“Every third child in Gaza stunted by hunger”: interview with renowned doctor Mads Gilbert

7 June 2012

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Dr. Mads Gilbert and a team of Palestinian surgeons prepare emergency treatment at al-Shifa hospital during Israel’s invasion of Gaza in January 2009. 

(NORWAC)

For many people around the world, Israel’s three-week attack on the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009 provided a stark glimpse of the reality that Palestinians endure on a regular basis. It was a scene straight from a horror film, a cause for concern and outrage. For others, including Norwegian physician Mads Gilbert, it was a call to action, beckoning solidarity workers back to Gaza’s pockmarked streets.

Gilbert was all too familiar with the scene. A veteran anesthesiologist who had been deployed to help handle emergency medical situations in Palestine and in Lebanon, Gilbert instinctively made his way to Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital when the bombing began. His experiences, shared of course by the Palestinian physicians and hospital employees he sought to aid, are still today widely regarded as some of the most testing instances of solidarity work.

Although Israel’s air and land invasion of the Gaza Strip — known as Operation Cast Lead — happened three and a half years ago, its after-effects are still relevant today. Gaza’s infrastructure has yet to fully recover and no one has been held accountable over the hundreds of civilian casualties.

Gilbert’s eyewitness accounts are shared far and wide in order to shed light on these tragic consequences and to encourage others to remain steadfast in their solidarity work for Palestinian rights.

Mads Gilbert spoke to The Electronic Intifada contributor Sami Kishawi.

Sami Kishawi: How did you become involved in the solidarity movement for Palestinian rights?

Mads Gilbert: In 1967, when the Israeli-Arab war broke out, I actually volunteered to go to Israel. Like a majority of Norwegians, I was brought up with the narrative that Israel was a heroic, growing little country constantly attacked by its neighbors. So when the war broke out, the Israeli embassy issued an appeal for Norwegians to volunteer as kibbutz workers. It was presented as some form of novel socialist movement. I signed on.

That same evening, I was contacted by a friend of my sister, Ebba Wergeland, who had heard that I was planning on volunteering in Israel. I went to her dormitory where we had tea — and that’s where she told me about Palestinian history, a history I had not heard about.

The next day, I went back to the embassy and withdrew my volunteer forms and instead chose to became a member of the Norwegian Palestine Committee (NPC).

SK: What were your experiences like during your first medical missions to Palestine and Lebanon?

MG: In 1981, I witnessed first-hand Israel’s aerial bombardment of West Beirut and the destruction of the Fakehani neighborhood where the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] was headquartered at the time. Palestinian leaders issued an appeal to the international community to come to the aid of the wounded. Through the NPC, I organized the first Norwegian emergency surgical team and that was my first encounter with the Palestinian diaspora.

In 1982, when the invasion of Lebanon fully commenced, we again sent emergency surgical teams as a measure of solidarity. We managed to enter the besieged West Beirut where we worked in an underground makeshift hospital installed in the Near East School of Theology. Together with Lebanese and Palestinian doctors and nurses, we performed lifesaving surgeries around the clock, mostly in makeshift operating rooms located in the three underground stories of this Catholic school.

I think my devotion and my dedication to the Palestinian people were forever etched into my heart and mind during the dreadful summer of 1982.

SK: What brought you to Gaza during Israel’s invasion in 2008 and 2009?

MG: For the last fifteen years, I’ve been working in Gaza on and off. I teach at al-Azhar University and I’ve been working on numerous projects with the paramedics and staff at al-Quds and al-Shifa hospitals.

When the invasion began on 27 December 2008, I had just gotten back to Norway from teaching in Gaza. I was extremely worried because I was already aware of the toll the brutal siege of Gaza took on the health sector, food, water and security of the civilian population there.

My home city, Tromsø, has been a formal twin city with Gaza since 2001, and I immediately decided to make an effort to go back to support the hospitals, not because they cannot manage, but in solidarity and to be a witness and a voice. When my good friend Dr. Erik Fosse called me that very same afternoon, we quickly decided to make an emergency medical team and pack up to travel to Gaza.

SK: What caught your attention during your time in Gaza?

