Eyewitness in Gaza: An Interview with Dr. Mads Gilbert

 Dr. Mads Gilbert speaks to a packed room at Columbia University Feb. 3.  PHOTO:  Alex Kane

Dr. Mads Gilbert manages to bounce around the streets of Manhattan with a bright green track jacket on, smiling and taking photos.  The Norwegian doctor’s infectious energy betrays the dark places his stories take you.

Dr. Gilbert has worked in conflict zones for decades.  For over twenty-five years, the most horrific experience in his life had been volunteering in a makeshift hospital in West Beirut, Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in up to 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinian dead, many of them civilians.

But that was before last year’s Israeli assault on Gaza, which Gilbert said now holds the grim honor of being the most horrendous experiences of his life.

Gilbert, a professor and the department head for Emergency Medical Services at the University Hospital of North Norway, spent 12 days as one of the only two foreign doctors in Gaza.  Gilbert lent his services to Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital.  With the support of the Norwegian government, Gilbert and his work partner Dr. Erik Fosse crossed into the besieged Gaza Strip on December 31, 2009.

During his stay in Gaza, he became a familiar face in the international media, appearing on Democracy Now!, BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera and more, providing on-the-ground, eyewitness accounts of the impact the onslaught was having on the civilian population.

He recently completed a tour promoting his and Fosse’s new book “Eyes in Gaza” that hit over a dozen campuses around North America.  The book, published by Quartet Books in the United States, will be released here in May 2010.

In New York, Gilbert spoke to a packed room at Columbia University February 3, giving a heart wrenching and highly graphic multimedia presentation on “Operation Cast Lead,” and received a standing ovation at the close of it.

Before the talk at Columbia, I got a chance to sit down with Dr. Gilbert at a diner in midtown Manhattan, where we discussed his tour, the situation in Gaza, and how he became involved with the Palestinian cause.

Alex Kane:  How is your tour going so far?

Mads Gilbert:  Excellent.  Absolutely excellent.  It’s been superbly organized by the Canadian group, which is called the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights.  Fatemah has done a terrific job, worked half a year to basically put together all the elements of this tour.  It’s been very smooth, good crowds, and we’re ending up with 16 campuses across Canada and US.  The turn out has been about 100 or 150 to actually up to 300.  The reception has been really good.  It’s a fairly massive lecture, it’s more than two hours, it’s very interactive, and it’s quite painful, because I try to give the audience the narrative of the Palestinian people, as seen from Gaza during "Operation Cast Lead."  It’s split in two parts.  The first part is trying to sum up the evidence we have for the relationship between occupation and ill health among the Palestinians, which in part is based on scientific papers in a recent issue of the UK medical journal The Lancet, and on my own observations and experiences in Gaza and the West Bank.  The second part of the lecture is the narrative of "Operation Cast Lead" in Gaza as we saw it and as the Palestinians saw it.  I have been very encouraged by the turnout, by the friendliness, the warm support, and I would say the strong engagement, the strong activism that I have met in all these places.  The friends of Israel, they have been attending the lectures at most places, I think, but they have been silent, quiet, behaved well, I’ve had one or two questions all together, they have been polite and relevant, and I have shook hands with the friends of Israel.  I think it’s important to behave and establish dialogue.  As Nelson Mandela says, if you want peace you have to start talking to your enemies.

Now here in New York, this is my third speaking tour on Gaza in the US since it happened.  I was here twice last year, this is my second speaking event at Columbia, and the crowds this time are much larger than last year.  It seems like continuous interest and curiosity.  People want to know, are engaged, people want to take part, and very many young people want to find out how can I make a difference?  How can I voice my own concern, and make a change in the world?

AK:  Talk about your forthcoming book, “Eyes in Gaza.”  What’s in the book, and when is it going to be released in the United States?

