An important event took place at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on Wednesday. As people sat wiping their tears, Norway’s Dr Mads Gilbert took us through the horrors and bravery of A Night in Gaza during the launch of his eponymous book. He started by stating his goal of depicting the siege on Gaza as humanly as possible; as the disastrous reality that it is; as a situation we have an obligation to do something about.
The last eight years alone have seen four major Israeli offensives against the Gaza Strip which have killed thousands of Palestinians, yet international laissez-faire about their situation and peace has persisted. It was the excruciating pain of the people, as recounted by Dr Gilbert, which told the tale of the real orientalist undercurrents in the inhumane international politics facing Palestinians.
Civilians, including children, have been targeted, and the brutality is documented widely. We have witnessed entirely manmade destruction on a massive scale, which not only includes massacres, but also everyday apartheid-like conditions, involving severe limitations of movement. It has been allowed to happen by the international whitewashing of war crimes, as well as the deliberate obliteration of any trace of Palestinian history in their own occupied land. The Israeli-led blockade and border closures have meant that the Palestinians have been unable to rebuild their infrastructure. Children suffer from chronic malnutrition and three-quarters of them suffer anaemia.
Last year’s offensive killed more than 1,400 civilians, including 500 children. Despite so-called “warnings”, in which people were given 30 seconds to get out of their house, most were unable to do so. In any case, when they are under siege, where can they go?
Before its bomb attacks, Israel cut electricity supplies, making life very difficult for the hospitals in particular. Dr Gilbert explained how a long line of ambulances was lined up outside the hospital, with wounded and dying people on board. He praised the resilience of the Palestinians as a good lesson in crisis management and cooperation. He recalled the children who lost their parents in front of their eyes; who lost limbs and suffered terrible wounds from shrapnel which were almost impossible to treat. The Norwegian doctor and humanitarian gave the audience many accounts of brave children who had witnessed what no one should ever witness, and would insist on cleansing their wounds and seeing to their own injuries as much as they could, and then helping out as best they could.
Nurses, doctors, paramedics and rescue teams who leave their own families in times of crisis to help others show extreme bravery and skill. During Gilbert’s 30 years in emergency work he was in Lebanon during Israel’s attacks on West Beirut; its inhumane strategy then is similar to that used today, he said. The Israelis attack and then wait a few minutes for the rescue services to appear on the scene, and then attack again, to take the lives of those who risk all to help others. “Collapsing paramedics are a common sight,” he said. Most are given oxygen and go straight back to the life-threatening rescue work.
Mads Gilbert told us of the many lessons he has learnt and encouraged the audience to look on the Palestinians with admiration rather than pity, and support their right to resist the Israeli occupation. He encouraged people to get active and ask the Palestinians what they can do to help; to protest and change the political and media discourse that maintains the occupation and siege.
Despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon describing Gaza as a source of shame for the international community, no attempt has been made to solve its problems politically. The total impunity that Israel enjoys to carry out its massacres continues. Last year the international community, shamefully, closed its eyes to 51 days and nights of the merciless bombing of civilians; it was 100 per cent avoidable, 100 per cent manmade. The Geneva Convention should have protected civilians from attack, but didn’t.
Dr Mads Gilbert has done us all a favour by highlighting, once again, with his first-hand knowledge and experience, the death and destruction – in the name of a supposedly democratic state’s “self-defence” – that shames the world.
In 2014, 1,215 Palestinians, including 411 refugees (34 per cent), were displaced; 82 per cent of refugee displacements occurred in Area C and 18 per cent in East Jerusalem.
Out of a total of 600 structures demolished, 150 belonged to Palestine refugees, including more than 80 residential structures; 51 per cent of displaced refugees were women and girls while 50 per cent were children.
That Israel not only has complete impunity for these crimes, but also profits from them through its multi-billion dollar weapons industry demonstrates that asymmetric force is used against an occupied people. It also reveals the cold-hearted truth of how Europe and America perceive what Dr Mads Gilbert calls the “crushing of the resistance DNA”. The moral detachment and irresponsible attitude is due to orientalist indoctrination, still so regrettably pervasive in both media and politics. Palestinian children in Gaza have been starved for eight years, and victims of military offensives every other year thanks to political decisions that would be unacceptable in any European country.
Furthermore, the pity we have shown, on which NGOs arguably thrive, is counter-productive, said Dr Gilbert. We need action rather than cheques, which make certain parties feel better about themselves but which also makes them forget their responsibility to push for political mobilisation against the siege. We need memory to help retrieve the long strain of apartheid that has and is taking place on Palestinian land. And we need to engage ourselves politically, and encourage a local debate on an issue in which we are totally complicit by, if nothing else, the fact that we are aware of it. A serious self-examination is needed in the West, both politically as well within the NGO establishment that steps on many of the resilience qualities possessed by Palestinians to help themselves.
In closing, Mads Gilbert quoted the former President of Mozambique, Comrade Samora Machel: Solidarity is not charity but unity between allies fighting on different terrains towards the same objectives.
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