Israel claims Swedish press committing "blood libel" over organ theft allegations

Earlier this week, the Sweden's biggest daily, Aftonbladet, published an article that suggested Israeli military troops killed young Palestinians and stole their organs. The man who penned the article, Swedish photographer and journalist Donald Bostrom, claims he witnessed such an incident himself in the early 1990s. The article has attracted a great amount of international attraction and sparked an intense media debate in Sweden as well as outside. Israel has responded with fury over the piece, accusing Sweden of publishing a “blood libel against Jews” and demanding that national authorities officially condemn the article.
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CAIRO, August 21, 2009 (MENASSAT) — In his article “Våra söner plundras på sina organ,” (which translates into, “Our sons are plundered for their organs"), Donald Bostrom tells the story of Israel’s role in the “international organ transplantation scandal” and how he himself was witness to an assault on a young Palestinian boy by Israeli troops in the West Bank in 1992.

MENASSAT conducted a phone interview with Bostrom in which he explained the background events behind the claims made in his article.

Back in the early 1990s, Bostrom was working in the Palestinian territories on his book “Inshallah” (God Willing). Released in 2001, the book portrays the struggle of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

Bostrom says he was approached at the time by UN personnel in the area, who told him they had suspicions that organs were being harvested from dead Palestinian bodies.

“People are disappearing and being returned after autopsies had been performed on them. We think they're stealing their organs,” they reportedly told Bostrom.

In 1992, out of 133 Palestinians who had been killed, 52 had had autopsies performed, according to Bostrom. The bodies had been autopsied at Israel’s Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, and were later returned to their families. Bostrom picked 20 of the 52 autopsied cases and met with the victims' families, who all said that their children’s organs had been stolen. Bostrom got the families to agree to exhume the graves of these twenty individuals.

He brought along a TV team and a medical crew, but the night before they were supposed to dig up the bodies, Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza, which lasted for six months. Bostrom was never was able to prove if the organs were missing or not.

But the families said they were sure that their children's organs had been stolen, which is why Bostrom wanted to call for an investigation into the matter. He never claimed to have proven the claims; and he reiterates that that is exactly why the allegations must be investigated.

Does he think the alleged harvesting of organs is a systematic practice in Israel?

So far, Bostrom emphasizes, there is no conclusive evidence, only a collection of allegations and suspicious circumstances. In the 1990s, he remembers how some Palestinian mothers weren’t allowed to wash the bodies of their dead sons who had been returned. There are simply too many questions left unanswered, he maintains.

Especially when it’s widely known that Israel is—according to a New York Times magazine expose in 2001—“one of the more active nations in the international organ-trafficking market.” “In Israel and a handful of other nations, including India, Turkey, China, Russia and Iraq,” the expose’s author Michael Finkel reports, “organ sales are conducted with only a scant nod toward secrecy. In Israel, there is even tacit government acceptance of the practice -- the national health-insurance program covers part, and sometimes all, of the cost of brokered transplants.”

In 2002, however, the director of the Abu Kabir Forensic Insitute, Dr. Yehuda Hiss, was arrested for “a long list of charges from inappropriate behavior as a medical professional to criminal acts such as the illegal sale of and dealings in organs and body parts, removing organs from deceased persons without consent, and misrepresenting organs in returned bodies.” In 2007, two Haifa men were sentenced to jail for "trafficking in humans for the purpose of harvesting their organs." They admitted to coercing developmentally challenged or mentally ill Arabs from the Galilee and central Israel to have a kidney removed, and later did not pay the donors as promised.

“The point is that we know there is organ trafficking in Israel. And we also know that there are families claiming that their children's organs have been harvested. These two facts together point to the need for further investigation,” Bostrom told MENASSAT.

Bilal Ghanan

While in the West Bank, Bostrom befriended a family in the area whose son had been shot by the Israeli military. On May 18, 1992 Israeli Special Forces arrived in Imatin, a small village in the West Bank, searching for 19-year old Bilal Achmed Ghanan. The young Palestinian was an active protester, and had raised the ire of the Israeli army, as he would routinely engage in throwing stones at passing patrols. Ghanan, hiding out in the mountains at the time, had decided on that day to temporarily leave his hideout and come down to the village.Bilal Ahmed, 19, was shot and taken away by israel soldiers. The body was sewn back from the stomach to the neck.