MG:  The book “Eyes in Gaza” is written by the two of us, Dr. Erik Fosse and myself.  Dr. Erik is a cardiac surgeon.  We founded the Norwegian Aid Committee together in 1983, and he is now the chairman.  We both have a long-lasting experience and work in Gaza with the Palestinians.  I’ve been working for 15 years in Gaza with the health care system, and we both made a decision to go immediately on December 27th, when the bombing started.  And we decided to go together, with very efficient and practical political support from the Norwegian government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we managed to enter Gaza on New Year’s Eve.  We got about $1 million in emergency funding for the mission from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we got very robust support from their diplomats, who really negotiated our entry.  And while in Gaza, we understood we were eyewitness to an event that should not be forgotten.  And since the Israeli tactic, their PR plan, was to exclude all Western media by sealing off Gaza for the international press, actually violating the most important value you have next to human rights, and that is freedom of speech and press freedom.  We understood the responsibility we had was not only to talk to the media in Gaza, the Arab media and the outlets who asked the Arab outlets to interview us, but it was also our duty to tell the story in a way that would be standing.  So we decided already in Gaza to write a book.  And we had, I think, like 15 offers from different publishers, so there was a lineup when we came home, and we picked the biggest Norwegian publisher.  They gave us extremely good working conditions, I got a sabbatical leave from my hospital, so I basically spent the first half of 2009 writing the book and doing research.

And Erik and I have written every second chapter, we have written everything ourselves, it’s in our writing, we didn’t have any ghost writers.  We have selected the pictures, we have done all the references and we have written the book as a combination of the narrative of Gaza and in addition to that as an educational effort to make people understand about the effect of the occupation, the history of the occupation and the current status of Gaza.  When you read the book, you will become more knowledgeable about the current situation.  It was published in Norwegian last September 17, 2009.  The Israeli government immediately started slandering it through their Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, and they have been slandering it ever since.  They have yet to come up with one robust, concrete and documented error that we have made, so we take that with great ease.  It’s been a huge bestseller in Norway.  I think it’s in its fourth printing, and it ended as number 11 among the top ten books of 2009 actually.  It sold, now I believe, around 50,000 copies, which is huge for the Norwegian audience, which counts only 4.5 million people.  So it caught a huge interest and it was named “the most important book of the year” by one reviewer, one key reviewer, another key reviewer said it’s “probably this Fall’s best book.”  And on the cover our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our previous Prime Minister have both written, not endorsements, but recommendations to read the book, which by itself has caused a diplomatic conflict between Norway and Israel, because they accused the Norwegian government of endorsing the book, which of course they would never do.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I can quote it, wrote, “When the war is raging, civilians become voiceless.  Erik Fosse and Mads Gilbert were in Gaza as doctors in January 2009.  In addition, they conveyed what they saw.  That was not their duty, but their responsibility.  When the military power shuts all voices out, the few remaining that penetrates becomes extra strong and important.”

And this was the current Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Jonas Gahr Støre, who writes this on the book, and as you understand it was not an endorsement, rather, an underlining of the fact that the voices of those who were there are important to listen to.  And the Israelis, of course, cannot accept that a Norwegian governmental member—our Ministry of Foreign Affairs is very popular—extremely popular in Norway.  He called us a number of times while in Gaza, the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg also called us when we were going out of Gaza to Rafah because we were stuck at Rafah for 16 hours, and he conveyed his support, the government’s support and the support of the whole Norwegian people.  In a way, this book became very important to the Norwegian audience and public because the majority of Norwegians felt that, “enough is enough, we can’t tolerate this anymore,” and there were large demonstrations in Norway in January 2009.  It has been said that it amounted to approximately one million Norwegians that took part in demonstrations, concerts, events, all over the country, and that actually amounts to 25% of the Norwegian people.  This did not come easy.  It took us 30 years of patient solidarity work with the Palestinians to educate the Norwegian public, but I think it’s right to say that Israel was the one who pulled the plug and released this huge deluge of sympathy and solidarity for the Palestinians.  And the book fit well into that new interest for the Palestinian cause, and it’s now being translated into English, Arabic, Finnish, Swedish, and Italian.  It will be published in English in May.

