A Response to "Aiding and Abetting: The Limits of Humanitarian Aid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories," from Larry Pantirer


The following is a response to "Aiding and Abetting? The Limits of Humanitarian Aid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories," by Jason Cone, MSF-USA Executive director, from Larry Pantirer, a member of MSF-USA's Board of Advisors. The views expressed are his own:

My name is Larry Pantirer. I'm a member of the MSF Board of Advisors. I'd like to thank Jason Cone  for giving me the opportunity to respond to his recent article regarding his observations in the Palestinian territories and the Gaza Strip.

I'd like to offer a different perspective, but I feel the need to first introduce myself. If one is offering a different view point on a matter, the reader needs to understand that persons background. All viewpoints, all opinions, no matter how intellectually honest we want them to be are always influenced by where we come from. 

My parents were both Holocaust survivors. Both grew up in the area of Poland known as Galicia. My mother Lucy Pantirer came from the small town of Rozvadov. When the war began in 1939 she  her parents and sister were fortunate to escape the Nazi invasion of Poland on trains to neighboring Russia and eventually settled on the edges of Siberia. Her father perished during the war but she, her mother, and sister all survived.

My dad Murray Pantirer  was not so lucky. He lived in Cracow with his parents four brothers and two younger sisters. By the end of the war they were all murdered. The brothers gassed in Auschwitz, his parents each holding a daughter in their arms were executed by firing squad. My dad was saved by Oscar Schindler and by some unknown person who put his name on the now famous Schindler's List. From a city of 100 Pantirers, he alone survived. 

An orphan and homeless after the war, he eventually met my mom at a displaced persons camp in Austria. Their goal was to emigrate to Israel but that was a very difficult task. Eventually they made their way to the United States and rebuilt their lives. As the years passed and we talked about his survival, he often lamented how those in the ghettos and concentration camps could not understand where the world was, how could the world stand by and watch the slaughter of millions of men woman and children by the Nazis and their sympathizers.

I don't know if MSF, had it been in existence during that time, could have made much of a difference but I do know the world would have heard our strident voice of bearing witness of the atrocities and maybe just maybe have acted much sooner to save the innocents. That's why I joined MSF and why I believe in our core principles.

As I read Jason's piece, I was impressed by his commitment to one of the key elements of our charter, of the need for our movement to bear witness to extreme acts of violence against individuals or groups and to speak out publicly. The suffering of the Palestinians has gone on for decades and is no doubt one of the great tragedies of our time. His heart-wrenching first hand accounts of the Palestinian  daily suffering is, as he duly points out, on a par with some of the terrible tragedies we at MSF see around the world. We may have a small presence in this region but it is incumbent upon us to continually to publicly speak out.

Yes, bearing witness is a key component of who we are but as our charter makes very clear, in no less than three paragraphs, it is also incumbent upon MSF to observe neutrality and impartiality. As it clearly states, “our actions are guided by medical ethics and the principles of independence and impartiality." Impartiality and neutrality are repeated over and over again.

As I read Jason's article, I was struck by the near complete bias of his piece. The sufferings he presents (and I in no way wish to minimize such) and the conclusions he reaches are completely devoid of context, and are, in my view, irresponsible. One needs to go no further than the title of his apiece. "Aiding and abetting? The limits of humanitarian aid in the occupied Palestinian territories."  Aiding and abetting is a well known legal expression.  It refers to the guilt of a party in the helping of someone to commit a crime. The inference is clear: the Israelis are at the outset of this piece responsible for crimes against the Palestinians and while there is passing mention of the Palestinians responsibilities for their predicament, it is feeble and inadequate. For as many examples of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israelis, one could easily point out equal Israeli suffering at the hands of the Palestinians. Consider the following points: Tunnels may be built to get much needed supplies but they're also built to bring terror to the Israeli populace. When Jason writes that the rise in Palestinian detainees is due to "alleged security offenses," I'd like to know on what basis is he using the term alleged. Does he have facts on these cases that we're not aware of that would vindicate their constant use of terror? One thing is certain: the unemployment rate may be intolerable, as Jason points out, but it is also well documented that those sent to Israel prisons for terrorist acts are well compensated by the Palestinian Authority to such an extent that crime definitely does pay.  When he writes later of the abduction and murder of the three Israeli boys and the rocket fire from Gaza as “justification” for the Protective Edge operation of last year, the tone is such that he might as well have used the word “pretext” as the reasons for the Israelis' attack on Gaza. It was clearly much much more. It was the near daily indiscriminate rocket fire into Israeli villages, the constant threat of the deployment of thousands of more rockets, the invasion of terrorists through the Gaza tunnels and the many other terrorist-related acts that were the overriding reasons for the eventual Israeli response. The daily trauma felt by Israeli children as a result of Palestinian terrorism is no less relevant than the trauma of the Palestinian children. I could easily bring a counterpoint to every example Jason uses of Israeli injustice by arguing that when your population is under attack by suicide bombings, attacks on schools, women, and children, and the daily threat of kidnapping and murder, the concept of defending yourself can never be disregarded.

I've mentioned our charter because words have meaning and can easily be distorted to justify acts of atrocity. I offer you some historical context for which this piece is sorely lacking. When the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, they made it abundantly clear that they held the Jewish people responsible for the German woes. Those words, through the Nuremberg laws and and a host of other legislative acts, were soon translated into the most horrible of crimes. When an observer reads or when the executive director of MSF reads the charters of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and of Hezbollah, or hears the rantings of the Ayatollah Khamenei, wherein each of them call for the destruction of the state of Israel, it should be abundantly  clear that the Israelis of 2015 will not ignore these threats. The Israelis I can assure you will never allow the crimes of the Holocaust to be ever repeated. That's the real context of what goes on in the Middle East today. Jason in his piece has concluded that the US and Europe need to bring pressure on Israel to alleviate the Palestinian suffering and that even MSF is complicit in our presence there. I for one would argue the opposite. The world should bring pressure on those whose charters call for the annihilation of a legitimate democratic state. If you want to live in peace with your neighbors you don't daily threaten to kill and annihilate them. If our organization has decided to no longer adhere to our charter and to now take political stands, let's be consistent and do it everywhere, and most importantly, let's be right.

I suppose that given the size of MSF, given our presence in so many places of turmoil in the world, that inevitably the idea of being an apolitical organization is no longer realistic. If becoming a political organization is decided upon, than in the interest of full transparency let's say so. If leadership is going to come to political conclusions, let's bear in mind that we're no longer a small humanitarian NGO but one of great influence around the world whose leaders have enormous influence and of course enormous responsibility. If this is the new MSF, then those who are a part of us and especially our donors need to be told of this new direction. We should certainly start by amending our charter.   

While I may not agree with many of Jason's conclusions, I do commend him for having the courage to speak out on such a difficult and controversial topic. In my years associated with MSF, courage is certainly one thing not lacking among our members. He brings up many facts and statistics that I'm not qualified to fully respond to. But there are those who can. I'd like to suggest that this topic be thoroughly debated within our membership. We certainly have the passion and intellectual integrity to not only fairly discuss this crisis but perhaps with enough thought and energy to offer concrete solutions. I believe we've reached a point in our development that perhaps we can succeed where all others have failed.