Thousands across Gaza live with severe injuries: youth war amputees, mothers severely burned by phosphorus bombs, countless Palestinians coping with physiological wounds, all injuries stemming from the disaster wrought on Gaza by the Israeli military assault in the winter of 2008/2009.
And war injuries remain a consistent reality in 2010.
“Every night, even last night, Israeli warplanes bombed Gaza,” said Muawiya Hassanein, director-general of ambulance and emergency services for the Palestinian Ministry of Health, in an interview from Gaza City during the recent strikes.
“Many were injured… there are serious injuries and those people are being treated right now at the European Hospital in Gaza.”
Serious injuries in Gaza and no major media headlines around the world are a common pattern, with violence normalized, death or injuries regularly inflicted on civilians there virtually ignored.
Constant war injuries are having a devastating impact, with many youth attending school in Gaza with missing limbs, or with shrapnel embedded in their bodies, injuries resulting from ongoing Israeli military violence against the civilian population.
“Many in Gaza have physiological trauma and need support,” Hassanein said. “Thousands of children have serious trauma or are living with critical injuries that impact their lives, their education, their families and most importantly their dreams for the future, and no Israeli [officials] have been held accountable for these war crimes.”
As headlines across the world buzzed over moves to push forward a “peace process” in the Middle East, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to the AIPAC convention, affirming unwavering political backing from the Obama administration for Israeli government policy of besiegement on Gaza, relatively little media attention was drawn to the sustained physical and sociological suffering stemming from Operation Cast Lead.
In contrast, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon openly expressed “solidarity” with the people of Gaza during a visit to the territory, condemning the ongoing Israeli blockade as causing “unacceptable suffering” for the Palestinian people.
Despite political appeals from the highest international levels to end the siege, Israeli authorities continue to collectively punish the 1.5 million Palestinian people in Gaza, leading to a growing humanitarian crisis in a place that John Holmes, the U.N. under secretary general for Humanitarian Affairs, called “a large open-air prison.”
Medical solidarity in Gaza
As Israeli missiles fell on Gaza in the days after Christmas 2008, Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor, flew to Egypt with diplomatic backing from Norway, in order to enter Gaza and provide emergency support to Palestinian medical services tending to the disaster.
Direct accounts from internationals on the ground in Gaza on the bombardment are limited as Israel moved to cut-off access to Gaza throughout Operation Cast Lead. International reporters, activists and aid workers were barred from entering the Palestinian territory.
Thus it was an exception that Gilbert entered Gaza with political support from the Norwegian government, who negotiated his access with Egyptian authorities. Gilbert was but one of a handful of internationals who made it through during the Israeli bombardment.
This firsthand account detailing the Israeli assault on Gaza was the focus for Gilbert’s recent university lecture tour throughout North America. Over a year since the Israeli bombardment, Gilbert focused not only on massacres unleashed on the people of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead but also on the ongoing Israeli airstrikes and sustained social trauma stemming from serious injuries of war.
“The losses for families are extensive, painful and long lasting, you never forget that your child was killed by a human hand,” said Gilbert in an interview during a visit to Montreal. “This was not a natural disaster, this was not a tsunami or an earthquake, this was a 100 per cent manmade disaster, pre-planned and executed in the most meticulous way by Israeli commanders under the leadership of the Israeli government.”
Gilbert’s firsthand accounts from Gaza, largely based on experiences working at Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest medical center in Gaza, is clearly rooted in principles of international solidarity, articulated by a medical doctor who first experienced an Israeli onslaught during the 1982 siege of Beirut, tending to war wounded in the Lebanese capital when over 10,000 civilians lost their lives.
It is the humanity of Gaza that Gilbert focuses on, providing direct accounts on tragedy from a medical perspective, like the Samouni family, who lost 29 members to Israeli attacks according to multiple human rights investigations. In conveying his experiences, Gilbert focuses on the resilience of Gaza’s people, outlining a common refrain, “[they] don’t need our pity, but our solidarity and support.”
Beyond the moving details on the struggle for life waged by the hundreds of wounded and dying Palestinians passing through Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza last winter, Gilbert also focused on the sustained impacts of the Israeli besiegement policy that today receives little international attention.
“All children in Gaza are traumatized by the ongoing siege,” he said. “The long-term impacts of wounds inflicted on the Palestinian survivors in Gaza are painful to live with, because war wounds are physically painful and the rehabilitation resources in Gaza are quite limited due to the siege.”