Walking through the dense alleys of his village, Ghanan was suddenly hit by a gunshot to his chest. Then he was shot in his legs, according to village bystanders. The last bullet pierced his stomach.

The Israeli forces loaded the severely injured Ghanan into a Jeep and drove off with him to the outskirts of the village where a military helicopter was awaiting them, claims Bostrom in his article.

Ghanan was returned to his home village five days later  –– dead and wrapped in green hospital linens. When Ghanan’s shrouded body was lowered into the grave, the linens parted at one point, revealing his chest to the small group of relatives who had gathered for the ceremony. They were shocked. The 19-year old had been gutted from his lower abdomen up to his chin and then sewn back together.

“It suddenly became clear to the few attending (the burial) what assaults he had been subject to,” wrote Bostrom.

He then recounted extracts from interviews with other families who claim their sons met a similar fate as Bilal Ghamam.

“‘Our sons are being used as involuntary organ donors,' relatives of Khaled, in Nablus, told me. The same was claimed by Raed's mother in Jenin, and Mahmoud's and Nafes' uncles in Gaza. All three boys had been missing for a couple of days and were returned during the nighttime, dead and autopsied,” wrote Bostrom.

“‘Why would they otherwise be keeping the bodies up to five days before we are allowed to bury them? What happened to the bodies during that time? And why are they carrying out autopsies when the cause of death is evident, and in all cases against our will? And why are the bodies being returned during the night? And why with a military escort? And why are the areas closed off during the funeral? And why is the electricity cut?” families of the victims wondered.
Levy Izhak Rosenbaum is escorted away by FBI agents. Rosenbaum is to have functioned as the middle hand in the illicit organ trade
The article also ponders the link between the charges of Israeli military stealing organs from Palestinians and the recent arrest in the U.S. of an American rabbi for organ trafficking.

Bostrom, however, stresses that he is not saying that there is a clear connection between the organ trafficking case in the US and Palestinian organs.

But he does also point out that in the recordings by the FBI, taken when the FBI posed as potential organ buyers to entrap one of the rabbis, the rabbi did say that he was getting organs in Israel and had gotten many of them from "vulnerable people in Israel"-- which could mean Palestinians.

Worldwide attention and Israeli fury

Bostrom’s article has attracted worldwide attention with countless media outlets reporting on the article in a multitude of different languages. Israel, meanwhile, responded to the allegations with fury, with some commentators comparing the charges made in the piece to the medieval blood libel which claims that Jews killed Christian children for their blood. The Israeli authorities have taken direct action against the Swedish government and Aftonbladet, demanding a public apology for the article. 

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon harshly condemned the article as "a blood libel and the worst type of anti-Semitism." Ayalon, meanwhile, urged the Swedish authorities to "condemn the accusations," and went on to say that, "we see a correlation between the government's public statements, which are extremely critical of Israel, and anti-Semitism in the press.”

In a related article, the Jerusalem Post claimed that the Swedish government “funds radical NGOs” and anti-Semitism.

Israel's Ambassador to Sweden, Benny Dagan, has contacted the Swedish Foreign Ministry about the article. He has also demanded an apology from Aftonbladet, but has so far not received a reply.

The Swedish authorities have adopted the official standpoint of not interfering in the flurry and have refused to condemn the article.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt blogged on Thursday night about the ruckus caused by Bostrom’s article and reiterated two of the cornerstones of the Swedish constitution: Swedish press freedom and free speech.

“It has been demanded by some in Israel that we, in one way or another, publicly distance ourselves from this article or even intervene in order to prevent such an article from being published.”

“But this is not the way our country works - and it shouldn’t either.”

“If I were to spend my time editing all odd contributions to debates in various media outlets, I would probably not have that much time to deal with other things….freedom of expression and free speech are pillars of our constitution. And that strong protection has served our democracy and our country well.”

Bildt’s blogpost ruffled the feathers of ultraconservative Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lashed out at the Swedish Foreign Ministry in a long tirade.

The Swedish authorities' refusal to condemn Bostrom’s article, he said, means Sweden is allowing “a blood libel against Jews” to pass. He continued by criticizing Sweden’s neutral political standing during World War II.

"It is a shame that the Swedish Foreign Ministry is not getting involved when a blood libel against Jews is at hand. This reminds one of the Swedish position during the WWII – when they also refused to get involved,” Lieberman's office reported.

