Gaza should make us sick; but we need a more courageous, honest and truthful debate

Ghassan Hamdan is a doctor from Gaza. He works for the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, and is a member of the Peoples Health Movement. He has been sending frequent messages of despair from Gaza, including photographs of the carnage that has been unfolding there. The images are sickening, horrific and heartbreaking. I asked Ghassan to get consent from the photographers for me to share these photos more widely. Some of them can be found at the end of the bottom of this page.

They need to be seen because we need reminding of the fact that there is nothing glorious about war and violence; and that the killing, maiming and terrorisation of innocent children should fill us with revulsion and fury. We also need to be reminded of why we have international humanitarian law to govern the conduct of war.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s Gaza, or Iraq, or Syria or the Ukraine. It doesn’t matter whether it’s now; or the past; or the future. War is inhumane and uncivilised. And it is nearly always preventable and avoidable.

Doctors and other clinicians are ideally placed to speak out against the causes, instigators and propagators of war. We should claim and use our professional mandate to promote dialogue, justice, truth, transparency, accountability, equity and social solidarity – within and between nations, cultures, religions and ethnic identities – as antidotes to war and violence. We should form a counterweight to the death merchants who develop killing machines for profit; and who actively encourage rivalry, aggression, fear and insecurity in the knowledge that this will enlarge their power and profits. We should challenge the aggressors; and defend those who are subjected to aggression.

And we should do all this with urgency and much energy, not just because of the intolerable suffering inflicted on innocent civilians in wars right now; but also because nuclear weapons remain a threat to human civilisation itself; and because we will not find an acceptable and effective solution to global warming without peace, demilitarisation and international solidarity.

What is happening in Gaza is no ‘ordinary war’ (if such a thing exists). It’s a massacre. It is a conflict of unequals in which the people of Gaza are being pulverised. As of August 6th, more than 1,800 Palestinians (mostly civilians) have been killed, nearly ten thousand injured and more than half a million people made homeless. Thousands more will die as a result of the destruction of hospitals, water supplies and other infrastructure. By contrast, 67 Israelis – of whom 63 were Israeli soldiers – have died.

Claims by the Israeli army that they are conducting their attack on Hamas with care for the civilian population are clearly false. The argument that the killing and maiming of Palestinians is justified (even caused) by Hamas firing rockets into Israel is despicable. Pleas that the massacre of children and women should be understood as unintended and regrettable collateral damage arising from self-defence should also be rejected.

Two weeks ago, the Lancet published an open letter in which a group of doctors and scientists denounced Israeli aggression in Gaza; accused countries in Europe and North America of complicity; and bemoaned the impotence of international institutions in stopping the atrocities. The letter, written before the worst events had unfolded, now appears prescient. Perhaps only a few people around the world would have foreseen the full ferocity of Israel’s merciless and brutal attack on Gaza.

The letters sparked off fierce criticism, with both the authors and the Lancet itself accused of anti-Semitism and being supportive of ‘militant Islamic terrorists’. The Lancet has also been charged with perverting the principles of science by allowing doctors and scientists to write about a political matter. Calls have been made for Lancet Chief Editor, Richard Horton, to resign.

None of this is surprising. Criticism of Israeli military action is frequently denounced in this manner. A well-funded machine exists to vilify, accuse and ostracise anyone who challenges anything Israel does in the name of security and counter-terrorism. This machinery extends into much of the mainstream media (including the BBC) which persistently provide an ahistorical and biased frame for its reporting of current events in Gaza. The result is a lack of balanced, honest and open debate.

How can we assess the present without understanding the past? How can we challenge the firing rockets into Israel by Hamas without acknowledging  the steady and inexorable annexation of Palestinian land over the past seven decades, and the repeated rejection of past Palestinian efforts to secure their rights to statehood and self-determination through peaceful negotiations?

How can we judge the barbaric Palestinian acts of terrorism without understanding the full extent to which Palestinians have been subjected to betrayal, lies and injustice (not just by Israel and its financial sponsor the United States, but also by various Arab states in the region); and the intolerable conditions under which Palestinians are currently held captive and subjugated in Gaza?

How can we interpret the actions of both the Israeli government and of Hamas without noting the fact that Israel’s prime minister does not support a two-state solution of any kind (never mind one that would be fair and just)? [See here and here for a two-part interview with Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.] And how can we determine the scale of complicity of our own governments and politicians in feeding the beasts of hate, intolerance and mistrust without appreciating the full history of western imperialism in the region?

Similarly, how can the Lancet operate as a socially-responsible institution without providing a platform for doctors and scientists to speak out against the unjustifiable killing of innocent children and civilians? Adherence to the rules and principles of science does not negate the Lancet’s right (and duty) to adopt moral, ethical and political positions; nor should the latter undermine the primary role of a scientific journal to publish good research.

It is hard to see an obvious solution for the mess that is Palestine. But neither should we search for an overly-simplistic answer or narrative that is incomplete and ultimately ineffective, even if it may help keep us psychologically appeased and comforted. There is only ever a relentless struggle for truth, justice and peace.

But what can we do from here in the UK?

For a start, we can demand and help provide a better general understanding of the history of Palestine. We can challenge the irresponsible and counter-productive demonisation of Hamas and call for a more refined understanding for why Hamas exists in the way it does, and how it relates to the people of Palestine. We can denounce all assertions that criticism of Israel equates with anti-Semitism or support for ‘terrorism’ with the utter contempt they deserve. We can reject the tendency of the mainstream press to depict ‘acts of terrorism’ as a monopoly of so-called Islamic militant groups and give greater recognition of the acts of terror committed by governments, including those of the US, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In short, we can demand a more honest and truthful account of the current crisis in Gaza.

We can also support – financially and morally – those who truly seek peace in Israel-Palestine whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Christian or atheist. Such people exist. They need our help. At the same time, we can combat the malevolent influence of the trans-national military-corporate-industrial complex within the Middle East, some aspects of which operate from bases here in the UK. We can also demand that our governments operate an ethical foreign policy.

As health professionals, although we must act to deliver a humanitarian response to killing and maiming (for example, for Gaza we can support Physicians for Human Rights Israel); but we must also strike at the social, political and economic determinants of war itself.

More on Gaza:

An Open Letter to President Obama on Hospital Conditions inside Gaza

Besieging the Health Services in Gaza: A Profitable Business