They don’t want our pity, but they do welcome our solidarity: Physician tells stories about Palestinians living under siege in Gaza
Dr. Mads Gilbert, author of the books, Eyes in Gaza and Night in Gaza, in which he describes what it was like to work under the bombs with Palestinian colleagues during Israel’s 2008 – 2009 and 2014 invasions of the Gaza Strip, spoke to an audience of about 200 people last night at Calvin College.
Dr. Gilbert provided an astute analysis of what was happening in Gaza, with the Israeli occupation and US complicity, but he did it through the powerful stories of Palestinian civilians the doctor has met while working in makeshift operating rooms throughout Gaza.
He showed pictures of many of the children wounded from Israeli bombs that have besieged Gaza over the last decade, but asked people not to record any of the images. “I did not ask the consent of the wounded to be able to distribute their images online, I only use them in this capacity to be able to tell their stories,” said the Norwegian doctor.
He began his talk with images of two Palestinian children wounded in July 2014 and how it is children who have primarily been wounded or killed during the most recent Israeli assaults on Gaza. However, the pictures were not meant to just shock the audience, they were also meant to demonstrate the incredible resiliency of Palestinians living under siege in Gaza.
The doctor occasionally uses images other than those of Palestinians, like this image of the maps, which demonstrates how Israel has historically occupied more and more of Palestinian land.
Dr. Gilbert then emphatically states, “It is not a difficult conflict, rather a difficult occupation.” He didn’t mince words and was quiet clear throughout his presentation on what was at stake. The Norwegian physician then stated that there are, “1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza, with 58% being 18 years old or younger.” After the last Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014, Israeli generals consider that 90% of those targeted were successful, which meant that children as targets were considered a “success.”
Occasionally the doctor included video clips of Israeli bombing, like a clip he showed of Gaza and Rafah being bombed in 2012. One video clip was from outside a Palestinian hospital, where you could see a constant influx of people coming in cars, ambulances and on foot as a result of the Israeli bombing. Dr. Gilbert said they were mostly trauma patients, with loss of limbs, internal wounds and severe burns. He then shows an image of a 10 year old Palestinian girl. An F-16 fighter plane had bombed her home, killing 3 and seriously wounding 5 others.
The Norwegian doctor often talked about the real heroes being the Palestinian doctors and nurses who were not only able to save lives, but were able to do so under horrendous conditions. The Israeli siege of Gaza and the economic blockade means that basic and necessary medical supplies rarely get in, so physicians must operate on patients in makeshift ways, often using the light from cell phones.
At one point Dr. Gilbert showed an image of a Palestinian orderly, who had an infectious smile on his face and was tasked with cleaning up the operating rooms in just 6 – 8 minutes before the next patient was brought in.
Peppered throughout his presentation, Mads Gilbert kept reminding the audience by saying that all of this horror in Gaza was, “100% avoidable, that is was done by Israel and paid for by the US government.”
The Norwegian physician then implores those in the audience to look up a poem written and performed by the young Palestinian artist, Rafeef Ziadah. The poem is entitled, We Teach Life Sir.
Mads continues with images of Palestinian children he came in contact with during surgery. He shows the picture of a 7 year old boy who had been hit by shrapnel………he died on the operating table. Another picture of a 14 year old boy, his right leg had been blown off from shrapnel, by what he believed was a new US developed weapon, loaded onto a drone. This 14 year old Palestinian boy also died on the operating table. In a laboring voice, Dr. Gilbert said the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza were the worst he had seen during his many visits. He saw 400 patients in just one night during the assault on Gaza in 2014.
There was a brief moment of silence. Then the doctor proclaimed, “I am an unapologetic anti-Zionist and Gaza is a colonial project.” He continued by condemning the Israeli system of Apartheid and then offered up a quote from great South African leader Nelson Mandela.
Dr. Gilbert began doing this kind of work in 1982 in Beirut. He tells the story of a Palestinian boy who lost his arm from the bombing. This boy was badly wounded, traumatized, with no family, with nothing. A week later he met with the boy and was amazed at how he wanted Dr. Gilbert to teach him to treat his own wounds. In addition, he said the boy would often sing songs and encouraged other patients in the hospital. “He is the symbol of resilience,” said the Norwegian physician. The arabic word he used was sumud, which means steadfastness.
The doctor stated that, “There is a systemic Israeli attack on Gaza’s healthcare.” He showed a UN map of Israeli attacks on health care facilities in 2014, where 75 hospitals and clinics had either been damaged or destroyed.
Dr. Gilbert then went on to state that in 2014, the United Nations had created makeshift shelters that were mostly Palestinian schools. The Israelis were given the coordinates, but they bombed them anyway.
The Norwegian physician said that what is need and what he was attempting to do was to provide “evidence-based solidarity.” What he meant by that is that we need clear documentation of the horrors Israelis have committed against Palestinians, He said, we need to read reports and books and look at research that will compel us to engage in solidarity. Dr. Gilbert has been working on a research project on treating amputations, based on his work in Gaza. Some of the research was published in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Because of that report, Dr. Gilbert us now banned ever from going back to Gaza.
Dr. Gilbert told one last story, the story of Samar. In 2009, she was 4 years old. Samar came into hospital during the 2009 Israeli assault on Gaza. What was surprising about her, was that she was so quiet. Eventually they found out that she had a severe wound in the back and that her spinal cord was damaged, which is why she was so quiet. Samar could not feel anything. After performing some initial surgery on her, Dr. Gilbert came back to check on her and at that point she was crying and saying, “mama, mama, mama.” Dr. Gilbert remembers asking one of the Palestinian doctors, “how can this go on?” The doctor replied very calmly, “we have no human rights.”
However, Samar’s story was far from over. A BBC reporter had found Samar’s father and told him she was in the hospital and was unable to walk. Samar is now living in Brussels with her family. Samar is in a wheelchair and will never be able to walk again. She is an excellent student and Dr. Gilbert said she is the face of Palestinian resiliency.
Dr. Gilbert ended his talk by offering up some ideas for ways that people can be in solidarity with Palestinians. First, he said that we cannot remain silent. The US just approved an increase in military aid to Israel. He then said we need to study and see who is profiting from this injustice. He suggested the online source http://whoprofits.org/. More importantly, he encouraged people to join solidarity movements, like Students for Justice in Palestine or the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
One of the co-sponsors of the event, Healing Children of Conflict, is engaged in a Grand Rapids-based BDS campaign. For those interested in joining contact them at email@example.com.