Review: Norwegian doctors’ “Eyes in Gaza”

Eyes in Gaza is a detailed and harrowing account by the Norwegian doctors Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse of their experiences in al-Shifa Hospital during Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009. For a time, they were not just the only western doctors in Gaza, but among the handful of western witnesses to what they repeatedly call Israel’s “massacre” of some 1,400 Palestinian men, women and children. Hence the book’s title, bearing witness to their status as witnesses.

At noon on New Year’s Eve 2008, four days after the start of Israel’s onslaught, Gilbert and Fosse entered Gaza from Egypt. On the morning of 10 January 2010, with Israel’s campaign still having a week to run, they returned to Egypt and were replaced by another Norwegian medical team. During the intervening period they assisted their Palestinian colleagues — whose “historic heroism” (112) they praise unstintingly — in performing an average of twenty operations daily on the civilian victims of Israel’s orgy of shooting and bombing. In the absence of western media they also acted as reporters (“white voices” — 121-122), giving ten to fifteen interviews daily.

These doctors make no claim to neutrality; they are political activists, committed to advocating Palestinian rights and to condemning western complicity with Israel’s crimes. “We are doctors, but we do not want to be only doctors,” Gilbert asserts proudly (306).

Not surprisingly, it is this aspect of their activities in Gaza that proved most controversial, causing FOX News to describe Gilbert, shamefully, as “[t]he Hamas propaganda doctor” (123), simply because he described the horrors he witnessed rather than keeping quiet about them. Mordantly, Gilbert asks whether there “[s]hould not then be a limit to the number of times that members of the international press who were not let into Gaza allow themselves to be bussed by Israeli press officers to places just north of the border in Israel where Palestinian rockets had landed, on the whole resulting in holes in the ground?” (130).

In their foreword (jointly written, whereas otherwise they contribute separate chapters on a roughly 50/50 basis) they spell out their refusal to hide behind the “smokescreen” of conventional language that is “laid down over power relationships and political realities.” Thus the West Bank and Gaza are “Palestine” or “occupied Palestine,” “settlements” are “colonies” and “settlers” are “occupiers,” the “Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)” are “the Israeli military forces,” “terrorists” (invariably Palestinian, of course, in western discourse) are “combatants,” and so forth (16-17).

Despite the authors’ relaxed style which sometimes — particularly in rather stilted stretches of dialogue — seems modeled on popular fiction, this book is not an easy read. There are many vivid descriptions of grisly wounds, sometimes caused by illegal munitions such as Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME, 85-7, 118, 140) or white phosphorus (284), and forensic accounts of surgical instruments the very names of which make this reviewer queasy. Furthermore, on almost every second page there are photographs of victims, sometimes during or immediately after surgery.

Ultimately, of course, this meticulous documentation contributes both to the authenticity and to the grinding power of the book. Take the account of “[a]n eight-year-old girl wearing a pink jersey … being treated for a wound on her head.” In the absence of a chair, she is treated standing up, “squashed up against the wall” as is “[t]he doctor who was cleaning her wound …”

Fosse ponders: “What could she be thinking? She was probably terrified. She knew that she had survived this attack, but that she could be hit again. There were no safe havens in Gaza … The family had sought refuge in the UN school, and she had been playing with the other children … when the tank shells hit. What sort of fear and psychological damage does that cause to an eight year old?” (149-150).

This is moving stuff, but its effect is enhanced indescribably by a photograph on the following page showing precisely the scene that has just been described, pink jersey and all.

Reflecting on the possible motives of an Israeli soldier who shot a 53-year-old Palestinian woman in the back “as she was being escorted … to the waiting ambulance which was due to evacuate her to a place of safety,” and speculating on the prospects “for her and for her family’s lifelong rehabilitation,” Gilbert concludes that only “an unequivocal international trial where the responsible political leaders can be held to account for the war crimes in Gaza” will give the wounds a chance to heal (217-8). For, in the words of a Palestinian doctor, “[w]e don’t have 5,400 injured. We have one and a half million injured. Everyone in Gaza is traumatized.”

According to one commentator writing on a site that claims to examine the “anti-Semitism and the anti-Israel lobby in Norway,” the effect of Eyes in Gaza “is is to instill in the heart of the reader not only the firm conviction that [Operation] Cast Lead was unjustifiable, but a passionate dedication to the Palestinian cause and a vehement disgust with Israel. In this the authors succeed extremely well” (““Eyes in Gaza” - the politics of emotion,” Norway, Israel and the jews blog, 22 December 2009)

A rave review, you might think. In fact this is a quotation from one of many pieces of venomous defamation to which the two doctors have been subjected since the publication of the book in Norway last year. Within a perspective that sees Israel’s crimes as virtues, the authors’ very success is deemed reprehensible.

Another example comes from Ricki Hollander writing for CAMERA, the self-styled “Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America” which, like most such organizations, aims at the exact opposite of what it announces. In an article called “Norwegian Doctors in Gaza: Objective Observers or Partisan Propagandists?” Hollander tells us that the doctors “entered Gaza … ostensibly to provide medical assistance to Palestinians at Shifa Hospital.”

That “ostensibly” says it all, but Hollander goes on to claim that “Gilbert is a radical Marxist” and “Fosse’s passion to work on behalf of Palestinians was sparked by his time in Lebanon” (during Israel’s murderous assault on that country in 1982), therefore “[g]iven the partisan … perspective they represent, Fosse’s and Gilbert’s testimony must be weighed with extreme caution” (“Norwegian Doctors in Gaza: Objective Observers or Partisan Propagandists?,” 6 January 2009)

Since Eyes in Gaza was written, this testimony has been massively supported by the findings of the UN’s Goldstone Commission. Given that the outburst of very public vilification of Gilbert and Fosse may well have helped their book become a massive best-seller in Norway, one can only hope that the vituperation that will inevitably follow its publication in the Anglosphere will achieve similar blowback.

This is a book that deserves to be widely read. It should be force-fed to those who believe that Israel’s army is “the most moral army in the world,” and to all those western politicians who facilitate the ongoing martyrdom of the Palestinian people.

Raymond Deane is an Irish composer and political activist.

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