‘Assalamu Aleykum’, he starts followed by a cheerful audience replying ‘wa’aleykum el asalam’. This is how Dr Mads Gilbert chose to start what would end up being a very heavy talk on his many experiences in Gaza, with a focus on his work at Al Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, during Israel’s last round of massacres (so-called ‘Operation Protective Edge‘). Over the next two hours, Dr Gilbert would detail the horrors he saw, backed by numerous, excruciating images and videos he took of the patients and doctors who fell victims to the savagery of the Israelis last summer.
He started off by showing us a rescue mission he participated in in northern Norway, where he works as the head of the emergency medicine department at the University Hospital of North Norway and Professor of emergency medicine at the University of Tromsø. The rescue involved an injured skier who was stuck in a mountain in Norther Norway. The helicopter used was public, meaning that the rescue would not pay a cent for the operation. “This is what it’s like to live in a society where every life matters,” he said. “It is possible my friends, but we have to work for it.”
Dr Gilbert knew he wasn’t telling us anything new. Most of the audience members were either Palestinians -the event itself was organized by AUB’s Palestine Cultural Club – or long-time supporters of the Palestinian struggle for justice. In other words, we were ‘used’ to the suffering of the Palestinians, reading about it, or watching it, on a daily basis. From the brutal Occupation in the West Bank to the horrific blockade of Gaza, these were familiar sights. The daily humiliation of the Palestinians has become so institutionalized, so structured, that one wonders how the Occupiers manage to keep their basic humanity – and goodness knows they often dismiss it (read: How the Occupation of Gaza corrupts the Occupier by Owen Jones).
That being said, it didn’t stop the audience from weeping from time to time, only taking solace in the faces of Palestinians in Gaza who never seemed to completely give up: A woman trying to salvage what she could from what’s left of her home or a doctor carrying his co-worker exhausted after 3 days and nights of constant working.
He asked us not to take pictures of his patients, “for privacy and security reasons”. Throughout the 2h+ talk, he gave off a feeling of warmth, the kind that can only come from someone who truly saw the good in people. He insisted on reminding us that he wasn’t a hero, that the people of Gaza, his coworkers at the hospital and the average citizen resisting the Occupation on a daily basis through their extraordinary resilience in the face of grotesque injustice, were the real heroes. It was this kindness and modesty that allowed us to stay strong enough to look at the images of the mutilated children, and to endure the sounds of screaming babies.
But of course Dr. Gilbert is a hero. He has used his privileged position as a citizen of Norway to highlight the human dimension of a so-called “conflict” where one side is seeing its children tortured and murdered by the hundreds (literally) with the knowledge that the world powers are still standing on the side of their aggressors. Whereas such a situation would usually lead to complete helplessness, it is the Palestinians’ resilience, Dr. Gilbert insisted, that has moved him as a doctor and as a human being.
Conveniently, written on one slide are the words “Gaza teaches life, sir” in reference to Rafeef Ziadah‘s beautiful spoken word poem, “We Teach Life, Sir“. Ziadah embodied the spirit of why we fight for Palestine. We don’t do it just for the Palestinians who are being denied their basic human rights, we do it to teach humanity how to live.
On the 24th of September, Dr. Gilbert went to Brussels to testify in front of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, the people’s tribunal that was founded by Bertrand Russell himself to “prevent the crime of silence”. The Tribunal featured numerous witnesses who were present in Gaza and/or Israel, from Dr. Mohammad Abou-Arab (Surgeon from Gaza) to Max Blumenthal (American journalist), passing by Eran Efrati (Israeli investigative researcher, former IDF soldier), Dr Paul Behrens (Genocide expert), Ashraf Mashharawi (Palestinian filmmaker living as a refugee in Gaza) and Dr Gilbert, among others.
Dr. Gilbert’s talk focused on Israel’s targeting of Gaza’s health facilities, a war crime under international law. In 50 days, at least 220 schools, 278 mosques, and 62 hospitals in Gaza were damaged or destroyed by the Israelis, notably the complete destruction of Al Wafa Rehabilitation and Geriatric Hospital. Al Shifa hospital was also targeted and damaged. Watch his testimony below.
But back to the AUB talk. The outrage we felt collectively was palpable. So many crimes, so frequent, so open to the world, as if Israelis, after being the military occupiers for so long, know no other role than that of brutes. We know everything that went on in Gaza. The facts are not ‘debatable’. We know the names and faces and occupations of all of the civilians who were mercilessly mutilated, decapitated, tortured and murdered. We know the names of the whole families who were wiped out. One image was that of a family of 4, with the 2 kids, decapitated by a bomb, on top. Where’s the world’s outrage to Palestine’s ISIS?
The horrors of ISIS that you see on television have already been experienced 4 times by any Palestinian kid who was born after 2006. This is the 4th Israeli attack in 8 years. Every Gazan has already seen more wars before reaching adulthood than most of us will (hopefully) ever see. There is just too much savagery inflicted by the Israelis, too much boasting about their cruelty.
But rather than force us to succumb to helplessness, what Israel has done is multiply the number of activists a thousandfold. And we shall persevere for justice in Palestine.
I’ll end with a poem by the late Samih al-Qasim, “Travel Tickets.”
The day I’m killed,
my killer, rifling through my pockets,
will find travel tickets:
One to peace,
one to the fields and the rain,
to the conscience of humankind.
Dear killer of mine, I beg you:
Do not stay and waste them.
Take them, use them.
I beg you to travel.
سيَعثُر القاتل في جيبي
على تذاكِرِ السفر:
واحدة الى السلام
واحدة الى الحقول والمطر
الى ضمائر البشر
ارجوك الّا تُهمِل التذاكر
يا قاتلي العزيز
ارجوك ان تسافر
Important note: the above is based on my own recollection of the event, helped by notes taken by Ellen Francis. There are no direct quotations, the words and sentences put between quotation marks are paraphrases.