Two years ago, Dr. Mads Gilbert (right) told me that his experience in Gaza during Israel’s assault in 2009 was the “most horrific experience” of his life, a grim honor previously held by Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which Gilbert also witnessed. Gilbert spent over two weeks as one of the only foreign doctors in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, and worked at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
Currently a professor of medicine at the University of North Norway, Gilbert is the co-author of the book Eyes in Gaza, which chronicles what he witnessed during the Israeli assault and invasion.
Today, Gilbert says Gaza remains in ruins, betrayed by the international community. The blockade of Gaza remains, and Israeli air strikes continue to kill civilians.
Gilbert, who is known for his deeply personal and riveting presentations on the Gaza Strip, recently concluded a speaking tour in the United States.
I caught up with Gilbert before his talk at Columbia University. We discussed his recent impressions of Gaza, the decision by the International Criminal Court to reject a probe into war crimes committed during Cast Lead, and much more.
Alex Kane: So, what brings you back to New York?
Mads Gilbert: Actually, it’s my sixth invited speaking tour on Gaza since Operation Cast Lead. This time, it’s a speaking tour of ten days to Washington, obviously New York, up north, to Madison and a number of universities. The tour is organized by Jennifer Loewenstein and the Carol Chomsky Memorial Foundation. So they are the ones that invited me, actually. So I think it’s interesting that I’ve been here six times on speaking tours, speaking at a large number of universities, in church groups, at the Sabeel conference, and so forth, and I’ve been twice to Canada on a week-long stretch of tours and twice to the UK on week-long speaking tours. So it amounts to, all together, ten speaking tours on Gaza.
AK: And have you been back to Gaza since your time spent during Cast Lead?
MG: Yes. In fact in August 2009, with the manuscript for the families to review and to review the pictures. And I was back in January. I came the same route in and out as I did during Operation Cast Lead. So I traveled in through Rafah on New Year’s Eve, to follow the footsteps of the mission during Operation Cast Lead, and went up to Shifa Hospital, met with my colleagues, did some clinical work, had meetings, gave lectures, and most importantly, met many of the patients that I had treated.
AK: What are your most recent impressions of Gaza?
MG: My impressions as of 2012—that’s what I’m going to speak about tonight. The human rights abuses of the Israeli government, of the Israeli army, continues.
There is widespread lack of human security, ongoing killings, military attacks, week by week people are getting killed and injured. The siege is as brutal as it has been, resulting in lack of everything, from construction materials, to power—the power cuts are more extensive than they have been in a long time because of the lack of diesel and gasoline to fuel the generators. The lack of solid waste trucks makes it almost impossible to collect the solid waste. In Gaza City, they have contracted 280 donkey cart drivers to manually handle the solid waste. Many of the sewage cleaning installations are not working because they lack spare parts and maintenance, so sewage is pumped into the Mediterranean. And of course there is widespread deficiencies in nutrition. The malnutrition is well documented, and it causes anemia and stunting in children, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, but it’s more pronounced in Gaza.
The people of Gaza maintain their dignity and their humanity, I would say. I was well received with great hospitality. People don’t weep, they don’t beg, they don’t complain, but of course life is exceedingly difficult. Many are so tired and sick of the siege and the ongoing bombing, and they really want to see an end to that. Also, they want to see Palestinian unity. Many of the patients that participated in the treatment, they need follow-up, they need rehabilitation. Some of them need surgery. And of course the health care system in Gaza is quite overburdened by the number of people needing medical support, and the siege takes its tool on equipment, maintenance, spare parts, everything you can imagine. So, taken all together, the situation has not become easier. The attacks continue, but the people will not give up. The 600 tunnels are the lifelines of the influx of goods and animals to Gaza. The smuggler economy will increase the level of costs for all types of goods, so there is increasing poverty, and more and more people are living under the line as extreme poverty as defined by the UN.
AK: And obviously you’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the victims of Israeli airstrikes. Recently, there was a decision by the International Criminal Court that essentially said there will not be a war crimes tribunal for Operation Cast Lead. What’s your response to that?
MG: I very much regret the decision by the ICC. I’m saddened, and in fact, quite provoked by it, because I think the ICC had a golden opportunity to tell the world, and to tell Israel, that they are not exempt from international law and the laws of war. As it now stands, because of the lack of formalities—that is, an international recognition of Palestine as a state—they use this as an excuse to let Israel off the hook, which I very much regret because it sends a signal to the superpowers and the military forces of the world that, you can get away with it.
