'Israel Has Stolen Gaza's Future, and Its Hope'

Two Norwegian doctors who have been working at Shifa Hospital in Gaza offer harrowing eyewitness accounts of events there.

Reuters

The numbers are written in ink on the palm of his hand, as if he were a schoolchild cribbing information for a test: 1,035 dead, 6,233 wounded, at 2 P.M. on Monday. Each day he erases the numbers and updates them.

This week, Prof. Mads Gilbert left Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip for a brief vacation in his homeland, Norway, after two continuous weeks of treating war casualties. His colleague and fellow countryman, Prof. Erik Fosse, was supposed to replace Gilbert in Gaza, but as of the middle of the week, Israel was still preventing him from doing so. Fosse, too, had spent the first week of Operation Protective Edge at Shifa, and wanted to return.

Gilbert and Fosse also worked at Shifa during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, in the aftermath of which they published their troubling book, “Eyes in Gaza,” an international best-seller. Now they contend that in terms of the damage being caused to the civilian population, and primarily to children, the current war in the Strip is even more harrowing than the previous one.

Both men are in their sixties. They were admirers of Israel in their youth, but the first Lebanon war in 1982 – in which they enlisted to help treat the Palestinian wounded – altered their perspective and changed their lives forever. “It was then that I saw the Israeli war machine for the first time,” Gilbert recalls.

Fosse heads an organization called NORWAC (Norwegian Aid Committee), which provides medical assistance to Palestinians, and is funded by the government of Norway. Both Gilbert, who is an independent volunteer, and Fosse have dedicated a good part of their lives to helping the Palestinians, and Gaza has become a second home to them. On Monday afternoon, we met Fosse, a cardiac surgeon, in Herzliya after he returned from his vacation in Norway, on his way back to Gaza. We met Gilbert, an anesthesiologist, as he exited the Erez border crossing on his way home. The images described by the two should weigh heavily on the conscience of every decent human being.

“In Cast Lead, I thought it would be the most horrific experience of my life,” says Gilbert, “until I arrived in Gaza two weeks ago – which was even more shocking. The data reveal that there are 4.2 Palestinian casualties per hour ... More than one-quarter of the dead are children; over half are women and children. The Israel Defense Forces admitted that 70 percent are civilians, the UN says that 80 percent are, but from what I saw at Shifa, over 90 percent are civilians. That means we are speaking of a massacre of the civilian population.

“Shujaiyeh was a genuine massacre,” he continues. “In Cast Lead, I did not see this sort of attack on residential buildings; back then, more public structures were attacked. The brutality, the intentional harm to civilians and the destruction are more harrowing than in Cast Lead. I am not impressed by the fact that people are given a warning of 80 seconds in which to evacuate their homes. It is inhumane. The sight of Shujaiyeh is more terrible than anything we saw in Cast Lead.

“Take a look at Shujaiyeh – it looks like Hiroshima. I will never get used to the sight of an injured child for whom we do not have adequate means to treat him. We use local anesthesia, due to the lack of drugs, and there is not enough even for that.”

Gilbert, who teaches at the University of North Norway, is also furious at what he sees as the army’s intentional damage of hospitals. Nothing remains of the Al-Wafa rehabilitation hospital; the Mohammed al-Dura children’s hospital in Beit Hanun was shelled by the army, and a 2-and-a-half-year-old hospitalized in the ICU there was killed. Four people were killed at the Al-Aqsa Hospital. Gilbert had visited the children’s hospital, and witnessed the scene with his own eyes. Nine ambulances have been attacked; medical personnel have been killed and injured. In Gilbert’s opinion, these incidents constitute war crimes.

The doctor has been particularly impressed by the determination and behavior of the residents, primarily that of local medical teams. At Shifa, no staffers have received a salary in four months; in the previous eight months they only received half their wages. Even those employees whose homes were destroyed remained at work. Their devotion to work under these conditions astonished him.

In regard to the claim that Hamas leaders are hiding at Shifa, the two Norwegians say they haven’t seen a single armed man or any leaders from the organization; some Hamas ministers have come to visit the wounded.

Gilbert says that in Cast Lead as well, the IDF tried to frighten the medical staff by claiming that armed militants were hiding in the hospital, but the last armed person the Norwegians saw in Shifa was an Israeli doctor, during the first intifada years ago. Gilbert says he told the man that international law forbids bringing weapons into hospitals.

Similarly, he refutes the claim that Hamas is using the civilian population of Gaza as a human shield, and adds: “Where did the anti-Nazi undergrounds in Holland and in France hide? And where did they conceal their weapons?”

“I don’t support Hamas,” says Gilbert. “I support Palestinians, and also their right to choose the wrong leadership. And who chose Netanyahu and Lieberman? They [i.e., the Palestinians] have a right to make a mistake. I’ve been visiting Gaza for 17 years. The more you bomb it, the more support for the resistance will grow. The attempt to portray Hamas as a Boko Haram is ridiculous, I feel. Boko Haram is the IDF, which is violating international law. How can its commanders be proud of the killing of civilians?

“History will judge them and I think the IDF will not come out of this looking good, given the facts on the ground. I call upon the Israelis: Stand up. Show courage. Israel is moving in the direction of being worse than South Africa – and that would be a shameful way to exit the stage of history.”

Fosse is more restrained, perhaps because he worked only up until the ground invasion of Gaza began; at Shifa he conducted about 10 operations a day. He praises the expertise of the Gaza physicians with whom he worked.

Fosse sees his mission as extending beyond the operating room, as raising a cry of alarm to the world, after Gaza was emptied of any international presence by Israel. He says most of the injured people he treated were hit by guided, precision missiles, and he is therefore certain that the numerous injuries to children and civilians were intentional.

In the Norwegians’ book, they featured a photograph of IDF marksmen wearing shirts emblazoned with the legends: “Smaller – Harder” and “One bullet – two killed.” This time, it is smart missiles that are killing children. But in Fosse’s opinion, Israel’s siege of Gaza is even more serious for its residents than the war. Which is why Hamas is more aggressive now.

“For seven years, the whole society has been coming apart. There is no commerce, no exports and no escape. The only money-making occupation is smuggling, and that destroys society. It destroys Gaza as a normal society. The siege has created a thin layer of people becoming rich from the smuggling – all of the others are poor. That undermines the structure of society, and this is Gaza’s biggest problem.

“I was reminded of my conversations with Palestinian surgeons my age. For years, they lived in an open Gaza that had excellent connections with Israeli doctors. They always dreamed of getting back to that. Now, these same doctors gather around the television and cheer when rockets fall on Israel. I said to them: But Israel will react. And they said: We no longer care. We are going to die anyway. It’s better to die from a bombing.

“They’ve lost all hope. It is shocking to see these people losing their children, and they no longer care. Israel is losing soldiers now in order to preserve a situation that the entire world opposes. This is a crime against a huge civilian population,” Fosse adds.

“You have robbed their future and they are in despair. Hamas doesn’t have much support, but there is immense support for the sentiment that there’s nothing left to lose. And on the other side, there is a society in Israel that doesn’t care. It’s very sad. You, who went through the Holocaust, have become racist. In my opinion, this is a tragedy. Why are you doing this? You are crossing every ethical boundary – and in the end, it will also destroy your own society.”

Alex Levac