MG: First and foremost, I was extremely impressed by the Palestinian healthcare workers who were bravely working day and night to save their fellow people under the most difficult conditions possibly imaginable. The heroes were the Palestinians and not us. My impression also included the stoic bravery and unyielding courage of the Palestinian civilian population in the midst of death and suffering during the brutal Israeli onslaught.

Second, the character of the Israeli military attacks was unbelievably brutal and disproportionate. The attack on Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and population, the repeated use of illegal weapons like white phosphorus bombs, and the testing of new and extremely destructive US-manufactured weapons like the DIME [Dense Inert Metal Explosive] and other “small diameter bombs” all indicated that Israel used its force unjustifiably and disproportionately, clearly in violation of the international laws of war and humanitarian rules.

Also important is the very special fact that this onslaught fell upon an already besieged civilian society, already on its knees with a very young civilian population — the average age in Gaza is 17.6 years, and 58 percent are 18 years or younger — unable to seek any safe shelter, imprisoned as they were by the Israeli siege. But the most impressive aspect of it all is that they did not collapse. They organized rescue and they did not lose their humanity. The dignity and the discipline of the Palestinian people moved me deeply.

SK: On 3 January 2009, you sent a text message to your international contacts. It read: “They bombed the central vegetable market in Gaza City two hours ago. Eighty injured, 20 killed. All came here to Shifa. Hades! We’re wading in death, blood and amputees. Many children. Pregnant woman. I’ve never experienced anything this horrible. Now we hear tanks. Tell it, pass it on, shout it. Anything. Do something! Do more! We’re living in the history books now, all of us!” It was a very passionate, a very urgent message. What was happening? What were you seeing and doing?

MG: Our hands were full that day. In the early morning, there had been waves of injured coming in. We were quite exhausted, all of us.

Suddenly, all of the Palestinians in the hospital went to their mobile phones to listen to the FM radio. That’s when we got the message that Israel was bombing a vegetable market in Gaza. We heard the ambulance sirens and the first wounded started to come in. I was in the disaster reception area at the ground level of al-Shifa and it was just hell. Victims were pouring in. I had to step back a few steps. I stood by the window and looked out. I saw the condensation streaks of the Israeli bombers and heard the orchestra of sirens. That’s when I wrote down and sent the message, without drafting, without hesitating, like a desperate reflex.

It needed to be said. I sent the text to some media people based across the border in Israel and to people in Norway. It spread like fire on a dry prairie. It was translated and spread all over the world. I think the reason for that was because it was a passionate message, an authentic one, more intense than the media stories, maybe. This cannot go on, I said. And yet it kept going on for another two weeks.

This text message became graphic in Norway, and it was translated and spread all over the world. This message, in a way, connected people to the realities of Gaza.

SK: We are all too familiar with the stories of despair, but did you experience any hopeful or uplifting moments during your medical mission in al-Shifa?

MG: Every day at every moment, there were uplifting moments. Even under desperate conditions, the hospital staff was working day and night. We had little food. We had an endless current of the most horrible injuries coming in and almost all of the staff — the doctors, nurses, ambulance people, and volunteers — was confronted with wounded family members and friends. Yet they never broke down or gave up.

Of course, we wept. We were all sad and we were outraged. But there was this strong feeling of being in al-Shifa for a greater cause, to show that military power and oppression, racism and occupation will not win in the end. The Palestinians of Gaza once again showed me the true qualities and humanity.

All the windows in the eastern wall of the surgical block were shattered. It was ice cold. The generators were broken and power blackouts were hourly. We were lacking trolleys and operating tables. We had to do operations on the floor. It was tense, yes, but the Palestinians remained calm. We used humor as a form of medicine. There was Arabic coffee all of the time and maybe some food. At the end of the first two weeks, we were actually all receiving emergency food rations from the World Food Organization. Yet no one gave in.

SK: Is there anything to be said about Israel’s lack of accountability for the deaths of so many innocents?

MG: It is hard to understand how Israel has been vindicated without even being taken to trial or being faced with the same type of investigation that other state and governmental entities in similar situations have faced.

