In November, the New Israel Fund in the UK will bestow upon Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI) their Human Rights Award for 2019. As chair of the PHRI board, Dr. Mushira Aboo Dia will attend the ceremony and accept the award on behalf of the organization. It would be hard to think of a more deserving candidate.
Mushira seems to spend almost all her waking moments working and volunteering – either at Hadassah Medical Center as a senior ob-gyn; at the hospital’s Sexual Assault Treatment Center; at a clinic in nearby Bet Shemesh; at the free PHRI clinic in Jaffa; at the women’s clinic she runs for Palestinians in the West Bank; helping shape the policy and advocacy work of one of Israel’s leading human rights organizations; testifying in the Knesset; or lecturing about PHRI’s work in medical school and college classes.
In those lectures, she and other PHRI volunteers talk only about the organization’s work in Israel proper. They are not allowed to mention its work with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
“If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist,” she says, no irony in her voice.
The Jaffa free clinic operates five days a week and accepts everyone who comes – usually refugees, migrant laborers, Palestinians illegally in Israel, Eastern European women who married here but don’t yet have an identity card. Mushira says she does what she can there, but feels it’s not enough. A typical case: An African woman with uterine prolapse needs an operation but has no insurance to cover it. Mushira found a doctor willing to do the operation gratis, but what about the hospital stay? She’s still working on that.
She also sees Eritrean women who come with gynecological complaints but their exam reveals no symptoms. These are women who were raped or sexually abused in Sinai on their way to Israel. What they need is psychotherapy but PHRI – whose doctors all volunteer their time – doesn’t have enough volunteers to provide those services.
Mushira often leaves the Jaffa clinic feeling that “the world is cruel. There are so many people with hard lives. We give the best care we can but it’s frustrating because it’s a drop in the ocean. There are too many people we can’t help.”
Twelve years ago, PHRI won a grant to run a monthly women’s clinic in the West Bank in collaboration with local Palestinian women’s organizations. When the funds ran out, the organization continued the work anyway. A group of 10-20 women including doctors, psychologists, acupuncturists and holistic practitioners such as a shiatsu expert, set out for a particular village and change the venue every three months. People from surrounding villages arrive to hear a lecture on health and then see a doctor or other professional.
“People come because they hear doctors from Israel are here and they know that Israeli doctors are good,” says Mushira. “It’s even more frustrating there than in Jaffa. Israel occupies these places but it doesn’t provide basic medical services, education for prevention, or medical infrastructure. A half hour away, you cross the Green Line and find one of the most advanced medical services in the world.
“I believe in this clinic because Palestinians get to see another side of Israel: not just soldiers but people who have empathy for their situation. It’s our way of expressing solidarity with them. The patients often ask if I’m Arab because my Arabic is really bad,” says Mushira with a smile.
PHRI operates in an atmosphere of increasing delegitimization of human rights organizations, including attempts at legislation that would tie their hands.
“It’s hard to anticipate what’s going to happen,” she says. The increasing racism, including the passage of the Nation State law, is another challenge.
Mushira: “We are working in a society that doesn’t accept the fact that everyone is born equal. That you don’t have more rights because you were born to this or that religion. That everyone is entitled to medical insurance, to freedom of movement. People don’t understand that these are basic human rights that everyone deserves. This is our main obstacle. And the fact that people can’t empathize with someone going through something terrible because he is the ‘enemy.’ If he’s the enemy, you can do anything.
“But you can’t.”
Mushira and her team are working toward a society in which people are thought of as human beings and not as political entities.
“Just to try to be human to others who are not like you.” She sighs and gives a little laugh. “Because we tend to fear and hate things and people that we don’t know.”
Mushira has trouble answering a question about who her adversaries are.
“I don’t see any person as my adversary. I converse and work with a lot of people who don’t think like me and I have nothing against them,” she says at first. When pressed, she admits, “I guess my adversaries are people from right-wing parties who think I don’t have a right to be here or deserve to have rights just because I’m an Arab.”
And her allies?
“Everyone who thinks we can make change. All the people who really believe that everyone deserves medical care and basic human rights.”
Written and reported by Ruth Mason.