Lieberman also threatened to revoke the press credentials for Aftonbladet in Israel and senior Israeli officials are reportedly saying Bostrom’s article will "stain" Israeli-Swedish ties.

Jan Helin, Editor in Chief of Aftonbladet, recounted his shock over Lieberman’s comments on Friday in a blogpost entitled “Israel’s foreign minister beyond his senses.”

“Last night, the unpleasant Israeli storm against Aftonbladet took yet another step towards unreasonableness. I couldn't believe my eyes when I read in the Jerusalem Post what the Israeli foreign minster Avigdor Lieberman is saying regarding an article published in the cultural section of Aftonbladet.

“I double-checked the Internet address. Is this a spoof website, I wondered? No, not as far as I could see. I admit that I was naive for not realizing the wave of hate that would result from the criticism and questions raised by the article. But this defies all accounts. The statements made by the Israeli foreign minister are completely senseless,” wrote Helin.

Hate mail and death threats

Within 20 hours of publishing the piece, Helin says he received around 200 emails from different parts of the world in which people accused him of publishing a “historic and deeply anti-Semitic picture of Jews and blood thirst”, and the hate emails continue to arrive from people around the world.

As for the writer himself, Bostrom told MENASSAT that he is concerned about the creepy death threats he has received after the publication of his article.

One of the threats he received read: “You will be the next victim. We are right outside. You will be the next news item.”

The threat was made in Swedish-- although bad Swedish-- as if the perpetrators had used help from an online translation tool to deliver their message to the writer in his native tongue.

Bostrom said he also received another threat that said, “we will hit you," in English.

Swedish ambassador in the hot seat

While the Swedish authorities have taken the official stance of not condemning the article or interfering in the controversy in any way, Sweden’s ambassador to Israel, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, seems to have taken matters into her own hands.
In a strongly worded statement published on the Swedish embassy's website in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Bonnier denounced the article and claimed that the piece was "as shocking and appalling to us Swedes as it is to Israeli citizens”.

“We share the dismay expressed by the Israeli government representatives, media and the Israeli public. This Embassy cannot but clearly distance itself from this article,” read the statement.

Bonnier went on, as a self-proclaimed legal analyst, to give a lesson to Swedish newspaper editors about the principles of freedom of expression, as she understood them.

“Just as in Israel, freedom of the press prevails in Sweden. However, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are freedoms which carry a certain responsibility, and it falls on the editor-in-chief of any given newspaper to exercise these freedoms carefully,” she wrote.

In Stockholm, the Swedish Foreign Ministry distanced itself from the ambassador’s statement. "We obviously don't think it is great to comment on what is written in the media," ministry spokesman Anders Jorle told The Associated Press.

The statement sparked an uproar in Sweden and attracted much criticism from the local media towards the ambassador.

The spokesman for Sweden’s Green Party, Per Gahrton, said in an opinion editorial published on the news engine Newsmill that Bonnier should be recalled and taught "the basics of Swedish freedom of speech.”

The ambassador’s words were also questioned in an op-ed entitled “Odd Swedish reaction towards Aftonbladet” published by the editorial staff of Svenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s leading dailies.

“The Swedish embassy in Israel sent out a press release today to remind the public that the cultural section of Aftonbladet does not speak for all Swedes. "It is strange that the Swedish government is taking a stand through the [Swedish] embassy [in Israel], and interfering in what a Swedish newspaper chooses to publish,” read the commentary.

Aftonbladet’s Jan Helin, also lashed out at the ambassador and accused her of attacking Swedish press freedom and free speech.

"Did you suddenly wake up in Iran?" Helin wrote. "No, it is Sweden's Ambassador Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier in Tel Aviv, who attacks the Swedish freedom of press and freedom of expression."

Bonnier’s statement is no longer retrievable on the embassy’s website. It was taken down “because it was not needed on the web page any more,”  Benjamin Escaig, first embassy secretary at the Swedish embassy in Tel Aviv told Svenska Dagbladet yesterday.

Several of Sweden’s opposition politicians and many bloggers are currently demanding that Bonnier be recalled from her post. Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has not commented on her future to the media as of yet. Meanwhile, a proper investigtion into these serious allegations seems to be the only possibility of quelling this controversy.