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Bernstein writes: "One of the most misreported stories of modern times is the battle the Palestinian people have been waging against the longest illegal occupation in modern history."

Dr. Mads Gilbert. (photo: AP)
Dr. Mads Gilbert. (photo: AP)

Slaughter Through a Stethoscope

By Dennis J. Bernstein, Reader Supported News

27 December 15


ne of the most misreported stories of modern times is the battle the Palestinian people have been waging against the longest illegal occupation in modern history. Indeed, when it comes to Israel and Palestine, the corporate press is a stenographer for the State Department and Israeli government and military sources. The Israeli war machine and its associated PR operations expend huge resources to actively prevent human rights workers and opposition voices from entering Israel, and then to discredit them if they come to press or the public eye.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate and one of the best known and most respected leaders of the South African anti-Apartheid movement, was prevented from entering Israel and the Gaza Strip to investigate a potential massacre of Palestinian civilians in 2006. It took Tutu over two years to finally get in. Richard Falk, noted legal scholar and formerly UN Special Reporter on Human Rights for the Occupied Territories, was also prevented from getting into Gaza to investigate potential war crimes in 2009, despite the fact that he was a high official of the UN.

With this de facto and de jure censorship in mind, Dr. Mads Gilbert, a self-described “political doctor” and practitioner of “solidarity medicine,” started to keep a journal of his experiences as an emergency room doctor during the last two massive Israeli attacks on the tiny Gaza Strip. In fact, Gilbert has done emergency medical work in Gaza for the last 15 years, and is the only Western medical doctor who worked clinically in Gaza’s hospitals during the last four Israeli attacks on Gaza (2006, 2009, 2012 and 2014). Dr. Gilbert’s day jobs are medical director at the Clinic of Emergency Medicine, University Hospital of North Norway, and professor at the University of Tromso (UiT), the Arctic University of Norway.

Journaling mass murder and chaos in Gaza

Dr. Gilbert’s emergency room journals provide the substance for two compelling books on exactly what it looked like from the ground in Gaza, as the Israeli military lay siege to an entrapped population of over a million Gazans. His first book, Eyes in Gaza, written with his colleague Erik Fosse, was an account of their experiences at al-Shifa during Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza during “Operation Cast Lead” (December 2008 - January 2009). His new book on the 2014 war, Night in Gaza, was released in June of 2015.

I spoke to the seasoned ER doctor during a recent visit to Northern California, where he was a guest speaker at a benefit for the peace group A Jewish Voice for Peace. Night in Gaza is set at al-Shifa Hospital, where Dr. Gilbert was working during Israel’s massive assault in the summer of 2014, which killed over 2100 civilians, more than one third women and children. Israel has since banned Gilbert from re-entering the blockaded zone.

Gilbert goes to Gaza “because I want to be an objective medical witness to the sharp edge of the Israeli military machine,” he said, “and because our sanitized mainstream media has turned into a lying machine for the Israelis. It’s not telling the truth, and it is distorting the realities. So I think there is such a need for alternative voices, and the other narrative – the narrative of the Palestinian people, which I try to tell through the stethoscope, through the medical eye, and through my account of the Palestinian experience.”

Dr. Gilbert bristles in response to the claims that the Israelis bend over backwards to avoid civilian casualties when they carry out their attacks in Gaza, the most densely populated place in the world. “Let’s look at the numbers from the last UN report, the commission that was established by the UN to investigate the last attack. If the Israelis, on the one hand, say that 90% of their bombs hit the intended target, which they say all the time ... how do they explain killing 2,151 people, 551 of them children and 299 of them Palestinian women? How on Earth can you claim that you tried to avoid civilian casualties, when you kill half a thousand children in 51 days?” he asked.

According to UN figures, 3000 children were wounded, 20,000 houses were destroyed, and 500,000 Gazans were displaced. The UN puts the number of children killed at just under five hundred.