AK:  How did you get involved so heavily with the Palestinian cause?

MG:  I became politically active in college during the Vietnam War.  I was a member of the Norwegian Solidarity Committee for Vietnam.  I was also a member of a radical, left-wing, socialist movement which put a lot of emphasis on international politics and international solidarity.  So, in a way, I was raised in a school of politics which demanded that you took part in the world, and that you sided up with the people fighting colonialism and occupation and oppression.  That was part of my political backbone.

Interestingly, I was also a typical representative of the mainstream opinion regarding Israel.  Norway was an extremely strong supporter of the Israeli project for many years, from ’48, one of the strongest pro-Zionist countries in Europe.  In ’67, when the war started, the Israeli embassy in Oslo issued an appeal to Norwegian youth to come to their support and to substitute voluntarily Israelis going to war in the kibbutzes.  My mother had taught me that the Israeli people was a brave people, who were fighting these dark and nasty Arabs, that the kibbutz system was some sort of socialism, and that the Israelis had made a desert bloom.  So I volunteered to go, and at the same time I was a member of the Norwegian Solidarity Committee for Vietnam.  This may sound a bit politically schizophrenic, but I tell you the story because it’s a very good illustration of how Norway has changed.

However, my elder sister, who is also a doctor, had a good friend who was one of the founders, the co-founders, of the Norwegian Palestine Committee, and she was very knowledgeable about Palestinian history.  So she called me the same day and said, “ah, you’re going to Israel?  I think we need to talk.”  So we had like 5 liters of tea in her apartment the same evening, and she told me for the first time in my life the other side, the story about the Palestinian people and the occupation.  And I hadn’t heard that, either in school, nor from my parents, or from my political friends.  And I thought, “this is more complex than I thought.”  The next morning I went down to the embassy and said I resign, I don’t want to go.  It seems like I made a mistake.  One year later, I got a letter from the Israeli embassy saying that they had planted a tree in my name in Israel in a commemoration park, to commemorate my bravery and my courage to go to Israel.  One department didn’t really talk to the other department.  But anyway, I think they cut down the tree if it exists.

But just to tell you this little story as a miniature of how people in Norway have changed, including myself.  Now, for the next—this was in ’67, I was a young medical student—I was engaged in domestic politics, until 1981, when the Israelis started bombing West-Beirut, and Fathi Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), issued an international appeal that they needed medical staff.  And I volunteered, and I set up the first Norwegian emergency surgical team, for The Norwegian Palestine Committee, with a cardiac surgeon from my hospital and a scrub nurse, and we travelled to West Beirut to support the Palestinians.  The Israelis had ceased their bombing, and we met Palestinian leaders, I met Yasser Arafat for the first time, other Palestinian leaders, and we worked in a small hospital in Southern Lebanon in a refugee camp called al-Baus.  This was my first personal contact with the Palestinians, and then came the big breakthrough, and that was 1982, the next summer, when the Israelis invaded Lebanon and sieged West-Beirut and started the onslaught of not only PLO but the Palestinian population in the camps and the Lebanese population in West Beirut.   We sent a number of emergency teams from the Norwegian Palestine Committee to West Beirut, and we worked in a makeshift hospital, an underground hospital, day and night, for weeks, two months I guess it lasted.  This became my first graphic experience with the Israeli war machine, and the most graphic experience of the suffering of the Palestinian and the Lebanese people under this war machine.  And it never left me, it could never leave me.  I thought it would be standing as the most horrific experience of my lifetime.  And until January of last year, it indeed was the most horrific experience.  But I’m sad to say that Gaza 2009 surpassed my experiences in West Beirut 1982.

