The letter, from 24 doctors and scientists, published on 23 July, denounces Israel’s “aggression” and accuses the country of mendacity and war crimes.
But critics have challenged the decision to publish the letter, saying that it was inappropriate for a peer-reviewed medical journal.
The signatories to the letter condemning Israel are mostly Italians, but also include six UK-based academics and doctors.
“We challenge the perversity of a propaganda that justifies the creation of an emergency to masquerade [sic] a massacre,” the letter reads. “In reality it is a ruthless assault of unlimited duration, extent, and intensity…Israel’s behaviour has insulted our humanity, intelligence, and dignity as well as our professional ethics and efforts.”
The letter also suggests that since only 5 per cent of Israeli academics signed an appeal to their government to stop the military action “the rest of the Israeli academics are complicit in the massacre and destruction”.
The Lancet also offered online readers the opportunity to add their names to the list of signatories.
On 30 July, the journal published a letter of response by two US-based writers saying that it is “totally inappropriate for a peer-reviewed medical journal to publish purely political, inaccurate, and prejudiced pieces”.
Meanwhile, three letter writers from Israel have said that they are “baffled by The Lancet’s decision to publish such a slanted, evidence-less, open letter”.
However, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, told Times Higher Education that it was right that “medical journals should report and engage with controversial topics that have a bearing on health”.
“The open letter directly and explicitly called for the support of the medical community and was a call to action. We facilitated this call with a sign-up option (as we do from time-to-time, most recently a few months ago with our Manifesto for Planetary Health).”
But he said that the journal did not endorse the letter, and noted that it had also enabled readers to sign up to the Israeli authors’ critical letter.
In an editorial published on 4 August, the journal notes that a debate has been opened “about the appropriateness of a medical journal giving space to opinions about an issue that lies at the intersection between health and politics”.
It adds: “We do not support any side whose actions lead to civilian casualties. The role of the doctor is to protect, serve, and speak up for life. That, too, is the role of a medical journal.”
The journal announced on 31 July that it had closed the sign-up facility for the open letter and had decided not to publish the names of the 20,000 additional signatories since it was “concerned about several threatening statements to those signatories, which have recently been posted on social media”.