Baseless organ theft accusations are a propaganda gift for Israel, and deflect attention from its well-documented war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (Matthew Cassel)
On Friday I was invited to appear on Press TV (Iran’s international English-language satellite channel) alongside Donald Bostrom, a Swedish journalist who authored the recent article about the Israeli army stealing the organs of young Palestinian men it had killed in 1992 during the first Palestinian intifada. I surprised the producers at Press TV who I don’t think invited me to argue the article’s legitimacy, but instead reaffirm its claims.
After the show, a producer in Tehran thanked me and told me that it was nice to get someone from the “other side.” But I had to make it clear, that I was not from the “other side” as she meant it. I support uncovering human rights violations and war crimes wherever they occur, especially in Palestine, where I have worked for many years. I do believe Bostrom’s intentions were to do much the same but that his process was highly irresponsible. The problem is not that he is accusing the State of Israel of wrongdoing, but that he is making accusations of what would amount to extremely serious war crimes while providing absolutely no evidence to support his claims. Rather than advancing the cause of Palestinian human rights, such behavior hurts the many organizations, journalists, activists and others working tirelessly to expose and document Israel’s numerous violations of international law committed against Palestinians and people of other Arab nations in recent decades.
Bostrom’s article lacks credibility for a number of reasons. In the opening paragraph he tells the story of Levy Rosenbaum, a Jewish man in New York linked to illegal trafficking in human organs with counterparts in Israel. While Rosenbaum has admitted to buying organs from destitute Israelis, until now there has been nothing outside Bostrom’s article to suggest that this trade involved the organs of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army.
Rosenbaum has also admitted to being involved in the trade for the past ten years which is well after 1992, when Bostrom claims the organ theft may have occurred in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Other than Israel being involved, there is no evidence to make a direct link between these incidents. It is poor journalism on Bostrom’s part to use a timely event and try to connect it to something that happened nearly two decades earlier without offering any evidence.
Bostrom also refers to Palestinians disappearing for days at a time and who have in many cases returned dead. This is known to have occurred before, especially Palestinians being arrested and taken to detention centers without the Israeli authorities bothering to inform the families. This is something that has been reported on and documented by numerous Palestinian human rights organizations. Israel may have even performed autopsies on the bodies without the families’ consent, as Bostrom reports. He publishes a horrific photograph of one of these bodies alongside the article, but again, this is not proof that organs in that person’s body were removed and sold, or given to Israelis in need, as the author implies.
One must also ask why this story was not covered in 1992, when Bostrom claims the organ theft occurred. It seems this would be a more appropriate time to expose such a story when bodies of those killed by Israel could have been autopsied to determine for a fact whether or not organs from those Palestinians killed by Israel were in fact removed. In the Press TV interview, Bostrom claimed that he did approach many Palestinian, Israeli and international organizations but none, minus the UN, heeded his call for further investigation. Yet, he only makes brief mention of this in the article and says the UN staff was prevented from doing anything about his findings.
Unlike Bostrom’s reporting, when most Palestinian human rights organizations or other journalists have uncovered Israeli violations, they are sure to provide well-documented evidence to prove beyond a doubt that such violations were in fact committed. Even though Israel has made it very difficult for both Palestinian and international journalists and human rights workers to practice inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, many have risked their lives to see that evidence of Israel’s crimes is uncovered and reported.
Many such well-documented violations committed over recent decades include: willful killing of civilians, including children; torture; extrajudicial executions; depriving a civilian population of food and other necessities; blackmailing patients in need of medical care to try to turn them into informers; wanton and deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure; punitive home demolitions; and illegal use of restricted weapons against civilian targets, including white phosphorus and cluster bombs. The list of UN resolutions and international treaties violated by Israel is far too long to list here, although these violations have been carefully documented over many years by human rights organizations that have worked tirelessly for their enforcement.
I am not trying to argue here that Israel or some Israelis could never have trafficked stolen Palestinian organs. In a place like Palestine, however, where evidence of Israeli war crimes has never been difficult to find — despite Israel’s consistent efforts to block investigations — those concerned with holding Israel accountable should not level allegations of such seriousness without producing some evidence.
Following Israel’s winter invasion of Gaza — during which more than 1,500 Palestinians were killed, the vast majority civilians — several well-known international human rights groups issued reports containing irrefutable evidence of shocking crimes. Israeli soldiers who participated in the attack on Gaza have been quoted in the Israeli press talking about how they or their colleagues committed atrocities, such as shooting dead unarmed civilians, including children.
The fact that Bostrom did not offer evidence for his organ theft claims has given Israel an enormous propaganda gift. Because he offered nothing more than conjecture and hearsay, Israel has launched a major campaign casting itself as an aggrieved victim of “blood libel.” This allows Israel to distract attention from the mountains of evidence of well-documented war crimes, and even to discredit real evidence. If there is no evidence behind the organ theft claims, Israel can argue, then maybe all these other claims about crimes in Gaza are equally dubious.
Predictably, Israel and its supporters launched a ridiculous campaign not only targeting Bostrom and his newspaper, but against all of Sweden and its population of more than nine million. Some have started an online petition calling for the boycott of the furniture retailer IKEA, founded in Sweden, while the Israeli interior ministry claims it will freeze the entry visas for Swedish journalists. Furthermore, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the Swedish government declare its “condemnation” of the article. This is a strategy that Israel could not use in response to the Gaza war crimes reports. With each violation clearly documented and coming from a wide range of credible sources and testimonies, Israel could not demand that governments condemn the human rights groups and publications that disseminated them. Israel predictably objected to the reports issued about Gaza, but tried to bring as little attention to them as possible — understandably, because the reports are irrefutable.
But Israel has done all it can to draw attention and create an international crisis out of the organ theft allegation. Even the president of the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden has condemned the response, saying that Israel “had blown the issue completely out of proportion.” As Israel does with increasingly little discrimination, it has claimed that the article was motivated by “anti-Semitism.” So far, Sweden has withstood Israel’s hectoring that its government must take a position on an article published in a free press. But given the record of pandering to Israel, it remains to be seen if Sweden will stick to this position. If Sweden does bow down to Israeli pressure, it would set a frightening precedent for journalists whereby Israel can affect a state’s policy of freedom for the press.
Israel’s tactics of intimidation are not justified by Bostrom’s article, which is nothing more than an example of irresponsible journalism and publishing. The editors at the Swedish daily Aftonbladet who published this piece, should’ve sent it back to the author and told him to investigate the issue further until he found evidence to corroborate his claims. If there is any basis for the organ theft allegations, diligent reporting would bring it out. As Malcolm X said, “Truth is on the side of the oppressed;” all we need is to collect the evidence to prove it.
Matthew Cassel is Assistant Editor of The Electronic Intifada. His site is http://justimage.org.