Letter From Gaza
The email Mads Gilbert, professor of medicine at the University of North Norway (Tromso), sent to a friend on July 19 was a cri de coeur. He had spent two weeks in Gaza during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead attack in the winter of 2008-09, tending to the wounded and the dying in Al-Shifa hospital, and again for another week during a similar assault (Operation Pillar of Cloud) in 2012.
As then, Gilbert is now once again caring for streams of patients rushed into Al-Shifa (the name means “healing”) from the Gaza killing fields. I reproduce the email in its entirety because it is the first lengthy account by a physician writing directly from a hospital about the region’s injured and dying in the course of Israel’s latest hostilities. Al-Shifa has been under bombardment and shellfire; other health care facilities as well as ambulances and medical personnel have been attacked. Gaza’s only rehabilitation hospital, Al-Wafa, has been destroyed.
“The last night was extreme. The “ground invasion” of Gaza resulted in scores and carloads with [the] maimed, torn apart, bleeding, shivering, dying – all sorts of injured Palestinians, all ages, all civilians, all innocent.
“The heroes in the ambulances and in all of Gaza’s hospitals are working 12-24hrs shifts, grey from fatigue and inhuman workloads (without payment [at] all in Shifa for the last four months); they care, triage, try to understand the incomprehensible chaos of bodies, sizes, limbs, walking, not walking, breathing, not breathing, bleeding, not bleeding humans. HUMANS! Now, once more treated like animals by `the most moral army in the world [sic].
“My respect for the wounded is endless, in their contained determination in the midst of pain, agony and shock; my admiration for the staff and volunteers is endless; my closeness to the Palestinian sumud [steadfastness] gives me strength, although in [some of the] glimpses I just want to scream, hold someone tight, cry, smell the skin and hair of the warm child, covered in blood, protect ourselves in an endless embrace – but we cannot afford that: nor can they.
“Ashy grey faces – oh NO! Not one more load of tens of maimed and bleeding: we still have lakes of blood on the floor in the ER, piles of dripping, blood-soaked bandages to clear out. The cleaners [are] everywhere, swiftly shoveling the blood and discarded tissues, hair, clothes, cannulas – the leftovers from death – all taken away… [only] to be prepared again, to be repeated all over. More than 100 cases came to Shifa [in the] last 24 hrs, enough for a large well trained hospital with everything, but here [there is] almost nothing: electricity, water, disposables, drugs, OR-tables, instruments, monitors – all rusted and as if taken from museums of yesterdays hospitals. But they do not complain, these heroes. They get on with it, like warriors, head on, enormous[ly] resolute.
“And as I write these words to you, alone, on a bed, my tears flow, the warm but useless tears of pain and grief, of anger and fear. This is not happening!
And then, just now, the orchestra of the Israeli war-machine starts its gruesome symphony again: salvos of artillery from the navy boats just down on the shores, the roaring F16, the sickening drones (Arabic ‘Zennanis’, the hummers), and the cluttering Apaches. So much made and paid in and by US.
“Mr. Obama – do you have a heart?
“I invite you – spend one night – just one night – with us in Shifa. Disguised as a cleaner, maybe.
“I am convinced, 100%, it would change history. Nobody with a heart AND power could ever walk away from a night in Shifa without being determined to end the slaughter of the Palestinian people.
“But the heartless and merciless have done their calculations and planned another Dahiya onslaught on Gaza. The rivers of blood will keep running the coming night. I can hear they have tuned their instruments of death.
Please. Do what you can. …This cannot continue.”
In an interview with Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman on July 14, Gilbert spoke of the Shifa staff”s “resilience [...], determination and the way they cope with these extremely harsh conditions that they’re in now.” Gaza’s hospitals, he said, “are denied a constant supply of energy, of water, of disposables, medical drugs – all the items you need to run a university-level hospital. And on top of the total drainage of resources from the siege, they are now exposed to this constant and very large flow of the very severely injured. And they are not crippled. On the contrary . . . they have doubled or tripled their shifts. . . Everyone is extremely tired and exhausted, but they don’t yield.” Half of the 1,232 Gazans injured by July 14 were women and children: 36 children and 24 women had been killed out of a total of 170. “This tells you that these attacks are not targeting the militarists [but] the whole population, in order to intimidate them and to force them to give up their resistance . . . Israel is doing their utmost to kill them and to make their life as miserable as possible through these seven years of siege.”
Born in 1947, Gilbert is a member of the Norwegian Socialist Party, honored by his country for his contributions to emergency medicine. From the 1970s he has worked as a physician in both Palestine and Lebanon. In Norway, he was central in efforts that, in 2001, twinned Tromso with Gaza City. After 2009, in a report to the medical journal The Lancet, Gilbert wrote that the situation in Gaza was “a nightmarish havoc” and that he and Fosse had “witnessed the most horrific war injuries in men, women and children of all ages, in numbers almost too large to comprehend.”