And from ’82, there has been no way to escape the Palestinians.  I didn’t want it, it’s been devotion, a commitment, it’s been a responsibility, and I worked in and out for the last 15 years in Gaza.  Before that, I also worked in the West Bank, I’ve been a WHO consultant on the Middle East and Palestinian territories, but most of all I’ve been working as a teacher, a medical trainer, a instructor, a physician, with the Palestinians in Gaza through both intifadas, through "Operation Summer Rain" in 2006 and now lately "Operation Cast Lead." So for me, I guess the short version, is that anybody who travels to Palestine, to Occupied Palestine, will be touched, and cannot take that commitment out of their hearts I think, because once you get to know the Palestinian people, I for one, and many with me, have been extremely touched by their dignity, not only their suffering, but their dignity, their resistance and resilience, and their humanity.  They never allow themselves to be tempted to behave like the animals they are treated like by the Israeli occupation forces.  On the contrary, they uphold human values very high, and I have learned a lot, I have become richer, I would say, I have grown as a human being, I have matured, and I have understood much more of politics, history, and medicine, through my years of my work with the Palestinians.

AK:  Describe your experience during the Gaza War.

MG:  Onslaught.  1400 killed.  5,400 injured.  28% of the killed children.  50% of the injured children and women.  Age population, age distribution in Gaza, average age 17.6 years, almost 60% below 18.  Basically, the world’s largest prison, with 750,000 children, with no verdict, no crimes, and they are punished collectively by the Israeli war machine supported by the United States government.  Brutal, totally disproportional attacks.  The new Israeli doctrine, the “Dahiya Doctrine,” applied for the first time in Lebanon in 2006, basically they’re saying we are going to use deliberately a totally unproportional military force, to bomb Gaza 10 to 20 years back in time.  And we are going to punish the civilians so they will never again dream of allowing somebody to fire a rocket from their neighbourhood into Israel or against the Israeli army.  This is in short called collective punishment, and it is strictly forbidden according to international law.  In addition, I think Gaza was used as a laboratory for testing for new American weapons and Israeli weapons, the siege, the drones, the DIME-bombs (dense inert metal explosives), and the flechettes.  I do think, for one, that all the discussion about the phosphorus bombs is a sidestep.  Phosphorus grenades are not illegal in war.  They are illegal to use against civilian populations, and they’re bad. But the over focused debate on phosphorous bombs is really a smoke screen to hide the much more devastation and destructive weaponry such as the massive siege, the drones and the DIME-bombs.

AK:  Talk about the use of unconventional weapons by Israel during the war, and what kind of effect that had on the people of Gaza.

MG:  Well, everyone’s talking about white phosphorus.  Why is that?  I think it’s because, number one, it has the image of being extremely dangerous and illegal.  But remember, it’s not illegal, the Israelis can use it, the Americans can use it, but only as a smokescreen weapon.  It is forbidden to use it against civilian populations, as the Israelis did during "Operation Cast Lead."  They have admitted that they did, and I believe these are the two officers they have punished.  So for the Israelis, it served as a useful distraction, because the most important weapon the Israelis were using, and are continuously using against the Palestinians in Gaza, is the siege.  That is the most brutal weapon, it’s affecting the most people, it’s affecting all the 1.5 million and all the 750,000 children, and this weapon is used so as to not stir international public opinion at the government level.  They make sure, all the time, they don’t outright die from hunger, but they are hungry all the time.  They don’t lack everything, but they lack everything to have anything close to a decent, normal life.

Like the pasta story.  When John Kerry, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, was visiting the border crossing at Karni and found out that there were trucks filled with pasta that were not allowed in, he said, “Why can’t they have pasta?  They can’t make weapons from pasta!”  When inquired as to the reason for the delay, he was told by United Nations aid officials that "Israel does not define pasta as part of humanitarian aid - only rice shipments." Kerry asked the Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak about the logic behind this restriction, he said, “no they can’t make weapons from pasta, but we consider pasta a luxury good, and the Palestinians in Gaza shall not have luxury goods.”  Only after the senior U.S. official's intervention did the Israeli defense minister allow the pasta into Gaza.  The Israelis apparently have a “yes” list and a “no” list for Gaza.  And pasta was on the “no list.”  So when they had bow to the American pressure, it is said that when they moved pasta from the “no” list to the “yes” list, they moved jam from the “yes” list to the “no” list, in order to have this balance of low-grade terror, low-grade strangulation, low-grade punishment of the whole people.  A continuation of the “Dahiya Doctrine” by other means, in a sense.  I think that’s even more powerful and more illegal.

