An American surgeon in Nablus

Edward Gallagher, M.D. in surgery in Rafidia Surgical Hospital, Nablus.

The soldier said “Tourists are not allowed.” This was my first experience in Palestine.

In September of 2003 I was on a humanitarian mission sponsored by the Palestine Children Relief Fund (PCRF). I am a Facial, Plastic and Cosmetic surgeon in San Diego, California. I had been invited by the Minister of Health for the Palestine Authority to work in Rafidia Surgical Hospital in Nablus, Palestine. They had arranged for me to examine about 100 children with various facial injuries and deformities and gave me an operating room to use with nurses and anesthesiologists to help with the surgery.

When I first arrived in a taxi from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport at the Israeli checkpoint before entering Nablus, the Israeli soldier would not let me pass. He said “Tourists are not allowed.” I sat down on the highway and wouldn’t move until they finally let me cross into Palestine.

For the next two days, I examined many horribly injured children who were shot by Israeli soldiers or who were injured when their homes were bombed and destroyed by Israeli F�16 bombers. I later operated on several of the children to repair their disfigurement and deformities.

Young boy injured by rubber-coated metal bullets fired by an Israeli soldier.

A child with facial scarring resulting from the demolition of his home.

The Palestinian people — doctors, nurses, and children — treated me extremely well. They invited me into their homes. They love Americans. They just don’t like America’s policy toward Palestine.

Palestine was occupied by European Christians during the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. Some of the Crusaders commingled with the Palestinian people and I am sure planted many “seeds.” Palestinians even look more like Italians than Arabs, though they speak Arabic. I visited the Palestine Refugee camps outside of Nablus and saw, firsthand, the destructions of their homes when the camps were recently invaded by the Israeli Army (IDF).

I toured the old city of Nablus with two young students. I saw a very old Christian church damaged by an Israeli F�16 fighter jet when the market next door was bombed and many Palestinians were killed. I talked to many students at Nablus University and Medical School who suffered severe difficulties attending classes and taking their examinations because of roadblocks, checkpoints, curfews, and frequent Israeli Army invasions.

19-year-old man recently injured with a rubber-coated metal bullet shot by an Israeli soldier.

Another young boy with scars secondary to being shot by an Israeli soldier.

When I was in Nablus, two people where killed by Israeli soldiers, one a 73-year-old grandfather killed in his home and the other a 19-year-old man killed by a tank when he shot at the Israeli soldiers. His 24-unit apartment building was later destroyed, leaving 24 families homeless. Israel will not allow independent observers to document these atrocities and the resulting terror suffered by Palestinian people and children.

Israel considers anyone who shoots at the IDF or even throws a rock at a tank a terrorist, just like England probably considered any American a terrorist who shot at an English soldier in 1776. Americans used unconventional battle techniques in our War of Independence � just like the Palestinian’s fight for independence. The Palestinians do not have a conventional army with tanks, Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets to advance their struggle.

Young child scarred when his home was destroyed by the Israeli Army.

Another Palestinian child injured when her home was destroyed by Israeli troops.

When I left Nablus to drive to Jerusalem, the Palestinian taxi driver dropped me off at the checkpoint. Palestinian taxis are not allowed to cross the checkpoints, so you have to walk. You have to walk to another taxi or bus on the other side. The taxi driver told me that the Israeli soldiers would confiscate his taxi if he tried to drive though the checkpoint.

There was a long line of Palestinian pedestrians waiting to be searched by the soldiers. Many of the men have been at times stripped naked and searched. I decided to walk down the highway because there was no auto traffic. The Israeli soldier told me this area was only for cars and told me to wait my turn in line with the other pedestrians.

I was standing there trying to figure out what to do when a black Mercedes drove up. I displayed my U.S. passport and asked the driver if he would drive me a hundred yards though the checkpoint and he agreed. I put my luggage in the back seat next to his young son and jumped into the passenger seat. He suddenly got a call from his wife on his cell phone, made a U turn, drove back though the checkpoint, drove up a brand new road, though another checkpoint guarded by several Israeli soldiers, and into a brand new Jewish settlement featuring condominiums overlooking Nablus, where he handed his son to his wife. He then retraced his route and again drove though the original checkpoint. The whole trip took about 10 minutes.

Obviously he was a Israeli Jew and had no problems crossing the checkpoints. Palestinians have major problems crossing the Israeli army checkpoints within Palestine.

I talked to many doctors at the hospital who would spend 2 to 3 hours walking home though the countryside when the checkpoints were closed. They told me about being fired on and shot at by Israeli helicopters and having to hide behind rocks so not to be shot and killed. They tell about all the babies born at the checkpoint lines when the pregnant mother is in labor and the soldiers will not let her get to the hospital to deliver her baby.