Like so many critics of Israel, Dr. Gilbert is quick to point out how disproportionate the casualties are when the massive Israeli military, with an arsenal more powerful than most of the rest of the countries of the Western world, faces off with the locked-down, mostly unarmed Palestinian population living under a difficult occupation in Gaza. “Now, one Israeli child was killed in the 2014 siege, that is one Israeli child too many,” said Dr. Gilbert. “No Israeli children should get killed. Civilians should not be attacked. I condemn any Palestinian attack on civilians, as I do with Israeli attacks on civilians. But there is absolutely no question of the disproportionality between the attacks from the Israeli army on the Palestinian people in Gaza and the meager attempts from the Palestinian people to defend their people. How can you say that you bend over to protect the civilians when more than 50% of the Palestinian hospitals were damaged from the breaking of glass and falling down of the ceilings, some completely demolished, like the rehabilitation hospital, and the Rafah hospital,” he said. “How can you say that you protect the civilians when 60% of the primary health care centers were destroyed and many of them had to close? How can you say that you protect the civilians when 47 ambulances were more or less destroyed? How can you say that you protect the civilians when more than 100 health care workers were killed or injured? These numbers all from the UN report.”

And Dr. Gilbert believes that this is not collateral damage, not an accidental killing of civilians, but rather a real attempt by the Israelis to punish the Gazans for the slightest bit of resistance. “There is no doubt in my mind, and I’ve seen this, that the Israeli attacks during the last assault on Gaza were directed at the civilian population as well as against the Palestinians trying to defend their people,” said Gilbert. “More than 140 families had three or more family members killed in the same attack. It was as if the Israeli army were trying to eradicate the DNA of the Palestinian resistance. It was just horrible.”

Dr. Gilbert has published scholarly papers in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet on everyday life and medical care in the occupied territories and in Gaza. He says nothing can compare to the brutality of an Israeli attack on the Gaza strip. “What I mean by that is when you pound a civilian neighborhood with tons of high explosives and one-ton aerial bombs, and you know this is one of the most densely populated places on earth, you know you are bound to kill civilians: old women, children, civilian men. Whoever lives there, they cannot escape. There are no shelters in Gaza, there is no safe haven in Gaza, there is no way to get out of Gaza because of the siege.”

Dr. Gilbert is very clear when he talks about war crimes and slaughters, and he does not believe he is engaging in hyperbole. “When I say slaughter,” said Dr. Gilbert, pausing for emphasis, “I actually base it on what I saw.... You know the Israelis use the term ‘We are mowing the lawn’ when they attack Palestinians in Gaza. But it is a slaughter. We saw it. We saw the kids. I received families of four with children without heads, with their heads shot half off. All killed. And I have no other word for it than a slaughter of the civilians. They dropped leaflets to say they should run. Where should they go? They did their knock on roof with the drone rockets saying ‘Leave this house, because we’re going to bomb them.’ Where should they go? Out in the streets where the artillery shells are exploding? It’s almost impossible to describe this horrible feeling, this feeling of being in Hell when you are exposed to the Israeli rage, the military machine. It is so powerful and it’s so small a territory that they’re bombing, that this huge civilian loss is unavoidable. Seventy percent of those killed on the Palestinian side were civilians. Like in 2009, like in 2012, like in 2006. And I have been working at Shifa hospital during the last four Israeli attacks on Gaza. And it’s been a mounting brutality. It’s been a sharp increase of the amount of shells, bombs and the types of weapons used.”

Dr. Gilbert spent some time describing the kind of wounds they were treating and the bloody chaos as dozens of shredded bodies were being brought into the ER, many children missing body parts, some with their head completely blown off. “We saw many shrapnel wounds last time, because of the character of the attacks. It was a ground invasion. They shot a massive amount of artillery shells against these residential areas. You know, these multiple punctuations of the skin, with these small metal fragments from the castings of an artillery grenade, which has a very heavy specific weight made to cause maximum injury. These metal castings disintegrate in a swarm of shrapnel that travels at very high speed. And you know the energy is half the mass times the velocity to the second power. So the higher the speed, the higher the weight, the greater the energy to destroy. It cuts through your clothes, it cuts through your skin, your subcutaneous fat, through your muscles and into the body cavities, the skull cavity, the chest cavity, the abdominal cavity. And in there, these fragments will continue to move until they have delivered all their energy. And they cut open blood vessels, organs, and they break bones.”