An Israeli spokesman said Gilbert was “spreading vicious lies”, adding that he was “notorious for his radical far left opinions and his systematic demonization of Israel.” Gilbert rejoined: “This is a part of the propaganda war. We are not surprised and take this very calmly. We tell the truth and do not need to lie. If Israel think[s] we are lying, they can just open the borders and let the world’s press into Gaza. Then one will soon find out who is lying.”
Five years ago, with his colleague Eric Fosse, professor of medicine at the University of Oslo, Gilbert wrote Eyes in Gaza, a series of journals about their two-weeks’ work in Al-Shifa in 2008-09. The book got no coverage in the mainstream US press. Not for lack of eloquence:
“Sunday was a terrible day.
“On Sunday, Israeli forces killed two young Palestinian boys who were playing on a roof.
“On Sunday, Israeli aircraft also bombed the vegetable market in the middle of the busiest shopping area of Gaza City.
“On Sunday, we received wave after wave of people frightened to death, some uninjured, some wounded, some dying and some dead – of all ages, with every kind of injury… They had one thing in common: they were all Palestinian civilians… Devastated human bodies were everywhere. On the floor, on stretchers, on tables, in the resuscitation room, behind curtains; and there were walking wounded with bleeding injuries.
“A dying pregnant woman. Children with recent amputations. The noise rose and fell . . . a numbing cascade of voices and cries, commands, outbursts, despairs and moans.”
“The little nine month old girl I had been asked to attend to was just an early warning. She was pale and ill-looking after the anaesthetic and was almost unrousable . . . Parts of her tiny little left hand had to be amputated after the nasty injury she had sustained in the family house. Nobody knew where her mother was, but her father and grandfather must have been killed.” (Jumana, the nine-month girl, turned out to be a member of the Samouni family from Gaza City’s Al-Zaytoun district. Gilbert and Fosse soon discovered that Israeli soldiers had forced 70 members of her family into a building which was then bombed: at least 26 family members died, among them ten children and seven women.)
Another entry read: “We could see that the splinter had gone on through the liver and into the duodenum, which had a three centimeter tear on the anterior surface. Dark blood was welling out through the tear in the bowel. It must be coming from a major vein. I freed the duodenum and was able to see a tear in the inferior vena cava, which brings all the blood from the lower part of the body back to the heart. We packed a lot of compresses in against the vein and managed to stop the bleeding for the time being . . .”
Gilbert returned to Gaza in November 2012, working again at Al-Shifa. A power point he compiled with Sobhi Skaik, head of Shifa’s surgery department, has photographs, graphs, and narrative about the hospital’s work during that week of atrocities. One graph charts the daily death toll, showing an increase in mayhem over the course of the week – from nine deaths a day at the start of the assault, on November 14, to 45 by November 21. Then, as in 2009 and now, well over a third of the victims were women and children. The power point includes a reference to Israel’s Dahiya doctrine. This unabashedly propounds a war crime: deliberately targeting civilian infrastructures as a means of inducing suffering in civilians – for “deterrence.” (Israel has not been denounced for carrying out this “doctrine”.)
This June, Gilbert wrote a 17-page report to UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), titled “The Gaza Health Sector as of June, 2014″, which shows that the situation in Gaza was catastrophic even before Israel’s current onslaught. He wrote: “Palestinian children in Gaza are suffering immensely. A large proportion are affected by the man-made malnourishment regime caused by the Israeli imposed blockage [imposed by Israel in 2007]. Prevalence of anaemia in children of [under] two years in Gaza is at 72.8%, while prevalence of wasting, stunting, underweight have been documented at 34.3%, 31.4%, 31.45% respectively.” This is just one passage in a 17-page document that presents evidence of the excruciating results of Israel’s intent, when it imposed its closure of Gaza eight years ago, to “put Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” (The quote in full is by Dov Weisglass, advisor to then prime minister Ehud Olmert who imposed the blockade in 2007.)
From what I have seen from Al-Jazeera stories and Internet reporting, and from reports Gazans have managed to get to the world through social media, I believe the scenes Gilbert and Fosse described in Eyes on Gaza are interchangeable with the ones now unfolding.
There is no doubt that Mads Gilbert will again be attacked for speaking out against Israel, backed unstintingly by the US since 1967, and before. In a world in which the world’s superpower remains willfully blind to Israel’s crimes, while France’s prime minister François Hollande forbidsdemonstrations on Gaza’s behalf, Mads Gilbert’s voice needs to be heard, as he bears witness to the agony of Gaza’s stricken population.
Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.