the prevailing despondency these days, there are people who still believe change is possible. It gives me an impetus to keep going. Human rights groups are being harassed in all sorts of ways and it is wonderful to know that there are people willing to defend them and who believe wholeheartedly that our activity must go on.”

Some 2,000 doctors, including specialists in different fields, nurses and other support staff volunteer with Physicians for Human Rights. The organization runs a mobile clinic that travels to the West Bank once a week and provides care for some 300 Palestinians at a time. A free clinic also operates in Jaffa, providing help daily to those not covered by insurance. About once a month, Arab-Israeli volunteer doctors travel to the Gaza Strip to conduct major surgery in the enclave’s hospitals. They all return shocked and pained.

“We at Physicians for Human Rights believe that every person deserves medical care. Health is a fundamental right,” says Almagor in the campaign’s video, telling the stories of three people representing the major population groups that PHR helps: refugees and asylum seekers, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and Israelis low on the waiting list for treatment in a crumbling public health system. The first story is about Bario, an African asylum seeker in Tel Aviv who cannot walk due to severe pain in his legs. The second is Tewfiq, a Palestinian from Nablus who is losing his hearing and cannot get appropriate treatment in the West Bank. The third, Yankale from the southern city of Beersheba, had been waitlisted for an MRI scan for over nine months.

“When they came to me, I immediately said yes even before they finished the sentence,” Almagor tells Al-Monitor. “The words ‘human rights’ moved me. This is an organization that crosses sectors and religions and borders.” She, too, sees hope in the mobilization to save PHR that she had almost lost.

“I also thought that the people who care had disappeared, and suddenly I see they are here. It’s wonderful. I was so excited. This is the most wonderful place in the world. There is nowhere like our state, but suddenly a black cloud overshadows life and people disappear and are not heard.”

Almagor herself was the target of harsh invective after she condemned the 2014 murder of Palestinian youth Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem by Jewish terrorists. “I am ashamed to be Jewish on such days,” she said in an emotional interview with Yedioth Ahronoth. Her comment immediately made her a public enemy and prompted threats on her life. “Fear of standing once again in the town square so I can be shot in the head,” she says, did not frighten her this time when she signed up for the PHR campaign.

“I don’t want to believe all is lost,” she says. “I will be 80 in less than a month and almost everything is already behind me. There were wonderful days here, when we touched peace, and then [Prime Minister Yizthak] Rabin was assassinated. This rollercoaster of what is happening to us as people is hard, but maybe something good will happen here after all. Today the light shone on us thanks to very many people and in such a short time.”

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