Jamal Rifi at his home in Sydney’s Belmore yesterday. Picture: Britta Campion.
BY BERNARD LANE ROVING EDITOR, LEADER WRITER, DATA JOURNALIST, THE AUSTRALIAN
Prominent Lebanese-Australian doctor Jamal Rifi has alerted police to a potential threat to his life after an international campaign to stir up hatred against him by misrepresenting his work with a charity for critically ill Palestinian children.
In the past two weeks, media outlets backed by the Iranian-aligned Hezbollah have smeared him as an agent of Israel and energised harassment of him in Sydney’s southwest.
“To say that I’m working for the Zionists is like saying I am an enemy to my people,” said Dr Rifi, a GP in western Sydney. “That by itself puts me at a greater risk.”
Dr Rifi’s struggles to stop the Islamic State ideology gaining a foothold in the Lebanese-Muslim local community saw him recognised as this newspaper’s Australian of the Year in 2015; in taking this stand as a moderate Muslim leader, he made enemies.
This month Beirut-based media outlet Al Akhbar launched a campaign distorting his service with multi-faith charity Project Rozana, begun in Melbourne by businessman Ron Finkel.
The venture transports critically ill and injured Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals for treatment, drawing on volunteers from both sides and thereby building trust, as well as training Palestinian doctors, nurses and therapists with an eye to future needs of an independent Palestinian state.
“Any initiative like Project Rozana is a threat to the ideology (of Hezbollah in Lebanon and their Iranian controllers) because they want everyone to feel that all Israelis are the enemy and devoid of any humanitarian qualities, and we all know that is not the reality,” Dr Rifi said.
The media campaign caricatured this project as “the butcher being offered as a treating physician to his victims”, and Dr Rifi was slandered as a supporter of the “normalisation” of Israeli occupation in Palestinian territory.
He saw the same forces behind paperwork signed last week by Beirut lawyers referring him to a military court on charges punishable by death. Dr Rifi is described as a director of an Israeli organisation, when in fact he is one of nine board members of Project Rozana, a registered charity that has no affiliation with Israel.
He suspected the only reason to refer him as a civilian to a military court would be because Hezbollah, a force on the rise in Lebanon’s government, could control the verdict. “The charge is actually collaboration with the enemy. If I go to Lebanon, I will be arrested,” he said.
Dr Rifi had to put on hold plans to return to his birth country to visit his sick 86-year-old mother.
He said the Al Akhbar campaign had been picked up by similarly aligned media outlets with an international audience and echoed by online “bullies” in Sydney, who had also circulated the military court referral.
He had chosen to ignore this online abuse during his fight against Islamic State.
“But after all these years of being bullied, it’s about time for me to put a stop to it, and that’s why I talked to NSW police officers … also, it’s affecting my family,” he said.
Dr Rifi worried that the lies spread about him might stir up the extremists who had threatened his life in 2014. “Unfortunately I’m actually reliving the trauma of going through that,” he said.
He kept his fears to himself during Project Rozana’s first big fundraiser in Sydney this month, which brought together 320-plus Muslims, Jews and others, raising $180,000.
Project Rozana takes its name from four-year-old Rozana Salawhi, who suffered life-threatening injuries in 2012 after she fell from the ninth floor of a Ramallah apartment block.
Her quick-thinking mother, Maysa Abu Ghannam, insisted she be ferried across the checkpoint to the Israeli Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.