Number two:  they probably used the new DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosives) weapons, developed by the U.S. Air Force to be in the new generation of what is called small diameter bombs.  These small diameter bombs are made to have a very short distance of effect, but within the range of the explosive it will have a devastating effect in order to allow “targeted killings” with minimum “collateral damage.”  The DIME weapons consist of a heavy metal alloy, mostly tungsten and nickel.  It’s small enough to be carried by a small rocket, like a Hellfire rocket, which can easily be mounted on a drone.  When this drone comes in, the drone pilot can see everything on the ground, and he can fire the rocket, and when this metal alloy explodes, it actually vaporizes the heavy metal.  And this heavy metal vapor will serve as a extremely powerful current of vapor, of microshrapnels, with intense heat and an enormous destructive power.  But this vapor will meet air resistance, so the power of the explosion dissipates within 10 meters.  Traditional metal shrapnels are extremely devastating because they can travel hundreds of meters, and injure somebody far away from the detonation.  Whereas a DIME weapon will destroy and kill people within a range of 5-7 meters, and those from 7-10 meters, approximately, will have serious injuries.  But outside that little range, nobody gets hurt.  So it’s made for executions, targeted killings, extralegal liquidations that the Israelis use in their warfare.  They target a car with a drone, they want to kill someone inside, but they don’t want to kill the people around them.

So you might think this weapon was made in order to be more humane.  But when you fire these weapons on children playing on a rooftop in Gaza, or on children playing outside of school, or U.N. shelters, of course, you will have deadly, devastating injuries to the civilians.  And we saw them.  We saw children coming in without legs, without arms, completely torn apart, but with no shrapnel injuries.  And these injuries we strongly believe to be caused by DIME explosives.  The Israeli Army has never acknowledged or denied they used them, neither during the Lebanon invasion and attack in 2006 that we believe was the first time it was used.  They also used it, we believe, in “Operation Summer Rain” in southern Gaza in 2006, that was the first time I saw these injuries in Shifa.  And I vividly recall these injuries when the patients were coming in to Shifa hospital in January last year.  We have published the evidence we have, and we know of no other weapon that can cause this very specific pattern of injury.

And then of course it was the flechette bombs, which are basically nail bombs, which contain a number of small, dart-like arrows of metal steel, which travel at very high speeds and will penetrate your eyes, your neck, your chest, and cause devastating injuries.  In addition to that you have the traditional artillery grenades, the machine gun fire, and all the ordinary shelling that they do from the sea, from the air, from the tanks.  So I think that, of course it’s important to talk about the phosphorus bombs, but it is a sidestep, and in a way a dead-end street if you want to understand the full range of illegal weapons and tactics that the Israelis are using against the Palestinians.

And most importantly, it’s that they did not discriminate between civilian and military targets.  They would bomb an ambulance, a mosque, a hospital, a school, not only a military rocket launcher belonging to the Palestinians.  This is illegal under international law, and this is precisely why Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have launched an international campaign to, “change the international laws of war.”  They want no restrictions; they want full freedom of action.  They are sick and tired of the international community criticizing them on the background of the Geneva Conventions.  They don’t want the limitations inherent in the Geneva Convention at all.

Each life is sacred.  13 Israelis were killed, that is 13 too many.  No Israelis should get killed, they should have security and peace.  But 1300 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli war machine.  And the proportion 1:100 is an apartheid number.  It’s a mathematical expression of the apartheid system.  And it’s a mathematical expression of the lack of respect for Palestinian human life, which in my value system, carries exactly the same untouchable value as an Israeli life.  Among the 13 Israelis killed, 10 were soldiers, 3 were civilians, none of them children.  Among the 10 soldiers, 4 or 5 were killed by “friendly fire.”