And Israel always gets away with its war crimes, which is really demoralizing, because the types of warfare that Israel is waging, with siege and collective punishment, with starvation and with the destruction of civilian infrastructure in occupied territories is really taking us back to medieval times, yet they claim to be one of the most moral armies in the world. And this contradiction does not fit together. So the only thing we could have hoped for was that all the reports on the table—the Goldstone report, the Arab League fact finding mission, the B’Tselem report (PDF), the Amnesty International report and our book—should have served as strong testimonies and documentation sources that there was no way that the ICC could not open a case against Israel. As it now stands, nobody will be held responsible for 1,400 killed and 5,400 injured, and nobody is accountable for the ongoing siege of Gaza. And this, of course, is a heavy burden of responsibility for President Obama and your government.
AK: When you recently went back to Gaza, did you speak with some of the patients you saw during Cast Lead?
AK: And, in general, have they been treated? Have they been rehabilitated in Gaza?
MG: Some of them have. Some of them were evacuated out of Gaza during January 2009, like Samar ‘Abd Rabbo, the little girl who was shot in the back by Israeli forces, her two sisters being killed on the spot. She’s in Brussels for rehabilitation, paralyzed from the nipples down. Other children are staying behind in Gaza, obviously needing rehabilitation.
As I said, the condition of the health care system is that of certain insufficiencies due to the siege and the lack of capacity. And you have to remember the Israelis bombed health institutions, and due to the lack of building material, few of these institutions have been properly constructed. So the total capacity is reduced. So I would say that, one thing is the physical rehabilitation, which the Palestinians are taking good care of, as much as they can. The other thing is the psychological rehabilitation, and the psychosocial rehabilitation, and we know from a large body of studies that the trauma of war, and the trauma of losses, individual losses, collective losses, can be efficiently healed if the victims are respected on their own strategy of coping—that they are listened to, and that they have the potential to talk about their experience and the narrative. And the third factor, that life is brought back to normality as soon as possible. So the siege serves today as a continuous, “do not return to normality” situation, in particular for the youngsters and the children in Gaza.
This is a double punishment: you had the attack, the onslaught, the killing, the maiming, the amputations—and now they are denied the right to return to normal life because of the siege and the ongoing bombing and lack of reconstruction. By “going back to normal life,” I mean normal schooling, normal kindergarten, normal studies. And we have to remember, the Palestinians are now 1.6 million people [in Gaza], it remains that 60%, approximately, are 18 and below, and the average age is 17.6 years. So this lack of psychosocial and psychological rehabilitation may be one of the most devastating effects of the very deliberate, very cynical, very in detail, planned siege of Gaza.
AK: And when you talk to some of the people injured from the events of Cast Lead, do they think about the ICC? What are those conversations like?
MG: There’s not much hope—a lot of disappointment, and a lot of quite relevant criticism of the West and the US. I think the overall impression is that the Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank and in the diaspora—I just came back from Beirut, visiting the camps—they have a feeling that, quote on quote, they have no human rights. They feel excluded from the global community covered by human rights regulations. They feel overlooked by the European and Western powers with regards to their just human rights. And they have little confidence in us in the North because they have been betrayed so many times, and they have seen so many times that Israel, the occupying power, is precisely getting away with their war crimes and all their apartheid tactics and policies against the Palestinian people. So my impression is that they do feel quite betrayed by those who call themselves democratic states, like the United States.
However, being a solidarity worker, it is encouraging that so many people around the world continue their solidarity work and actions. And they feel very strongly about that. They say, that is the light, those are the stars on the dark night over Gaza. The light from the solidarity movement, be it in the United States, Canada or Norway, and boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, the demonstrations and all the good people trying to come to their assistance.
And when you talk to Palestinians like my old colleagues at Shifa Hospital, they actually sum up Cast Lead as probably most the most brutal and extensive attack since the Nakba in 1948. And so it is provocative and heartbreaking to see that Gaza remains in ruins: shattered, destroyed and not rebuilt.
This all comes together in the new Dahiya doctrine in Israel, which they formulated during the invasion of Lebanon in 2006. And this Dahiya doctrine simply is a deliberate use of extremely excessive force in order to destroy as much infrastructure and kill as many as possible in any location, village, city, neighborhood, from where shots are fired against Israel or Israeli troops, in order to deter the population. But not so much the population as the Palestinian leaders.
