Dr. Mads Gilbert, author of the books, Eyes in Gaza and Night in Gaza, in which he describes what it was like to work under the bombs with Palestinian colleagues during Israel’s 2008 – 2009 and 2014 invasions of the Gaza Strip, recently completed a US speaking tour that took him to various venues in Michigan, Indiana, and Texas.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dr. Gilbert spoke to an audience of about 100 people at Calvin College. A Christian liberal arts college associated with the Christian Reformed Church, Calvin has previously hosted various speakers who focus on Palestine, among them Ali Abunimah, Nora Barrows-Friedman, and Mazen Qumsiyeh.
A guest of Grand Rapids-based non-profit, Healing Children of Conflict, as well as of Calvin College’s History Department and Middle East Club, Dr. Gilbert provided an astute fact-based analysis of the situation in Gaza. However, Dr. Gilbert’s presentation did not just rely on facts. It was also structured around powerful stories of Palestinian civilians whom he has met while working in makeshift operating rooms at Gaza’s Al-Shifa’ hospital.
Dr. Gilbert accompanied his testimony with many photos of people, places, and events. For instance, he illustrated his talk with pictures of many of the children wounded from Israeli bombs that have been dropped on Gaza over the last decade. However, he asked the audience not to record any of the images. “I did not ask the consent of the wounded to be able to distribute their images online, I only use them in this capacity to be able to tell their stories,” said the doctor.
Dr. Gilbert began his talk by showing images of two Palestinian children wounded in July 2014 and by explaining that many children have been wounded or killed during the various Israeli assaults on Gaza. However, the pictures were not meant to just shock the audience; they were also meant to demonstrate the incredible resiliency of Palestinians living under siege in Gaza.
Throughout his talk, Dr. Gilbert occasionally used images other than those of Palestinians, like this image of maps that demonstrate how Israel has occupied more and more Palestinian land.
At one point, Dr. Gilbert emphatically stated, “It is not a difficult conflict. Rather, it is a difficult occupation.” The Norwegian physician then observed that there are, “1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza, with 58% being 18 years old or younger.” He mentioned more than once that after the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, Israeli generals considered that 90% of the targets were successful, which meant that the targeting of children was considered a “success.”
Occasionally the doctor included video clips of Israeli bombing, like a clip he showed of Gaza and Rafah being bombed in 2012. One video clip was from outside a Palestinian hospital, where you could see a constant influx of people coming in cars, ambulances and on foot as a result of the bombardment. Dr. Gilbert said they were mostly trauma patients, suffering from loss of limbs, internal wounds, and severe burns. He then showed an image of a 10-year old Palestinian girl. An F-16 fighter plane had bombed her home, killing 3 and seriously wounding 5 others.
Dr. Gilbert often made the point that the real heroes in this situation were the Palestinian doctors and nurses who were not only able to save lives, but who did so under horrendous conditions. He noted that the Israeli siege of Gaza and the economic blockade means that basic and necessary medical supplies rarely get in, so physicians must operate on patients in makeshift ways, often using the light from their cell phones. At one point, Dr. Gilbert showed an image of a Palestinian orderly who had an infectious smile on his face and was tasked with cleaning up the operating rooms in just 6 – 8 minutes before the next patient was brought in.
Throughout his presentation, the Norwegian doctor kept reminding the audience that all of this horror in Gaza was, “100% avoidable, that is was done by Israel and paid for by the US government.” The Norwegian physician then implored the audience to look up a poem written and performed by the Palestinian artist, Rafeef Ziadah. The poem is entitled, We Teach Life Sir.
Dr. Gilbert continued with images of Palestinian children he came in contact with during surgery. He showed a photo of a 7-year old boy who had been hit by shrapnel and who then died on the operating table. Another picture showed a 14-year old boy whose right leg had been blown off from shrapnel, by what according to Dr. Gilbert was most likely a new US-developed weapon, loaded onto a drone. This 14-year old Palestinian boy also died on the operating table. In a pained voice, Dr. Gilbert said the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza were the worst he had seen during his many visits. During that assault, he saw 400 patients in just one night.
After a brief moment of silence, the doctor proclaimed, “I am an unapologetic anti-Zionist and Gaza is a colonial project.” He continued by condemning the Israeli system of Apartheid and by quoting South African leader Nelson Mandela’s famous statement, “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Dr. Gilbert began practicing medical solidarity in 1982 in Beirut. He told the story of a Palestinian boy in the Lebanese city who has lost his arm from the bombing, and who was traumatized and bereft of family and security. A week later, he met with the boy and was amazed at how much he wanted Dr. Gilbert to teach him how to treat his own wounds. In addition, he said the boy would often sing Palestinian folk songs and encouraged other patients in the hospital. “He is the symbol of resilience,” said the Norwegian physician. The Arabic word he used was sumud; “steadfastness.”
The doctor stated that “There is a systemic Israeli attack on Gaza’s healthcare.” He showed a UN map of Israeli attacks on health care facilities in 2014, including 75 hospitals and clinics that had either been damaged or destroyed. Dr. Gilbert then went on to state that in 2014, the United Nations had created makeshift shelters that were mostly Palestinian schools. The Israelis were given the precise coordinates of these locations, but they bombed them anyway.
The Norwegian physician said that what is needed and what he was attempting to do was to provide “evidence-based solidarity.” What he meant by that is that we need clear documentation of the horrors Israelis have committed against Palestinians. He affirmed that “we need to read reports and books and look at research that will compel us to engage in solidarity.” Dr. Gilbert has been working on a research project on treating amputations, based on his work in Gaza. Some of the research was published in the British medical journal, The Lancet. Because of that report, Dr. Gilbert is now banned ever from going back to Gaza.
Dr. Gilbert told one last story, that of a young Gazan girl called Samar. In 2009, when she was 4 years old, Samar came into the hospital during that year’s Israeli assault. What was surprising about her was that she was so quiet. Eventually, Dr. Gilbert and his team discovered that she had a severe wound in the back and that her spinal cord was damaged. The reason why Samar was so quiet was that she could not feel anything. After performing some initial surgery on her, Dr. Gilbert came back to check on her and at that point she was crying and saying, “mama, mama, mama.” Dr. Gilbert remembers asking one of the Palestinian doctors, “how can this go on?” The doctor replied very calmly, “we have no human rights.”
However, Samar’s story was far from over. A BBC reporter found Samar’s father, informed him that Samar was alive if disabled, and told the story of how an Israeli tank has leveled the family’s home, and shot two of Samar’s siblings dead. Samar is now living in Brussels with her family. Although she is wheelchair-bound and will never be able to walk again, she is an excellent student and Dr. Gilbert regards her as the face of Palestinian resiliency.
Dr. Gilbert ended his talk by offering up some ideas for ways that we in the US can be in solidarity with Palestinians. First, he said that we cannot remain silent. The US just approved an increase in military aid to Israel. He then said we need to study and see who is profiting from this injustice. He suggested the online source whoprofits.org. More importantly, he encouraged people to join solidarity movements, like Students for Justice in Palestine or the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
One of the co-sponsors of the event, Healing Children of Conflict, is itself engaged in a Grand Rapids-based BDS campaign. For those interested in joining contact them at [email protected].