How Israel "pinkwashes" breast cancer awareness to be cruel

How Israel "pinkwashes" Breast Cancer Awareness Month to hide its cruelty
5 min read
29 Oct, 2021
No amount of pink light projected on IDF's headquarters in Tel Aviv to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month can obscure Israel's cruelty towards Palestinian women, writes Mimi Kirk.
Ultra Orthodox Jews walk next the walls of occupied Jerusalem's Old City, illuminated by pink lights marking the launch of a breast cancer awareness campaign on 25 October 2010. [Getty]

Advocates for Palestinian rights, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, have pointed to the Israeli government's strategy of "pinkwashing," a propagandistic practice that projects solidarity with LGBTQ+ rights while obscuring Israel's occupation, apartheid, and settler-colonial policies that subjugate Palestinians.

Yet there's another type of Israeli pinkwashing, and it has been on full display this past Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

 On October 1, the Israel Defense Forces Twitter account published a photo of Marganit Tower at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv bathed in pink light. "For those who are fighting, for those who have passed, and for those who have survived, the IDF HQ is lit up pink this #BreastCancerAwarenessMonth," the tweet declared.

"The IDF's recent gesture of breast cancer solidarity similarly strikes many as particularly hypocritical, given the discrepancy in breast cancer treatment between Palestinians and Israelis"

Breast cancer activists in the United States have called out US corporations for cynically displaying pink ribbons and proclaiming their support for breast cancer awareness and research – particularly during the month of October – to bolster their sales or image, also calling the practice "pinkwashing." As an Everyday Health author noted, "[M]any people view [this] as taking advantage of the current political climate, capitalizing on a cause, without actually having to give back."

A 2016 Slate post also reprimanded the US Navy and the Israeli Air Force for painting their fighter jets a "tasteful pink" for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In the US case, the pink latex paint was apparently mixed with dishwashing liquid to facilitate its easy removal once November 1 rolled around. Author Christina Cauterucci wryly noted: "Like breast cancer, fighter jets kill women…they [bring] pink death and pink destruction and pink civilian casualties and pink refugee crises and pink destruction of cultural heritage wherever their noble cancer-aware pilots lead."

The IDF's recent gesture of breast cancer solidarity similarly strikes many as particularly hypocritical, given the discrepancy in breast cancer treatment between Palestinians and Israelis – made all the starker by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Five-year survival rates for women with breast cancer in Israel versus those with breast cancer in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) illustrate this discrepancy: In Israel, this figure is more than 88 per cent, versus 65 per cent in the Gaza Strip.

In Brief

"This is in part a result of the restrictions on Palestinians’ movement as well as the existing challenges facing the health system, which weaken and limit breast cancer screening, diagnostic, and treatment capacities in the OPT," Fikr Shalltoot, Gaza Director for the organization Medical Aid for Palestinians, says.

Shalltoot notes that Gaza's Ministry of Health has only one mammography machine dedicated to screening for breast cancer, and it is currently broken. Even with a diagnosis, cancer patients often need to travel from Gaza to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israeli hospitals to access basics like radiation, chemotherapy, PET scans, and surgery. These tests and treatments are unavailable in Gaza largely because of the blockade Israel imposes on the Strip, which includes restrictions on the import of "dual-use" items, or those that the Israeli government claims have both a civilian and military use and are thus prohibited.

Cancer patients in the OPT must apply for permits to travel for treatment, and Israeli authorities can reject or delay permits' processing for months. In August 2021, the permit approval rate for Gaza patients (cancer and otherwise) was 64%. While the approval rate for applications from the West Bank is higher, authorization is still not guaranteed. In the same month, the approval rate for West Bank patients was 87%.

"I'm like a bird in a cage," Hind Shaheen, a breast cancer patient who was denied exit from Gaza for treatment, told Al Jazeera in 2017 from her hospital bed. "Outside of my cage I can see water and food, but I can't reach it."

The United Nations Population Fund and the Palestinian Ministry of Health estimated in a 2018 report that 60% of 2016 breast cancer deaths in the OPT were premature. These cases, the report noted, "could have been saved if effective screening, early detection, and referral pathway was put in place."

Covid-19 has made the situation even worse. Draconian border restrictions have become even more severe, and the process of applying for permits is much more difficult and daunting.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a more than 90% decrease in patient and companion permit applications from the Gaza Strip and West Bank beyond East Jerusalem in April 2020, compared to figures for January and February of that year.

While breast cancer is physically taxing, the stress of diagnosis and treatment also preys on mental well-being.

"Facing breast cancer is difficult enough with access to treatment. But for an occupier to bar people from life-saving medicines and procedures is unconscionable"

Israel's everyday, as well as exceptional, violence against Palestinians, such as the 11-day assault on the Gaza Strip in May 2021 that resulted in the deaths of 260 Palestinians, including 66 children, as well as health care limitations in the OPT augment distress and fear. A 2015 WHO assessment reported that aspects of OPT life like the permit process "lead[s] to hopelessness and anxiety and other mental health and behavioural problems."

"Breast cancer is the last disease that women in Gaza would like to think about," says Shalltoot. One Palestinian woman in Gaza told her, "When I got diagnosed, I felt that my life had ended, and I was powerless and broken. I couldn’t take care of my children. I was really without a soul."

Facing breast cancer is difficult enough with access to treatment. But for an occupier to bar people from life-saving medicines and procedures is unconscionable. No amount of pink light projected on a tower in Tel Aviv can obscure such cruelty.

Mimi Kirk is an Editorial Consultant at Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.