By Dr Ang Swee Chai
I returned to Gaza in January 2009 when it sustained the worst attack since the Six Day war in 1967. The Christmas week of 2008 was rudely interrupted by shocking scenes of Gaza being bombed by land, air and sea. In just three short weeks, 1,400 Palestinians were killed, nearly half of them children. In this tiny part of Occupied Palestine, there were 5,450 casualties, severe enough to require operations; many remain in a critical state today. Over 21,000 homes were destroyed, 4,000 of which were flattened to rubble by the deployment of implosion bombs. Other buildings were not spared – 40 mosques, hospitals, clinics, schools, even United Nations ware-houses. The scale of attacks matched that meted out to the Lebanon in 1982, or indeed, during the 2006 invasion, with similar intensity, ferocity and breaches of international law.
I have known Gaza since the days of the first ‘Intifada’, twenty years ago. Indeed, ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’ was written during the six months I had to spend waiting for the Israelis to grant my first visa into Gaza. A surgeon was urgently needed to treat the untold injuries sustained by unarmed Palestinians during that uprising, and I volunteered.
The enforced wait proved productive; it enabled me time to pause my work in Beirut, produce these memoirs and then head for the Gaza strip when the visa finally came in 1988. I spent the next six months as the only foreign orthopaedic surgeon in the Anglican hospital of Al-Ahli in Gaza city.
I first met Palestinians in 1982 when I responded to an international appeal for help following Israel’s invasion of the Lebanon. I was warned by my Church these people were ‘terrorists’ and the Philistines of the Bible. In the refugee camps of Beirut, however, I found camp people who were warm and generous and who kept telling me of a home their young had never seen. Of a place called Palestine they were forced to flee in 1948. And of their determination to return one day. From Beirut, they would return to their Jerusalem. That their wish to exercise their right of return remained undimmed through the passing years and that the Palestinian nation was indivisible. Those in the diaspora was one with those under occupation.
They told me the hospital they named ‘Akka’ in Shatilla camp was to remember the coastal city many came from. And ‘Gaza’ the hospital in Sabra camp I worked in was named after the tiny strip of land just 147 square miles in Palestine.
In September of that year, thousands of unarmed men, women and children of the camps were massacred in Sabra and Shatilla. That massacre forced me to acknowledge Palestinians existed and their story of exile was true. This book was written in dedication to those who died and to all survivors who remained steadfast in their determination to return to Palestine.