United Hatzalah, the best known of more than a dozen independent first-aid organisations operating in Israel, was ordered by an Israeli District Court to pay 250,000 shekels for defaming Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency medical service.
In a ruling that was extraordinary in its severity, the court also ruled that United Hatzalah acted in violation of Health Ministry guidelines, harming public safety in the process.
The court found that United Hatzalah and its leaders ran an orderly and deliberately planned campaign in which they slandered Magen David Adom through false statements made in the media.
“Freedom of expression is not freedom of contempt, and the right to have a voice is not the right to humiliate,” Justice Naftali Shilo said in the ruling.
In the 42-page ruling, Judge Shilo criticised United Hatzalah for continuing to publicise its own 1221 phone number and encouraging the public to call it during medical emergencies, rather than 101, Israel’s official medical emergency number run by Magen David Adom.
“It has been proven that United Hatzalah ignored the directive of the Ministry of Health and continued to publish its emergency number, 1221,” the ruling said. “This action is dangerous and harms public safety, as stated in the State Comptroller’s report.”
The ruling singled out the behaviour of three of United Hatzalah’s leaders, Founder and President Eli Beer, Spokesman Moti Elmaleh, and Chief Executive Officer Moshe Teitelbaum for engaging in a campaign of defamation. The court ordered that part of the settlement be paid out of the trio’s own pockets for acting in bad faith by promulgating false statements.
In a countersuit, United Hatzalah was awarded 25,000 shekels for a statement made by MDA, in which the organisation said United Hatzalah was running more of a profit-making business than a first-aid service, although the court conceded those statements were made in anger after a series of provocative acts by United Hatzalah.
The ruling also addressed allegations made by United Hatzalah that MDA had not acted properly in several medical emergencies. However, the court said just the opposite was true, and that the failures cited were on the part of United Hatzalah. In particular, in an incident in which a pre-school student died after ingesting sand, the court noted that it took three minutes for United Hatzalah’s call centre to notify MDA of the emergency and that United Hatzalah’s responding EMT didn’t have a child’s oxygen mask among his equipment.
The court also emphasised the extent of United Hatzalah’s false statements made to major media outlets and the potential damage those falsehoods caused to MDA’s reputation.
“The defendant must be held accountable for the fact that these are eight very widespread publications and various media outlets, made with the intent to harm the plaintiff, and without the defendants seeking MDA’s response to the serious allegations before publication,” the ruling said. “The defendants also refused to apologise for these publications despite MDA’s request to them in a letter that was not answered at all. The defendants did not express any remorse for their publications.”
Magen David Adom said the court ruling was just and necessary.
“The ruling speaks for itself and we welcome the court’s decision and are happy the truth is finally coming out,” said Eli Bin, Magen David Adom’s director-general. “We are so sorry we had to go to court, but we were not able to bear the damage to the good name of Magen David Adom and the good name of thousands of our employees and our volunteers who work day and night to save lives.
“There are more than a dozen hatzalah [first aid] organisations in Israel, and we have a collaborative relationship with virtually all of them,” Bin said. “With one exception, as cited by the court in this case, they’ve all operated under the Ministry of Health’s protocol, been dispatched by MDA, and have worked with us to save lives throughout the country. People in Israel and throughout the world have benefited from this mutual cooperation.”
Daniel Burger, Chief Executive of Magen David Adom UK commented, “Magen David Adom Uk has always looked to collaborate with our colleagues from United Hatzalah in much the same way we would with any of the 12 volunteer organisations that support the work of MDA in Israel. I hope that we can put this unsavoury episode behind us and continue to work together to save more lives.”