Actually, Israeli officials have said, “we will bomb Gaza decades into the past.” And they will make reconstruction so painful that any Palestinian leader will think twice before they try to shoot at Israel. Now, this strategy, the Dahiya doctrine—we precisely document it in the book—is precisely what we saw and are seeing in Gaza, because the denial of reconstruction is part of the collective punishment, which at the end of the day, has the goal of breaking the backbone of the resistance, of the national resistance, of the willingness to confront the occupation, of the willingness to say, “we will not yield, we will not surrender” to the occupier.
So I think there is a twist on the occupation brutality through this Dahiya doctrine for the last six years.
AK: What do you make routine flare-ups of violence, which last time occurred withIsrael assassinating the leader of the Popular Resistance Committee? What kind of effect does it have on the people of Gaza?
MG: Well, to take the latter first, for the people of Gaza it means no return to human security, and human security is a very important precondition for health. So, as a medical doctor, in the construct of human security, I include the right not to be killed, not to be threatened, not to be frightened. And all of these elements are used by the Israeli occupation forces to intimidate and to keep the population insecure. So these flare-ups are extremely destructive to the civilian population in particular, all these families with children.
We have to go back to 2008 to recall that the ceasefire from July 2008 until the 4th of November 2008, was 100% effective. Nobody got killed on either side. And this truce was brokered by Egypt, between the Hamas government in Gaza and the Israeli government. And that is an important truth, that political solutions are hand. You can trust the Palestinians, they can control the shooting of rockets and mortars. You can trust the Israelis when they want to be trusted, that they will not attack during the truce. Why did that truce break down? Well, as we all know, on the 4th of November 2008, when your president was elected and all the attention in the world was directed towards the United States, Israeli commanders went into southern Gaza and killed a number of Hamas officials, on purpose breaking the truce. And of course, the Palestinians were shooting back, because they have to defend themselves, and this was the excuse and the explanation for why the attack started on the 27th of December. But in fact Israel had been planning Operation Cast Lead. They say so themselves.
So I think this shows us two things. Political solutions are at hand, if Israel wants it. Number two, they don’t want it. If Israel had wanted to negotiate some sort of solution with the Palestinians, including the leadership of Hamas, they would have succeeded. I think the current Israeli government, and current political parties in charge, are very cynical about the expansion of Israel. They have their plan to expand, expand, expand, and they try all the time to have their actions go just under the radar of the international community’s outcry, the international isolation radar. So, for example, the lack of food in Gaza, happens so that there will not be a starvation disaster in Gaza, but just hunger. They attack regularly with great precision, not more than the US can tolerate, but enough to intimidate, kill and maim Palestinians in Gaza.
AK: Is there anything else you want to add for readers?
MG: Number one: don’t give up. The Palestinians teach us not to give up. Travel to occupied Palestine, see their situation on the ground. Just by going to the occupied West Bank, any American who is in doubt will immediately understand what the apartheid regime is all about.
And our most important obligation is to do our homework politically. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is getting stronger and stronger every day, particularly in the US. Work through local communities, be active, read, study and organize. Organize BDS campaigns. And inform, educate and teach other people.
I think the tides are changing in the United States. Ten years ago, it would have been unheard of that I would have been invited six times, and twice to Canada. I have full houses. Zionists are there, Campus Watch, Hillel, but they are remarkably soft spoken. I think they are miscalculating the American public. Now, you are betrayed by your media, because you’re not given the truth. That’s why I find it so important to inform and to lecture. By sending people to the occupied West Bank and also to Gaza and to the diaspora, young people in the United States will be committed to the cause of Palestine, which is also our cause, because without an end to the occupation of Palestine, there will be no peace in the Middle East. And if there is no peace in the Middle East, there is no peace in the world. This is the mother of all wars currently. And the double standards of the West have to be uncovered by us, on moral grounds, political grounds, historical grounds, and simply, our subjective interest in not spending all these billions of taxpayer money on Israeli weapons and on the occupation.
I told the grandfather of Jumana Samouni I was going to the US when I was in Gaza. I said, “what do you want me to tell the US?” He said, “tell them your tax money is killing us.” That’s the bottom line. You have a responsibility here in the US.