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No Second Opinion

eye on the news

No Second Opinion

A medical journal’s one-sided view on the conflict between Israel and Palestine September 18, 2014

It has become commonplace for academics and entertainers, especially in Europe, to prove their humanitarian bona fides by condemning Israel, often in the most outrageous, defamatory ways possible. Now, proponents of these tactics have infiltrated the world of objective scientific journals.

The Lancet is a widely read weekly British medical journal. This summer, it published a rambling, one-sided denunciation of “Israeli aggression” in Gaza. Under the headline “An open letter for the people in Gaza,” 24 medical doctors, researchers, and professors accused Israel of conducting a “massacre” and of “clearly directing fire to target whole families.” The letter ignited a firestorm. Some lauded the journal and supported the political sentiments of its authors. Others attacked The Lancet for publishing an inaccurate diatribe. They wondered why a well-known medical journal would publish a political statement that seemed to have no scientific or medical connection.

The Lancet doubled down in an editorial entitled “Gaza: an urgent call to protect civilian life and health.” The editors acknowledged that publishing the letter “has led to a debate about the appropriateness of a medical journal giving space to opinions about an issue that lies at the intersection between health and politics.” The Lancet justified the publication of the open letter because “The role of the doctor is to protect, serve, and speak up for life. That, too, is the role of a medical journal. . . . Our responsibility is to promote an open and diverse discussion about the effects of this war on civilian health.”

In fact, The Lancet has a history of publishing one-sided criticisms of Israel. A March 2013 editorial was titled “Israeli doctors accused of collusion in torture.” A 2006 Lancet article by reporter Sharmila Devi repeated the unverified claims of a Palestinian hospital administrator who accused Israel of using “chemical and phosphorous weapons.” Devi also wrote that Israel “controls all land borders” around Gaza, which must come as news to Egypt. Lancet editor Richard Horton wrote a vitriolic letter to The Guardian newspaper on August 24, 2010, labeling Israel an occupier, denying any anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian schools, and accusing Israel of “indiscriminate bombing of residential communities.”

But the journal reached a new low with its recent open letter and follow-up editorial, which abandoned all pretense of objectivity and scientific inquiry. The Lancet is a peer-reviewed journal that checks its publications for accuracy. Yet the editors allowed the open-letter authors to claim in the disclosure section that they have “no competing interests” when they are well-known, long-term critics of Israel and members of pro-Palestinian organizations. They published the letter despite its baseless claims that Israel deliberately targets civilians and its assertion that Israel blockaded building materials “so that schools, homes, and institutions cannot be properly rebuilt.” In reality, Israel once allowed building materials to be imported into Gaza, but clamped down once it became clear that Hamas was using these materials to build terror tunnels and ammunition bunkers. Israel places its ground troops at risk rather than resort to indiscriminate bombing so as to limit civilian casualties.

The editorial claims that The Lancet’s “perspective has always been to put the interests of civilian lives ahead of the politics of military engagement. In the conflict taking place in Gaza, our position is very clear. We do not support any side whose actions lead to civilian casualties.” But there is no mention in either the editorial or the open letter of Hamas’s deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians with indiscriminate rocket fire, of weapons and command centers placed under hospitals and schools, of attacks launched from these locations, of civilians encouraged to stay and function as human shields despite repeated Israeli warnings to leave conflicted areas, or of networks of tunnels built under Israeli towns in order to facilitate attacks against civilians.

The Lancet’s editors pay lip service to Israel’s “right to defend its citizens,” but claim the Jewish state alone must comply with principles of international humanitarian law to distinguish between civilians and combatants, protect civilians against the effects of attacks, and prohibit attacks expected to cause incidental civilian injuries, “which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” The editors do not mention that Hamas makes no attempt to adhere to any of these principles. Nor do they acknowledge Israeli efforts to limit civilian casualties.

One can speculate as to what inspired The Lancet’s editors to publish the one-sided open letter and then justify publication with an equally one-sided editorial. But it surely had little to do with their claimed responsibility “to promote an open and diverse discussion about the effects of this war on civilian health.” Political fashion has no place in medical publications.

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