For Doctors Without Borders, the Welfare of Patients Always Comes First

In his July 28, 2010 blog post Moonbats Against Israel Alan Dershowitz made unfounded allegations about Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the international medical humanitarian organization. His criticisms were based on erroneous reporting in July in the Israeli daily Haaretz, on what allegedly transpired between a group of Israeli doctors and an MSF medical team in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) earlier this summer.

After a fuel truck explosion killed and injured hundreds of people in the village of Uvira in DRC in early July, MSF medical teams there began treating people. A team of specialist surgeons from Israel arrived within days to work alongside MSF staff. Articles in Haaretz alleged that the MSF team was hostile toward the Israeli doctors due to opposition to Israeli policies. Mr. Dershowitz went further, calling MSF "bigoted" and claimed that my colleagues refused to work with their counterparts because of an alleged institutional anti-Israel bias.

Here are the facts: both medical teams shared -- and worked together toward -- the common goal of providing the best possible treatment to those most in need. Cooperation continues with the exchange of medical data on the 64 remaining burn patients in MSF's care.

Taking the initial allegations seriously, MSF carried out a thorough review of the collaboration with the Israeli team. Both Dr. Eyal Winkler, who led the Israeli team from the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, and Gila Garaway, an Israeli citizen with extensive experience working in DRC and who escorted the Israeli team, have assured MSF that the five-day collaboration was indeed a positive one. Dr. Winkler wrote in a Hebrew-language blog post on Ynet that there was "perfect teamwork with the people from MSF."

See MSF's letter to the editor of Haaretz here.

Fundamental to MSF's work are the principles of neutrality and impartiality, and of always acting in the best interests of our patients. All MSF staff members are obliged to respect medical ethics and international humanitarian law, as well as to display a general attitude and conduct characterized by non-discrimination. Suggestions that MSF would put the welfare of its patients at risk due to political or other biases are simply unfounded.

Mr. Dershowitz made additional accusations against MSF regarding our work in Gaza during Israel's Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, carried out in response to Hamas rocket fire against Israeli civilians. He claimed we described the situation as "worse than the Darfur genocide in the Sudan." This is incorrect.

MSF has worked in Darfur for several years. In 2004, it published one of the first retrospective mortality studies describing the impact of the violence there. With medical teams operating in Gaza, MSF was well positioned to credibly speak out about the reality of high numbers of civilians wounded and killed there during an extremely compressed timeframe. This speaking out -- in both Darfur and Gaza -- was consistent with MSF's bearing witness to the suffering of populations in danger in numerous conflict areas.

But at no time did MSF representatives falsely claim that the consequences of the Israeli offensive in Gaza resulted in a greater overall toll than that exacted by the violence in Darfur.

MSF routinely describes publicly the humanitarian impact of hostilities on civilians, as witnessed by our medical teams. We pay particular attention in conflict situations to the measures taken by belligerents to spare civilians during the conduct of hostilities. In the last year, MSF has spoken out about the impact of conflict on civilians in Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, DRC, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. MSF also has a track record of speaking out when its teams have witnessed civilians injured or killed as a result of internecine Palestinian violence in Gaza, as it did in June 2007, for example.

For nearly 40 years, MSF's humanitarian action has been guided by the principles of alleviating the suffering of victims of violence, epidemics, and natural disasters. Contrary to Mr. Dershowitz's accusations, this is done through the provision of impartial and neutral medical assistance that is independent of political, religious, or other interests.

Matthew Spitzer, MD

President, US Section of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)