Open Letter to Howard Feldman
Written by: Dr Aayesha J Soni
Vice-Chairperson of the Media Review Network
Dear Mr Feldman
I am a graduate of the University of Witwatersrand (Wits University). I was actively involved in student organisations while on campus and am acutely aware of the discourse followed regarding student and international politics. I am the vice chairperson of the Media Review Network (MRN), an organisation committed to combating human rights injustices globally.
I spent time in Gaza as a medical student in 2013, working at Al-Shifa Hospital seeing first hand the situation that Gazans live under. I recall the determination, strength and complete unwavering will to survive I witnessed in Gaza.
I attended the lecture “No Safe Place-Gaza 2014–a report from a Medical Fact Finding Mission” presented by Professor Louis Reynolds and Professor Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven referred by you in your open letter to Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of my Alma Mater.
Immediately following Professor Habib’s address to us, where he read the letter sent to him by Ambassador Lenk complaining about the event, the MC captured the very essence of the issue presented by the Israeli Ambassador. She mentioned how it always amazed her how history repeated itself and that a couple of years before, it wouldn’t have been surprising to read a letter with the exact same sentiments, from the National Party during Apartheid. This exposes the stark reality of Israel’s policies.
It is a pity Mr Feldman that you did not attend the presentation. I always find it baffling when people offer their opinions on a matter based purely on hearsay. If you had, you would have found it difficult to say with confidence the majority of what was mentioned in your open letter, as you would have been faced with pure facts and first hand accounts as recorded from the mission to Gaza conducted late last year. I am a firm believer in making statements only based on factual evidence, and unlike you Mr Feldman, you present your arguments based on pure rhetoric. I will endeavour to rebut all accusations with independent evidence.
It is reported by you “that the report ignored the fact that rockets were being fired from within or close to medical facilities”. Making such a bold statement without any evidence is tantamount to tomfoolery of the highest order, and does not do much for your credibility. This is not the first time such allegations have been levelled against Hamas, and while the defenders of Israel are quick to use it to discredit the democratically elected government, there has never been any evidence to prove it. Amnesty International, a reputable human rights organization without any allegiance to Israel or Palestine, reported:
“Amnesty International, for its part, did not find evidence that Hamas or other Palestinian groups violated the laws of war to the extent repeatedly alleged by Israel. In particular, it found no evidence that Hamas or other fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks. By contrast, Amnesty International did find that Israeli forces on several occasions during Operation ‘Cast Lead’, forced Palestinian civilians to serve as ‘human shields’”.
During the latest attack in Gaza, where there were ample foreign journalists reporting from within Gaza, not once was it affirmed that rockets were being fired from within civilian areas. In fact, when faced by this question during the panel discussion, Professor Reynolds affirmed that during all their investigations, the fact finding mission from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, found one incident where Israel was using Gazan civilians as human shields.
One has to wonder why you and Ambassador Lenk are so against presentations that correlate evidence with facts. Surely this is a trademark of good discourse emanating from any academic institution – something Professor Habib would be proud to defend.
Secondly, Mr Feldman, you mention that “tunnels which could well have provided safe haven for the residents (were not used and mentioned in the report)… (which) makes the report and indeed the academic process flawed and suspect.” This is an accusation which must be challenged, especially seeing as there is ample evidence to the contrary. Places that were used as refuge for civilians were deliberately attacked by the IDF on countless occasions. I make this statement with evidence both from this fact finding mission as well as countless media reports. From the “No Safe Place-Gaza 2014” report:
“There was at least one case in which a mine-breaching explosive device was used in a residential street, causing massive destruction. In the case of Shuhada’ Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al Balah, several people were killed and injured in what was apparently a deliberate attack in the most recent operation in 2014”.
An in-depth study of the town of Khuza’a suggests that:
“A convoy of hundreds of civilians came under fire while attempting to flee; a medical clinic in which civilians and injured people were sheltering after this attack was hit by missiles, causing deaths and injuries; a seriously injured 6-year-old child was not assisted and his evacuation was obstructed, despite eye contact with troops on the ground. He later died. Civilians in a house occupied by Israeli soldiers suffered abuse and ill-treatment including beatings, denial of food and water, and use as human shields. One was shot dead”.
In other examples, on August 3 2014, an Israeli missile strike outside of a UN school in Rafah in southern Gaza killed at least 10 civilians, (REUTERS) including at least one child, and wounded dozens of others. Condemning the attack, UN officials said that they had informed the Israeli military of the exact GPS coordinates of the school, where approximately 3000 Palestinians were taking shelter, 33 times (CBC NEWS) in an attempt to prevent it from being bombed, the final time just an hour before the attack. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli attack a “moral outrage and a criminal act”. The incident was the third time an Israeli attack killed civilians taking refuge in a UN school in the previous 10 days.
As for challenging Professor Habib on allowing a Palestine week on his campus and various speakers, including Palestinians, to address his students, I think it is incumbent to remind you of various Pro-Israeli speakers who have almost taken over Wits campus at times. In 2010, Lt. Col. David Benjamin, a war crime suspect thought to be behind Israel’s use of illegal white phosphorous on the civilian population of Gaza was hosted at the Medical school campus of Wits. I remember clearly students being profiled at the entrance and prevented from entering their own campus. I was appalled to find myself, a second year medical student, denied entrance into medical school for the day so that he could make a presentation to the Zionist community (who had their own security patrolling our corridors I might add!). More recently, during the latest Israeli Apartheid Week, it was shocking for us to find Israeli Defence Force combatants on our lawns. Students were stopped and attempts were made to convince them that Israel was justified in all its gross human rights violations. Proudly proclaiming to be part of an army that deliberately attacks civilians and is responsible for the massacre of 500 children in 52 days is not my idea of an honourable job. Perhaps you, Mr Feldman, and the Zionists have different definitions for the term ‘respectable’ than I do.
In your open letter addressed to Professor Habib, you resort to wondering and conjecture but put forth very little evidence to defend your position. You hurl accusations at the speakers for being biased without any substantiation. You accuse Hamas of firing rockets from civilian areas without any verification. Your entire open letter to the Vice- Chancellor of a world renowned university is based on pure pomposity. By allowing the Gaza report to be presented to a diverse academic audience, I must commend Professor Habib for not giving in to the Apartheid-style tactics of intimidation and bullying learnt from the Zionist lobby in South Africa. May truth and justice prevail and may Wits University be the forerunners in protecting this legacy.