“So when you are exposed to this swarm of metal fragments,” said Gilbert, “there is a high risk that you will have many bleedings, many disturbed organs and blood vessels, and you have, of course, terrible pain, but you bleed to death within a limited amount of time, depending on the largeness of these shrapnel. Also, people came in with limbs cut off, more or less completely, because some of the shrapnel are larger like a knife. There was a lot of crushing injuries from buildings just collapsing from the bombardment.”

“Do I believe that Israelis are killing innocents on purpose? You have to ask the Israelis if they are killing innocent civilians on purpose,” said the outraged ER doctor. “But you know they have the coordinates for every single building in Gaza. They know exactly who is living where. They know exactly which phone numbers to call. There is not a centimeter of Gaza that they haven’t mapped and recorded, and they know the purpose of the building,” said Gilbert, “so, you know, they know what they are bombing.”

Dr. Gilbert recalled one terrible moment that stands out above the rest in terms of abject violence. It was the Israeli attack on Shejaiya on July 20, 2014. He said, “The brutal and deadly massacre also demonstrated the Israeli military pattern and practice of bombing ambulances and targeting emergency medical workers who were clearly identified as such. The morning of the Shejaiya massacre, we heard screams from the disaster reception area, the emergency room. And an ambulance came wheeling in ... a young Palestinian paramedic who had been killed in Shejaiya, in his uniform, in his ambulance, together with a journalist and patients on board. The ambulance was one of the 47 ambulances targeted by the Israeli army, and all on board were killed. The paramedic was married. He had a small girl of four years, I think. And, of course, it was extremely painful to see this fighter for justice, this health worker, risking his life to save his people being so mercilessly killed in his uniform, on call. And it reminded me of the helplessness you feel, when this mighty power disregards international law, disregards the Geneva Conventions and has the world’s superpower number one, the US, the United States of America, to support it continuously. President Obama knew from hour to hour what was going on. They knew the numbers of killed, from day to day, from hour to hour. They knew from the satellite pictures what kind of buildings the Israelis were bombing. They bombed 220 schools.”

Dr. Gilbert said he continues to do the work, because someone has to bear witness to the killing and try to blow the whistle for the rest of the world to take notice. “I feel a duty to side with the Palestinian people. I think we should all remember the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, who says that if you, in a situation of oppression, maintain a position of neutrality, you always end on the side of the oppressor. I don’t want to be on the side of the occupier.”

And then there were the scores of drones, weaponized and otherwise, “that hunted Gazans 24-7, where they slept,” Dr. Gilbert said, “where they worked and ate, at schools, in hospitals – Gazans were vulnerable at all times. You’d hear the drones around the clock. One, two, three, four ... you hear the humming. Some of them are surveillance drones; some of them carry hell-fire rockets, or spike rockets. You don’t know when you’ll be tracked.”

“There was one night I was walking because I was going to where I lived,” he recalled, “just across the street from Shifa, to pick up some stuff, and to change my clothes. And suddenly I heard the drone above my head and I felt, you know, they’ve probably spotted me. I’m all alone in the street. The streets of Gaza were completely deserted, because it was so dangerous to be outside. And I got this completely choking feeling of being targeted. And I felt they’re going to hit me now. And the next thought was, of course, to try to imagine what it means to be a Palestinian child living in Gaza.”

Dennis J. Bernstein is the executive producer of Flashpoints, syndicated on Pacifica Radio, and is the recipient of a 2015 Pillar Award for his work as a journalist whistleblower. He is most recently the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.

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