Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Editorial: Israeli government admits anthrax experiment caused injuries and takes responsibility for their care

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Last update - 02:23 20/02/2008

Experiments in full responsibility

By Haaretz Editorial

The state's response to a High Court of Justice petition by soldiers who were subjected to medical experiments with anti-anthrax drugs (the experiments known as Omer 2) is a small but important step on the road to regulating one of the most neglected human rights issues in Israel. Admittedly, the state - in contrast to the soldiers - claims that the experiments were performed in accordance with accepted medical and ethical norms, and that there was nothing wrong with them. Nevertheless, it also stated, "The defense establishment bears full responsibility for the care of the soldiers who were harmed."

This announcement includes two important points: an admission of the causal link between the experiments and the damage to the soldiers' health, and an assumption of full responsibility for the soldiers' care and treatment.

The state thereby demonstrated a different approach than the one that has hitherto characterized the Defense Ministry, the chief of staff, the army's chief medical officer and the health minister. All had previously tried to deny any connection between the experiments and their results, as well as to evade any responsibility for the soldiers suffering to this day.

As part of the Omer 2 experiments, some 800 soldiers doing their compulsory service were injected with a vaccination against anthrax, a disease that had been defined as one of the great dangers facing Israel's citizens. The soldiers who were chosen, all from elite units, accepted at face value the establishment's promises that they would suffer no side effects other than mild discomfort, and that the injection had been successfully tested in the United States. At the insistence of those conducting the experiment, the soldiers maintained strict secrecy and did not even inform their commanders.

This secrecy was maintained even years later, when some of them developed serious symptoms: pneumonia, breathing problems, digestive tract inflammations, severe coughs, severe migraines, recurrent sores and other problems. Despite the army's promises of close and continuous medical monitoring, each of them was forced to deal with these problems on his own.

Only in 2007, when some of the injured soldiers discovered that they were not alone in the war and began comparing their medical problems, was the story of the secret experiment finally revealed in the press, and a group was formed to go to the bodies responsible - this time in an organized fashion. The soldiers had a simple and reasonable demand: that the system recognize them as a distinct group and take responsibility for the harm done to them, and that it give them their medical files so that they could obtain appropriate treatment.

When their repeated applications met only with repeated evasions, the group, numbering 34 soldiers, petitioned the High Court. As noted, the state's response to this petition bodes well. And no less important is its response to another petition, by Physicians for Human Rights, which asked the court to ban medical experiments on Israel Defense Forces personnel unless the issue is regulated through legislation. The state responded by undertaking to abide by certain interim restrictions until the necessary legislation is passed.

This response, which does not evade a fundamental discussion of the question of experiments on human beings in general, and on IDF soldiers as a "captive audience" in particular, arouses hope that the defense establishment will finally grasp the importance of human rights, and that the suffering caused to the petitioners will serve as a warning to defense and medical personnel.

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