Since 2006, Israel has launched four merciless assaults on the besieged and defenseless Gaza Strip. After Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009, with its 1,400 Palestinian fatalities, the Norwegian surgeon Dr. Mads Gilbert published the best-selling Eyes in Gaza.
That book, a record of his and co-author Erik Fosse’s experiences in Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital during the massacre, made him the object of a relentless campaign of defamation by Israel and its fellow-travellers.
In July 2014 Operation Protective Edge, the most recent Israeli onslaught, inflicted more than 2,200 Palestinian fatalities, including 551 children. This attack was also partly witnessed by Gilbert; in its wake the Israeli authorities did not stop at defamation, but imposed a permanent ban on his entry to Gaza, reportedly for “security” reasons.
In the preface to his new book Night in Gaza, Gilbert comments: “When a pen, a camera and a stethoscope are seen as security threats, we know we are dealing with a regime that is afraid of the truth and that believes power confers rights.”
Clearly, however, the ban on Gilbert stems less from fear of the “small, black Sony … compact digital camera” that he carried wherever he went, even into the operating theater, than hostility to his unapologetically political stance.
“The medical profession cannot … be detached from society,” he tells us in his preface. “I am not neutral. I have taken a side. This book is a plea: in favor of the Palestinians.”
A photograph of a Palestinian nurse giving the victory salute as he deals with an emergency is captioned: “The health workers see themselves as part of the popular resistance.” And in his final, valedictory chapter, he proclaims that “the social aspect of [medical] work … means supporting all measures to reduce social inequalities … it is what makes the medical profession a political tool.”
Of course, the State of Israel also sees the medical profession as a political tool, periodically sending teams of doctors, soldiers and press photographers to the sites of natural disasters (Nepal, Haiti, the Philippines) while hindering alleviation of the disaster it has created in Gaza.
If Israel’s politicization of medicine is designed ultimately to further the Zionist project of dispossession and conquest, Gilbert’s political stance is, on the contrary, taken in defense of Palestinian rights and universal human values.
Gilbert’s small black camera, nonetheless, may arouse certain reservations. One approaches the very cover with trepidation: a photograph of a little girl’s head swathed in a sheet, her eyes closed. A glance inside the cover reveals that she is not in fact dead but anesthetized: a “beautiful moment of serenity amidst all the chaos of the nightmare that was the Shujaiya massacre.”
While this experience of unease followed by relief recurs throughout the book, there are also profoundly disturbing photographs of the dying and indeed the dead.
Gilbert writes that “Every single image in this book has been evaluated by senior medical staff at al-Shifa and by the Palestinian ministry of health with regard to whether it is ethically justifiable to publish them and to whether patient confidentiality has been respected. I have received official authorization for all the pictures included in this book. Names have generally been omitted.”
It might have been better for this clarification to have been placed at the beginning of the book rather than at the end.
Night in Gaza, like its predecessor, is constructed loosely on a journal template, its major chapter divisions dated from 13 to 24 July 2014. Although merely a fraction of the 51 days of Operation Protective Edge, this period saw the slaughter by an Israeli gunboat of four little boys playing football on the beach (we see a photograph of their bodies wrapped in the flags of Fatah, not Hamas), as well as the massacre of 90 Palestinians in the Shujaiya neighborhood.
The many photographs are mostly supplied with indications of the time at which they were taken. Sometimes there are many pages consisting only of photographs with captions (thus Shujaiya is allowed to speak, horrendously, for itself), and sometimes several pages of uninterrupted text.
There are vivid portraits of individuals like Dr. Sobhi Skaik who has led al-Shifa hospital “through four wars” and “is undoubtedly one of the world’s most experienced war surgeons.” Or Nashwa, a 28-year-old student obstetrician who quotes the poet Mahmoud Darwish’s claim that Palestinians “suffer from a chronic illness of hope” and sums up Gaza with the words “hope, steadfast resistance, generosity and kindness.” Or Dr. Mohammad Abou-Arab, a Palestinian with Norwegian citizenship, “a natural authority figure” who “gives all of himself and his unstoppable work capacity day and night.”
Gilbert’s huge respect and love for these and other colleagues radiates from the pages of his book. But is only one aspect of his admiration for the Palestinian people as a whole, with their “conviction about the deeply just nature of their struggle to regain their own country, their extreme perseverance, and last but not least a combination of humanity, warmth, hospitality and care for others that I had never encountered before.”
There are interludes when he revisits survivors of the 2008-09 massacre whom he treated: Jumana, Samar and Amal, living responses to the inevitable question he finds himself posing: “Has it all been for nothing?”
Finally, there is Gilbert’s self-deprecating tone, his characteristically Scandinavian reserve serving to render all the more powerful those moments when his indignation breaks through: “we have neither the resources nor the right kind of anesthetic for everybody. This is because some people want it to be like this; they want the hospital to be short of everything and want things to hurt. They want you to lose heart and give up your dream of being free.”
One puts down this book feeling that had the Nobel Peace Prize not been irrevocably stained by its repeated conferral on warmongers (Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, the European Union), one would nominate Mads Gilbert for it. For now, one can only paradoxically hope that he never has to write such a beautiful but scarifying book again.
Raymond Deane is an Irish composer and political activist. His memoir In My Own Light was published in 2014 by Liffey Press.