THE WELLBEING OF CHILDREN IS ALL THAT MATTERS | PROJECT ROZANA

THE WELLBEING OF CHILDREN IS ALL THAT MATTERS

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

JAMAL RIFI

During the past two weeks I have been subjected to an enormous amount of abuse from people whose agenda runs counter to mine. Most of that abuse has appeared in Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, an influential Arabic language newspaper affiliated with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the country of my birth.

Their stories attacking me have also appeared on Al-Alam TV in Tehran and Beirut’s Al-Nour radio. Controlled by Iran and backed by Hezbollah, these three media outlets potentially have global reach.

They have fuelled the abuse and bullying that has been directed at me for years by hateful and uninformed online postings locally, chiefly within my Lebanese Muslim community in Sydney’s southwest. These bullies appear to be few in number but spread hate and baseless lies against me, putting my life in danger. I have been advised to change routine and to not frequent my usual mosque.

I have even been referred to the military court in Lebanon in a poorly disguised attempt to discredit me and silence my brother in Beirut, Major-General Achraf Rifi, a former director-general of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, former minister of justice and an outspoken critic of Hezbollah and its masters in Iran.

The abuse is directed at my involvement with Project Rozana, a humanitarian organisation that started in Australia in 2013 and is active in the US, Canada, ­Israel and Palestinian territory.

I joined as a director in 2017. Among my fellow directors are inspirational communal leaders of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. Suffice to say, our religious and political affiliations have no place at our organisational table.

Our single-minded desire is to build bridges to better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians through health, the area of civil society to which I have dedicated my professional life.

A cornerstone of Project Rozana is to provide lifesaving treatment for Palestinian children and to build the health capacity of Palestinian society. Where it becomes conflicted for some people is the role Israel’s healthcare system plays in helping to deliver these much-needed outcomes and, more broadly, the involvement of Israeli citizens, Arab and Jewish, who care enough about the wellbeing of children to push aside their concerns about politics, religion or national ­identity.

It’s about the children. It has never been about anything else.

So why am I accused of promoting a policy of “normalisation” between Palestinians and Israelis? Why have I become the punching bag of people in Australia and Lebanon who regard any affiliation with Jews, let alone professed ­Zionists, as being haram (forbidden according to Islamic law)?

These attacks are neither benign nor instructive but are ­vic­ious and debilitating. They have affected me and my family, yet I will not allow them to silence me. They condemn Israelis for “deliberately killing civilians and Palestinian children” and they have described Project Rozana and its support for medical co-operation as “the butcher being offered as a treating physician to his victims”.

Making a link between the “butcher” and me is not difficult to follow. One recurring comment in the media coverage led and inspired by Al Akhbar says: “Not only did (Dr Rifi) achieve healthy normalisation with the occupying entity through his work with Rosanna (sic), he ‘crowned’ his co-operation with his (2017) visit to occupied Jerusalem.”

In the space of a few column inches and a few minutes of airtime, they happily play the role of judge, jury and executioner. When I contacted the newspaper’s journalist to defend myself and to expose the cowardice and ignorance of the “heroic” defenders of Palestinian rights, my words were twisted to suit their objectives.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, parents of a beneficiary of Project Rozana’s initiatives described to me the hypocrisy of some rich and influential Palestinians who decry any association with the ­Israeli healthcare system while privately using that system for themselves and their families when it suits them. This is an open secret on the Palestinian street.

I have yet to read any criticism from my self-serving critics about this fraternising with the enemy. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

During my 2017 visit, I was privileged to meet Palestinian and Israeli volunteers who each day drive critically and chronically ill Palestinian children from their homes in the West Bank to the checkpoints and from these checkpoints to hospitals in Israel. On the Israeli side, 2000 volunteers are available day and night for this service. Without it, many Palestinian families would not be able to afford the cost of public transport or private taxis. This is a lifesaving service in the real sense of the word.

Project Rozana has raised significant sums towards training Palestinian doctors, nurses and therapists at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem to build the ­capacity of Palestinian health services.

These same medical professionals have traditionally travelled to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and the US for training.

Sadly, many are ultimately lost to their community because they are drawn to the lifestyle and higher wages abroad.

Meanwhile, it is health professionals from Hadassah and other medical services in Israel who are playing an important role in building the Palestinian healthcare system to a world standard. And it is Project Rozana’s mantra of train local, stay local that is having a profound effect on the medical landscape.

Every day, these services treat Palestinian children diagnosed with conditions the Palestinian health system lacks the expertise to treat. Paediatric bone marrow transplantation is one example; cystic fibrosis and blood cancers are others. Project Rozana is also a major source of funding for the Binational School of Psychotherapy at Hadassah, which is training Palestinian and Israeli therapists to treat children of both communities suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The shrill voices of hatred coming from Al Akhbar, Al-Alam and Al-Nour – and from self-righteous critics in Australia – fall ­silent when it comes to dealing with the reality of what Project Rozana was created to deliver.

I do not now, nor have I ever, used my professional or communal standing to whitewash the situation facing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But as a doctor deeply committed to patient wellbeing, I applaud the collegial relationship between Israeli medical professionals and their Palestinian counterparts, which is dedicated to preserving the lives of the most vulnerable people in society, the children — our children.

I have never met a child who has refused treatment because of the doctor or therapist’s religion, politics or nationality. But I know too many adults who would refuse that same child lifesaving treatment while accepting it for themselves or their family. The double standard is shameful.

Jamal Rifi AM is a Lebanese-born Australian citizen who runs a medical practice in Sydney. He is a prominent member of the Lebanese Muslim community and was awarded The Australian newspaper’s Australian of the Year in 2015.