In an unprecedented move, the Israel Medical Association announced this month that it was severing its contacts with the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights.
The decision was made after the president and founder of PHR-Israel, Ruchama Marton, signed an international petition calling for Dr. Yoram Blachar's ouster as president of the World Medical Association. Blachar is also president of the IMA.
But PHR insisted that Marton signed the petition in her individual capacity and not on behalf of the organization. "The organization does not support the dismissal of Dr. Blachar from the presidency of the World Medical Association and calls for professional conduct to be maintained," said PHR's director, Hadas Ziv.
Marton added: "The petition was naturally signed by private individuals and not organizations. I am happy that I signed, but I signed as a private individual."
In his letter to PHR, Blachar wrote: "The damage caused by [your] organization is great. We have pleaded with the organization's administration to refrain from using the international arena to besmirch and sling mud at Israel's doctors, but to no avail. We have decided to cut off all contact with the organization, and I hope you deal with the matter as your conscience dictates."
His announcement sparked harsh criticism from PHR, a nonprofit organization whose members include some 500 Israeli physicians, among them senior doctors. Most PHR volunteers are also members of the IMA, which represents about 95 percent of Israeli doctors.
PHR warned that the decision to sever contact would cause serious damage to the medical system, including by disrupting patient referrals between the clinics for foreign workers and refugees that the IMA and PHR both run in south Tel Aviv.
It also expressed concern about how the rupture would affect exchanges of data regarding patients, including prisoners, who need treatment, and professional cooperation to promote issues such as the elimination of patient copayments for medication.
"The severing of contact is serious," said PHR's Ziv. "We are not interested in taking steps that make the situation worse; we believe in dialogue instead."
Several local physicians who volunteer for PHR echoed the organization's criticisms.
The IMA said its exceptional decision was made in light of the cooperation between PHR and Derek Summerfield, a British physician who claims that Blachar has justified torture of prisoners for over 10 years. Summerfield was one of the initiators of the petition to depose Blachar as president of the World Medical Association. To date, the petition has attracted 725 signatories from 43 countries. But the IMA recently circulated a counterpetition in support of Blachar's presidency that has attracted 5,500 signatures.
Blachar's term as IMA head will end in September after three terms in office. His successor as president of the World Medical Association is expected to be elected in October.
PHR recently released a list of 12 physicians who, according to testimony in a report published by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, participated in the torture of Palestinians. But IMA ethics committee chairman Prof. Avinoam Reches, who looked into the matter, concluded that there is no evidence linking these physicians to torture.
"I was provided with the names of physicians who denied in every way possible that they engaged in torture in the course of interrogations," Reches said. "The ethics committee has no legal power to investigate the allegations beyond talking [to the doctors]. From the doctors' tone, my impression was that they are telling the truth."
PHR's Ziv said in response that "the Israel Medical Association conducts complex ethics investigations, but in this instance, it avoided a comprehensive examination."
Moreover, PHR members said, the chief physician of the Israel Prison Service is a member of the IMA ethics committee, and that could influence the standard of the IMA's investigation.
Blachar, however, said the IMA "has explicitly stated our opposition to the torture of prisoners and detainees jailed in Israel ever since the High Court of Justice ruling [on the subject] in 1999."
"Dr. Marton is president of Physicians for Human Rights, and her signature is identified with the organization," Blachar added. "If the organization says it will stop its activity in the international arena to defame, slander and sling mud at Israel's doctors, we could reconsider contacts with it."
The IMA's legal department decided last week to file a defamation action against Summerfield, the British physician who was one of the initiators of the petition drive against Blachar.