Doctor Annad, a dentist and oral surgeon, had to deliver a baby with manual extraction because the mother was in extreme distress and shock in his small village dental office because the checkpoints were closed. He called her gynecologist at the hospital, only a ten minute ride away, to be instructed over the phone on how to help the mother. Even ambulances are at times not let though the checkpoints by the Israeli soldiers.

I finally did get to Jerusalem by driving an unpaved path though the Palestinian countryside and small villagers and avoided the paved highway and checkpoints used only by the Israeli soldiers and Jews. I certainly could have used my 4x4 Dodge truck for the trip. The trip of about 60 miles from Nablus to Jerusalem took me about 3 hours. I am sure the Israeli immigrants from Russia living in the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of Palestine, many who probably don’t even speak Hebrew, could make the drive in less than an hour.

Israel gives any Jew born any where in the world Israeli citizenship, but denies citizenship to non-Jewish Palestinians born in the occupied territories. All Palestinians born after 1967 do not have passports because they are not citizens of any country. The older Palestinians have Jordanian passports because that area of Palestine was part of Jordan before the 1967 war. Certainly, Israel is not a true democracy, only a Jewish democracy.

The last checkpoint before Jerusalem, I walked through without being searched and boarded a Palestinian bus for Jerusalem. I checked into the Ambassador Hotel near the American Embassy and the next day visited the Christian holy sites. I touched the rock where Jesus was crucified and entered the tomb where He was buried and later arose. Except for the Palestinian Christians (which there are about 4,000 living in the old city of Jerusalem) I was the only “tourist.” Israel discourages tourism in Palestine. They even discourage tourists from visiting Jerusalem, their capital, unless you are a Jew visiting the “Wailing Wall”, which is an old wall which is thought to be from the third Jewish Temple built and destroyed sometime before Christ.

Israel has even destroyed and removed Palestinian homes built 2,000 years ago to protect and secure the area around the wall. Israel is now in the process of building other walls around the recently built Jewish settlements in Palestine and around the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to separate the Jews from the Arabs. In the process they are destroying Palestinian homes and ancient archeological sites.

My flight on Continental Airlines was leaving at 12 midnight so I decided to get to the Tel Aviv airport at 9 PM to allow plenty of time. I met a young Palestinian man at his shop in Jerusalem and he offered to drive me to the airport. He picked me up in his brother’s van and we started driving to the airport. I was a little concerned because I was in a van with a Palestinian driving to the airport and was worried about crossing the checkpoints. He told me not to worry because he would speak Hebrew and would pretend that he was Jewish.

The first checkpoint we did get through without being stopped but the second checkpoint just before the airport we were stopped and searched for several minutes. I finally arrived at the Ben Gurion Tel Aviv Airport and waited in line with the other passengers. An Israeli security officer interviewed me regarding my reason for visiting Israel and asking me where I had been. This time I did not tell her the truth because I didn’t want to miss my fight. I had talked to other people who were detained by Israeli security for several days because Israeli security did not like the answers.

A week earlier when I arrived in Israel from the U.S. I was interviewed for an hour regarding my plans to treat and help the Palestinian children. I was finally allowed to pass but I was the last passenger to get my bags. On leaving Israel they even checked what books I was carrying. I did have ‘Sins of Abraham’ by President Jimmy Carter written in 1985 (a very good history of the Palestine-Israeli conflict) but they missed this book. I feel Americans should all read this book to get a more balanced view of this very important history.

I also feel that our government should be more fair, evenhanded and balanced in our dealing with Israel and Palestine. Governor Howard Dean, who is running for the Democratic Party Presidential nominations, was quoted recently as saying President Bush should be more “even handed” in his Middle-East foreign policy. However, he was criticized by Senator Leiberman and 30 other senators for this statement.

I feel that this dispute should be handled by the United Nations and the U.S. should stop using our veto in the Security Council whenever a resolution is not favorable to Israel. The news media is also certainly not fair and objective in the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If this article about my trip to Palestine sounds like I am anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish or even anti-Israel, I apologize and assure you that I am not. Many of my best friends and colleagues are Jewish. I am, however, strongly apposed to the Israeli government’s terrorist policy toward the Palestinian people, as seen in the killing of innocent children and the destruction of Palestinians’ homes and homeland. I only hope that in my small way I could help to change America’s policy toward Israel and Palestine.

I would like this policy to be more evenhanded, fair and balanced. America’s one sided support for Israel has caused much of Americas problems in the world today. I would also hope that Americans would become more educated about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I feel that our two senators from California represent the best interests of 3 million Israeli Jews instead of the best interests of 24 million Californians and Americans.

Edward W. Gallagher, M.D., is a surgeon based in San Diego, California. The above text is a personal account of a September 2003 humanitarian mission to Palestine sponsored by the Palestine Children Relief Fund (PCRF), where Dr. Gallagher worked at Rafidia Hospital in Nablus.