While the world has abandoned Gaza, its doctors have done the opposite. They are our heroes | Ghada Ageel

Ella Castle

In the movie Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino plays a highly strung football coach. In a key scene, he gives a speech about how “life is a game of inches” and how when “you add up all those inches that’s gonna make the difference between livin’ and dyin’”. For Pacino, […]

In the movie Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino plays a highly strung football coach. In a key scene, he gives a speech about how “life is a game of inches” and how when “you add up all those inches that’s gonna make the difference between livin’ and dyin’”.

For Pacino, the rousing words are a figure of speech. For the people of Gaza – particularly its doctors, nurses and medical staff – these words are a matter of fact. A single step, a single decision, can mean the difference between life and death. After 48 days of war, Israel and Hamas have agreed to a truce for four days. But given the immense devastation of their civilian infrastructure, particularly the hospitals, this “respite” will be nothing of the sort for the people of Gaza.

Take the case of Dr Yousef Mahdi, a doctor in al-Mahdi maternity hospital in Gaza City, northern Gaza. I know the family and have spoken to his sister on the phone. On 12 November, in between the long, intense hours in this private maternity hospital he decided to take a break. He stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. Suddenly, the hospital was hit by a missile. Dr Mahdi was wounded but he survived.

Inside the hospital were his brothers, also doctors, Basel and Raed, along with their family and many patients. There would also have been many displaced people, who seek refuge in hospitals. Dr Mahdi looked for survivors. All the corpses in the rubble were unrecognisable. Dozens of family members, patients and staff lay beneath the rubble. Finding no one alive, his sister told me, he sat on the ruins in complete shock and waited for the dawn to come.

Let me say their names. Dr Basel Mahdi, Dr Raed Mahdi and his wife Iman, together with their seven adult and young children: Samira, a dentist and soon-to-be bride; Yousef, who had just finished his master’s degree; Ahmad, a medical school student; and Amer, Abderrahmane, Mohamed and Mira, all schoolchildren.

Dr Yousef Mahdi.
Dr Yousef Mahdi.

That morning Dr Mahdi embarked on a journey with a group fleeing southwards. They crossed paths with a tank. Having nothing but his white doctor’s coat, he removed it, placed it on a stick, and waved it and walked while the tears streamed down his face.

He told his sister that Israeli soldiers opened fire on the group. Some were wounded, but were left unaided in the disarray. For Dr Mahdi, the weight of guilt was compounded by his medical training. It took him five hours of walking and running until he reached the south. I have not heard any news of him since.

In his final Facebook post, Dr Mahdi’s brother, Basel, conveyed a poignant message: “No one will die ahead of time. But some will die lacking dignity, lacking humanity and lacking principles. Shame.” In Arabic, the name Basel means “valiant”. This is a man who lived up to his name by always standing tall.

There is an added layer of trauma for the Palestinian medical community because their life’s purpose is to heal. As with all hospitals in Gaza, civilians flocked to al-Mahdi seeking refuge. The hospital was a shell of its former self, transformed into a desolate structure, stripped of medications, electricity, water and oxygen. More than 200 medical staff have been killed across Gaza.

Unable to comprehend the world’s impotence, I am fixated on imagining the wounded dying in hospital for lack of medication or those left bleeding to death, unable to reach a hospital. Even those who reach hospitals find their luck has run out. Very often the only equipment the hospitals have functioning are the heart defibrillators.

Another message from Gaza. On 17 November, during the evacuation of al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, Dr Ahmed Abu Nada shared his testimony on Facebook.

“Once called a hospital, today it stands merely as a building that has borne witness to thousands of stories of pain and tragedy inside its walls. A hospital transformed into a structure devoid of electricity, water and oxygen. It becomes a place that ambulances fear to reach.

“My patients, in this hospital reduced to a mere building, I am, the vascular surgeon, extremely sorry for not being able to treat you. I can no longer witness your breath cease before my eyes. I am not good in shrouding your lifeless body. I am departing al-Shifa hospital and acknowledge the efforts of the German embassy in facilitating our exit. This was our final opportunity for coordinated departure. My heart is heavy with sorrow and pain lamenting to Allah (God) my weakness and helplessness.”

It is unsurprising that as doctors are being blown to pieces some are finding themselves with no option but to leave. But even the evacuation process from some Gaza hospitals is very dangerous. On 18 November, Dr Yousef Barakat was involuntarily evacuated from al-Shifa hospital along with some of the medical team and headed south. Then he disappeared. As I pen this piece, no one knows if he is dead or alive. His brother Mohammed wrote multiple calls via Facebook asking people if they have any information.

I recently received a message from one of the lucky ones. It was from Dr Ghassan Abu Sitta (a British Palestinian), who had served in Gaza hospitals for 42 days, working nonstop in impossible situations, and who witnessed the massacre at al-Ahli Arab hospital. He left Gaza through the Rafah crossing. He wrote: “I left Gaza yesterday. My heart and my soul are still there. With my patients. I remember their names and their wounds. I will fight until they receive the treatment they need and the justice they deserve. My heart is broken in ways I never knew was possible.”

One of the most basic principles of international law is that civilian infrastructure must be protected. This is especially the case with hospitals. As the World Health Organization has said: “The world cannot stand silent while these hospitals, which should be safe havens, are transformed into scenes of death, devastation and despair.”

Sadly, however, the world is standing still and silent. Our postwar human rights architecture has disintegrated in front of our eyes as the world’s most powerful nations tolerate Israel’s impunity. With those who do speak out, we see persecution when they stand up for human rights and dignity.

Four days of truce do not erase seven weeks of bloodshed. Millions of hearts are being broken each day inside and outside Gaza.

Palestinian doctors are our heroes, symbols of strength, poise and hope. At a time when the world has abandoned Gaza and the Palestinians, they have done the opposite. In their words and through their actions, Gaza’s doctors are teaching us never to forget and, more importantly, never to give up. Let their colleagues around the world answer this call for justice.

  • Ghada Ageel, a third-generation Palestinian refugee, worked as a translator for the Guardian in Gaza from 2000 to 2006. She is visiting professor at the department of political science at the University of Alberta

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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