Among the 1300 or so killed Palestinians, 28% were children.  Among the 5,400 or so injured Palestinians, every second was a child below 18 or a woman.  And these numbers, you can’t contest them and argue with them.  They are the same numbers in the Goldstone report, in the Amnesty International report, in the B’Tselem report (pdf), in the Arab League Fact Finding report (pdf): 85-90% of the injured or killed were civilians.  This is of course contrary to international laws, and I think it’s due time that Israel, as the occupying force, being responsible for the security and well-being of the occupied population, and being responsible for the attacks on Gaza, are brought to the International Criminal Court in Hague for justice.  I’m not a lawyer by profession and cannot judge if this was genocide or crimes against humanity, but I’m pretty sure that these were flagrant war crimes.  But these are legal questions, quite complicated, and I have respect for the law, and have respect for the professionalism of the lawyers.  If Israel has nothing to hide, no problem, take it to the International Criminal Court.  If they have something to hide, they want to hinder that, and that’s why they’re shooting down the Goldstone report and accusing Goldstone of being an anti-Semite, which is absolutely ridiculous.  He himself doesn’t mind being called a Zionist, he portrays himself as a strong friend of Israel, his daughter I believe is living in one of the colonies in the West Bank.

So, this is just another smear campaign, a smokescreen like the phosphorus bombs, to hide the truth.  That’s why they would not allow international media into Gaza, because they wanted to hide the truth.  They didn’t want the American and European media to see what went on, and any Arab journalist appearing on camera from Gaza wasjust to be stamped “Hamas propagandist.”  Bear in mind that at any given time there are more than 600 Palestinian journalists in Gaza.  They were the ones who made it possible for us to talk, and we gave between 15 and 20 interviews a day.

So, there’s a whole process of covering up.  There are two tactics:  number one, keep the truth hidden, and number two attack those who convey the truth, those who want to find the truth, like Goldstone, like anybody, like the soldiers in Breaking the Silence, the female and male soldiers, and like the attacks on us when we are writing books and medical papers in the Lancet.

AK:  Last question:  With Egypt building that subterranean wall and tightening the siege, what’s your take on the humanitarian outlook in a couple of months or a year?

MG:  Well, I think it’s important to bear in mind that we now have very solid scientific documentation that the long-term effect of the siege on Gaza has been devastating for the civilian population, in particular the children and the women.  The International Red Cross released a report in November 2008 showing widespread malnutrition, there are studies showing a dramatic increase in the percentage of stunted children, meaning children who don’t grow according to their age, and anemia among children and women.  So we already know that the siege has taken a large bite of the fundamental health condition and basic human rights of the Palestinian people in Gaza as well as in the West Bank.  The lack of human security is extremely important, the lack of clean water and sewage systems also affect population health.  And it is the lack of food:  80% of the population in Gaza are living below the U.N. poverty line, 80% are depending on U.N. food supplies, through the UNRWA system.  Now it is a humanitarian crisis, when also Egypt will cut the lifeline, the tunnels are really the lifeline now for the Palestinians, it will move from a humanitarian crisis to a humanitarian disaster. Likewise, when the Canadian government in January Last informed the United Nations it would no longer give a lump sum of money to the Palestinian refugee agency known as UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, this is another way to starve out the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza, where 1 million of the 1,5 million inhabitants are formally registered as refugees, and an overwhelming majority depends on food help and other services from UNWRA. The same goes for the US government and it’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which denies any US NGO to cooperate with any official body or authority within the civilian administration in Gaza, such as governmental schools and hospitals, because they have listed Hamas as a terrorist organization and Hamas is the legally elected government of Gaza. This constitutes in my opinion flagrant and illegal collective punishment of the Palestinian people, which they then have in common with the occupant, the state of Israel.