“So for young children with war wounds and physiological trauma, it is extremely important to return to normal life, to go to school, to see their friends, to find some sort of reality after the mayhem of the Israeli onslaught,” Gilbert continued, “but due to the ongoing siege stunting is increasing among children, malnutrition is rising, widespread anaemia, all this from a manmade hunger and malnutrition, enforced by Israel with the full support of the U.S. — How can we accept this in 2010?”
Ongoing Israeli besiegement of Gaza
Beyond widespread condemnation of Israel’s recent moves to construct new colonies in East Jerusalem, little institutional political outcry has been focused on the ongoing military siege of Gaza, a mass imprisonment of 1.5 million people in a tiny Mediterranean territory, coordinated by the governments of Egypt and Israel.
Water supplies in Gaza are increasingly scarce, over 80 per cent of water available is below the minimum quality standard as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) and recently the Gaza Coastal Municipal Water Utility stressed that unless urgent action is taken the supply of water fit for human use in Gaza will be depleted in five-to-10 years.
Under the siege on Gaza, constant electricity cuts by Israel have lead to inconsistent power for sewage treatment plants, while key industrial parts needed to treat contaminated water are barred from entering the territory. Slowly, open-air sewage lakes are steeping into Gaza’s underground aquifers; five Palestinians were killed after a sewage treatment pool collapsed in 2007, flooding a village north of Gaza City.
Gaza’s landscape is shaped by war, many buildings destroyed last winter by Israeli missiles last winter remain in ruins, while social infrastructure is increasingly unstable, key materials for educational institutions are blocked from entering under the siege, food supplies remain consistently low, malnutrition is widespread. Thousands in Gaza tending to war-related injuries are a constant reminder of the unhealed wounds, both individual and collective, stemming from Operation Cast Lead.
“Child amputees, people in wheelchairs have become a norm in Gaza, it is something that you see on a daily basis, people are suffering,” said Palestinian activist and academic Haidar Eid in an interview from Gaza City.
“[In March] in Gaza we commemorated the 1,000 day of this illegal siege that blocks people from receiving basic medical treatment, we are facing a policy of collective punishment, illegal under international law.”
“In past years, the international community has done nothing concrete to force Israel to lift the siege and to end the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza,” said Eid.
“The international community should force Israel to lift the siege through sanctions, and act decisively against the Israeli government in the same manner that the world acted against the apartheid regime against South Africa in the late 1980s, through economic sanctions and political isolation.”
Samar Aldaghma, a Palestinian journalist and mother currently studying in Montreal, survived the Israeli military bombardment and in conversation on Gaza quickly focuses on the impacts of the siege on Palestinian war wounded.
“So many people had serious burns after the Israeli bombing, actually third-degree burns, also some people have serious infections from these burns,” recounts Aldaghma. “All the surgery and antibiotics necessary to treat such wounds aren’t widely available in Gaza due to the siege, thousands of wounded living right now in Gaza Strip can’t access necessary treatment because they are living in the biggest prison in the world.
“Many with amputations, those who lost a leg, an arm, an eye, unfortunately can’t access artificial extremities. Many children who are seriously injured actually feel [too] ashamed or shy to go to school, say, with one hand. So many children become depressed, although their families and communities generally are giving so much moral support — special awards for youth with war disabilities are common at local schools.”
Gaza, global media and action
Headlines on Palestine are generally focused on politicking in the halls of power, on theatrical storms between political leaders in Tel Aviv and Washington. Lost in the media buzz are the recent wave of Israeli strikes on Gaza and the ongoing social impacts of the Israeli siege.
“Lack of international media coverage [on] the latest air strikes impacts the overall scene of the Gaza Strip,” says Rami Almeghari, Palestinian writer. “At a time [when] Gaza continues to suffer from [the] ongoing Israeli blockade and frequent Israeli army attacks, the world media has diverted attention from the conditions here.”
Attention on Gaza today is critical, and moving the spotlight away from a political “peace process” that until now only provides diplomatic cover for Israeli apartheid is key. Lack of attention on Gaza, argued Almerghari, “relieves Israel [from] the pressure that is amounting [from] the U.N. Human Rights Council’s condemnation of Israel for atrocities in Gaza in January 2009.”
As international solidarity activists gathered from around the world in Cairo this past winter for the Gaza Freedom March, an attempt to collectively breach the Israeli siege via Egypt, global attention was drawn briefly to the besiegement, although the incredible grassroots effort to enter Gaza was eventually blocked by Egyptian authorities.
Stemming from this march was the historic Cairo Declaration, issued in response to the ongoing siege, and providing a platform for global action in solidarity with Gazans.
As the siege on Gaza continues and in anticipation of an international day of action to support the global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign on Palestinian Land Day, the Cairo Declaration provides clear points on which to continue to build the growing global movement in solidarity with Palestine.