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NGO Monitor Analysis (Vol. 2 No. 7) 15 March 2004

Direct Relief International: Profile of an Apolitical Medical NGO

Numerous NGO's that provide medical assistance to the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip often engage in counterproductive anti-Israel activity through highly politicized publications, press releases, and pamphlets.

However, Direct Relief International, a California based NGO working to "improve the health of people…who are victims of natural disasters, war, and civil unrest," can be described as a truly humanitarian and apolitical organization. According to Direct Relief International's mission statement, the NGO was "established in 1948 and is non-sectarian, nongovernmental, and apolitical." In addition, all of the organization's programs "are provided in a non-discriminatory manner, without regard to political affiliation, religious belief, or ethnic identity."

Direct Relief International's 2002 annual report illustrates the organization's commitment to remain "non-sectarian and apolitical." While the report states that between September 2000, and the end of 2002, over 184 Palestinian Red Crescent Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT's) were injured in 215 recorded attacks on their ambulances, the report objectively notes that the EMT's operate in an extremely stressful and dangerous environment. Commendably, Direct Relief International does not attempt to place blame on either party for the "dangerous environment," and stays focused on its pledge to be a politically neutral NGO.

An April 2002 press release is also free from political overtones. In the press release, Direct Relief International describes the deployment of a Johnson & Johnson "disaster module" to medical providers working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The press release simply explains the contents of the module and does not demonize Israel.

In sharp contrast with Direct Relief International's neutral approach, the Health Development and Information and Policy Institute (HDIP), a Ramallah based Palestinian NGO, "devoted to policy research and planning regarding the Palestinian health care system," provides a classic example of the blatant politicization plaguing some other medical NGO's working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although the HDIP has "provided consultations to organizations like the WHO, European Community, UNDP, UNICEF, and the World Bank," the organization refers to the security fence being built along the West Bank as an "apartheid wall" in an article describing the recent press conference held for a publication entitled "Health and Segregation."

Similarly, the Palestinian Children's Welfare Fund (PCWF), an NGO that "works in close coordination with the Union of Health Workers Committees in Gaza", features anti-Israel propaganda on its website, despite a mission statement that proclaims the organization to be a "non-political, non-religious enterprise." Indeed, the PCWF website promotes a call for papers and encourages the recruitment of volunteers to the "First National Convention of American Jews for a Free Palestine." According to the PCRF, "Members of the steering committee are academics, professionals, political and social activists who intend to form a national committee to confront AIPAC and its monopoly in the media over the representation of the Jewish community in the United States." (http://www.ngo-monitor.org/editions/v2n05/v2n05-2.htm)

Like PCWF, Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, "a non-partisan, nonprofit organization, dedicated to promoting and protecting the medical human rights of all residents of Israel and the Occupied Territories," also engages routinely in highly political activity. On 1 November 2002, it published an eight-page color pamphlet (http://www.ngo-monitor.org/editions/v1n01/v1n01-1.htm) in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz. The controversial pamphlet, which took the form of color cartoons, depicted various examples of purported instances of human rights abuse, including alleged "apartheid" roads in the West Bank. It should be noted that the pamphlet was published despite a clause in PHRI's mission statement that it "opposes the subjugation of medical care to political considerations of any kind." Indeed, almost all of PHR-I's activities are focused on political, rather than humanitarian objectives.

While it may be difficult for NGO's that provide medical assistance to the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to maintain neutrality in a politically charged environment, Direct Relief International has proven that such behavior is possible. Unlike the HDIP, PHR-I, and the PCWF, Direct Relief International has chosen to adhere to its stated goal of "improving the health of people…who are victims of natural disasters, war, and civil unrest," without engaging in anti-Israel activity.

The HDIP, PHR-I, and the PCWF would do well to follow the example set by Direct Relief International. Advancing an ideological cause under the guise of medical care is clearly counterproductive, and only adds to the cycle of hatred dominating the Middle East.

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