Given the moral responsibility of the Israeli government and its army, if you should judge Israel in accordance with the scale that we judge other states, I would say that Israel today presents itself as a failed state. They wage warfare against a basically unarmed, occupied civilian population, in sharp contrast to some of the most fundamental rules of humanitarianism and laws of wars. And Israel still chooses not to allow — let alone organize — independent legal examinations or investigations of the war crimes perpetrated by their political and military commanders and their soldiers.

I would also say that the international community is making a huge failure by not applying the same strict rules to Israel as it does to other countries. It’s an incredible double standard that allows Israel to go unpunished, attack after attack, war after war.

SK: What is the healthcare situation in the Gaza Strip like now?

MG: As a result of the Israeli siege, there has been widespread development of anemia among children and women due to malnutrition as a result of siege and poverty. Stunting, where a child is more than two standard deviations shorter than what it should be, is sharply on the rise. In 2006, around 13.5 percent of children were stunted. In 2009, 31.4 percent under age two were stunted.

In other words, every third child is less developed than he or she should be. And stunting does not only affect growth. It also affects brain development and the ability to learn. This is a direct consequence of malnutrition. Remember, this is not caused by drought or natural disasters, but a deliberate, man-made lack of food and water, imposed, planned, and executed in the most detailed way by the Israeli government. They even calculate how many calories to let in to Gaza to avoid outright starvation but to “just” cause malnutrition since that goes under the radar of human rights abuses.

Similarly, water cleaning plants and pump stations for sewage cleaning and waste disposal are destroyed and haven’t been repaired because spare parts have not been let in due to the siege. Spare parts sit for up to two years on the border without being let in. Donated trucks from the UN and Japan for solid waste disposal are also being kept out.

Instead, 280 donkey cart drivers are commissioned to manually pick up the waste from the 600,000 inhabitants of Gaza City who should, of course, have a modern system. Plus, there is no fuel for the water pumping stations. The blackouts can last for 18 hours a day and the lack of fuel for running the water pump stations means that 50 percent of Gaza’s population receives water for only six to eight hours a day every fourth day.

So why won’t Israel let Palestinians have clean water and allow them to clean the wastewater? Why will they not allow them to collect their solid waste? Clearly Israel wants to make life as difficult as possible for the Palestinian community in order to break their resistance, to humiliate them, and to conquer them. It is not going to happen.

SK: I visited al-Shifa less than one year ago and was astounded by how underfunded and under-resourced its facilities were. Is there anything people living outside of Palestine can do to help the hospital maintain its operation? And how can these individuals contribute to the Palestinian solidarity movement?

MG: We need to organize and increase political pressure. We have to influence our leaders, politicians and governments. We have to encourage the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the State of Israel. There is mounting support for the Palestinian solidarity movement.

Churches, universities, and sports teams must be convinced to boycott Israel. We must explain to people in Israel that they cannot expect “business as usual” as long as the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians continue. At the end of the day, such peaceful political pressure will force Israel’s population — and hopefully also the United States — to change its stance, I believe.

Ultimately, I think this work on the home front is more effective than trying to smuggle in equipment or supplies. The most fundamental demand is to lift the siege on Gaza and to allow for the reconstruction of the Gaza infrastructure: the schools, the hospitals, the roads and the waste management system. To end the occupation of Palestine and safeguard the return of the Palestinians in diaspora is a prerequisite for lasting peace.

SK: What about for those who are medically-inclined?

MG: For medical students, we need to raise awareness in medical schools. Students must be trained to see the evidence of the extensive and destructive effects the Israeli occupation has on population health. And why not get in contact with medical students in Gaza and make alliances? Involve yourselves with programs of exchange to other campuses and travel, travel, travel, travel.

Go there and see for yourselves, not necessarily to do medical work but to meet medical students and to make partnerships. They are well organized and highly motivated and it is obviously worth the effort. Solidarity between individuals and people is a strong force and much needed in the current situation in occupied Palestine — and in the refugee camps outside Palestine. Everyone can make a difference by being active, not by being idle.

Sami Kishawi is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago. He is an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine and Chicago Movement for Palestinian Rights, two youth-led movements advocating for Palestinian rights through direct action.