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Politics, medical knowledge and development: from Israel to Ethiopia and Eritrea (and back)
My former research into how Israeli planning and development in Africa affected Israel’s politics, society and culture (Yacobi 2015), identified an urgency to explore the political usages of medical aid as a development strategy. The literature on the lingering medical effects, visions and legacies created during and after the intervention of colonial powers in Africa has been central to our understanding of how medical knowledge shapes space and politics (Tilley 2010; Geissler 2015). Yet most research tends to focus on core/periphery relations, namely Europe vs. the colonies. Israeli medical intervention in Africa challenges these analytical categories, since Israel – unlike the colonial empires – was perceived as a young and developing country. It imagined itself as an antithesis of Africa, namely European and developed even though at least 40% of its Jewish population were immigrants from Africa. One of the key states Israel was involved in was Ethiopia due to the latter’s Christian majority, which made it a potential ally against other Middle Eastern countries. Ethiopia’s geographic proximity to Egypt, Israel’s main regional adversary, and its Jewish community of about 140,000 also helped in this regard. Israel’s medical intervention in Ethiopia captures how political instrumentalization of medical knowledge affected three interrelated dynamics. First, like other developing states such as Yugoslavia, Cuba and Egypt, and as part of its self-professed civilising mission, Israel established a plethora of health aid schemes similar to those it used in other African countries (see Appendix 1). During the 1960s, Israeli physicians set up specialized healthcare clinics in Addis Ababa, supervised Eritrea's public health sector (when it was a region of Ethiopia), assumed senior managerial roles in eight different hospitals and provided medical care for Ethiopian troops during their fight with insurgents in the Ogden region. Hence, the application of medical knowledge in Israel's development schemes facilitated a strategic foothold in Ethiopia. Second, Israel initiated a series of medical interventions towards Ethiopian Jews entering Israel, who were the only immigrating group whose blood donations were disposed of by Israeli hospitals without scrutiny for fear of it being contaminated. Israeli officials also forced Ethiopian women to take Depo Provera injections in makeshift transit camps in Ethiopia. In short, while the faith of Ethiopian Jews granted them access to Israel's body politic, their African bodies were politicized as a medical liability. Third, medical knowledge legitimizes Israel’s attempts to wall out Eritrean asylum seekers seeking refuge in Israel, arguing that they will spread infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis and AIDS (Yacobi 2011). A significant number of these asylum seekers are currently detained in militarised encampments on the border with Egypt. These three dynamics point to the ways in which medical knowledge can be interchangeably shaped as an instrument of development aid, a strainer mechanism to sift through diasporic communities, and a bordering apparatus that legitimizes detention and the potential incarceration of unwanted populations. Accordingly, this study explores what happens when medical knowledge configures with racial and national dynamics that shape development practices, regional politics, immigration dynamics and the racialization process
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