Q&A: A Conversation with Dr. Mads Gilbert

September 28, 2015 Karmah Elmusa, IMEU
Q&A: A Conversation with Dr. Mads Gilbert
(Photo Credit: Øystein Hermstad)


In his new book, Night in Gaza (Interlink Publishing, released Sept. 2015 in the U.S.), venerable Norwegian physician Mads Gilbert offers a powerful firsthand account of what he experienced and saw working in Al-Shifa Hospital during the Israeli assault of 2014. The book blends his photos with written testimony to convey to the outside world what the Israeli occupation has visited upon the Palestinians, and more specifically, upon Gaza.

Dr. Gilbert is based in Tromsø, Norway, where he is a professor of medicine and medical director of the emergency department. He’s worked and lived through the four Israeli military attacks on Gaza that have taken place since 2006, and been practicing solidarity medicine in the area since 1981. “It’s not that the Palestinian doctors and nurses cannot handle the medical work, because they can, and they are extremely professional,” he says. “Instead, it’s because my Palestinian colleagues say to me: ‘When you come here, we feel we are not forgotten. We feel we are not left alone. And that in itself inspires us enormously, and gives us hope that we may manage.’ It’s more my presence, than it is my mere medical work that is important for them. That’s why I call it ‘solidarity medicine.’”

After between two and four such support visits a year for a more than a decade, it came as a great shock to Dr. Gilbert when he was stopped at the Israeli Erez checkpoint in October 2014 and denied entry to Gaza. Israel then banned him indefinitely on “security grounds,” and he has not yet been able to return.

The IMEU talked with Dr. Gilbert about being kept out of Gaza, his book, and how he’s able to remain an optimist.


Q - How did you first learn about the Palestinians?

Mads Gilbert: I was educated and brought up with a very traditional European idea about Israel and the Zionist narrative. Israel was the land of the dispossessed, and they made the desert bloom, and we Europeans had a great debt to repay for the Holocaust (that part I totally agree with). That narrative was the same in school and at home. It was, “We have to support Israel.” I never heard a word about the Palestinians.

Then, during the war in 1967 when I was a medical student, the Israeli Embassy asked Norwegian youth to come to Israel and to fill in on kibbutzim for the Israelis who were going to fight, and I went down to the embassy and said, “I’m ready to go.” I was about to pack my luggage when my sister and a close political friend called, and said, “I hear you’re going to Israel,” and I said, “Yeah, isn’t it great? International solidarity.” And she said, “Not really.” That night we talked for hours, and for the first time in my life she told me about the Palestinian people and their history. I withdrew my kibbutz-volunteering and joined The Palestine Committee of Norway.

I traveled to the region for the first time in 1981, and my most significant entry into my work as a solidarity doctor was in 1982, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of West Beirut. That was when I really experienced the Israeli war machine first-hand. Their tactics, their immensely powerful attacks on civilian structures. We literally waded in blood. They applied the same siege tactics as in Gaza today: They cut the water supply, the food supply, the energy supply, and they drop bombs. For a young, naive Norwegian doctor, it was a brutal baptizing into the realities of the Israeli occupation project.


Q - What was it like to have the ban placed on you by Israel last fall?

MG: I had a valid Israeli IDF multiple entry permit for 6 months, so to be stopped and rejected and sent back was surprising. They have extended the entry ban for an infinite time period makes me really understand the choking reality of the 1.8 million people living in Gaza who are not allowed to travel. The arrogance and the abuse of power that the occupier is showing is limitless and disregards international law. The Norwegian government, which is a right-wing government, has formally protested to the Israeli government for denying me as a humanitarian worker and medical doctor, from travelling to support a very needy population. I so much long to go back. I know my Palestinian colleagues and friends want me to come back. We have a lot of work to do, we have research going on. It is unbearable to be excluded by the occupiers.


Q - Do you have any recourse now?

MG: I learn from the Palestinians and practice patience and sumud (steadfastness). They have survived, they are standing tall, they are trying to restore normality in Gaza, in West Bank, in the diaspora. I should not be complaining because my life is very easy. I have by no means given up. I just have to be patient.


Q - Let’s talk about the books. I noticed there are pictures of children on the cover of Night in Gaza and your last book, Eyes in Gaza.

MG: My pictures of children convey parts of my core message. Gaza is a huge child ghetto, with an average age of less than 18 years, and almost 60 percent of Gaza’s population is 18 and younger. The children and the elders are the ones carrying the heaviest burden. There is a universal uproar when children are being targeted and maimed and killed, and in a way tortured over years, as they are in Gaza. The eight years of brutal sieges without reconstruction are denying normality for a generation of children. The malnutrition resulting from the Israeli blockade is reflected in an increase in infant mortality for the first time in decades, and increases in all sorts of medical problems. I take pictures of Gaza’s children to highlight this grim reality.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Mads Gilbert. Not for distribution.

I’ve always found the narrative of ordinary people’s struggle for a decent life very strong and moving. It is my duty to try to maintain the inherent drama and human energy of the stories in a way that it can touch people's hearts, and at the same time, convey realities and facts. It should, of course, be the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Beirut or Yarmouk, who tell their stories. Because of the siege of Gaza and the silence imposed on the Palestinian people, I am one of their voices, by proxy. I want to give as many Palestinians as possible a key role in my books through pictures, interviews and text. I want to focus the resilience, the strength, and the resistance, as much as I describe the pain, suffering and brutal bloodshed. I don’t want to paint a pitiful picture of the Palestinians. I strongly believe that they are an example to the world when it comes to core human values, dignity, and courage.

For Night in Gaza, I had the idea that my text should be bookended by a Jewish voice and a Palestinian voice, so Max Blumenthal, a brilliant Jewish American journalist, wrote the introduction, and Mohammed Omer, a brave Palestinian journalist in Gaza, wrote the post-script. In between, there is a little Norwegian clattering. Both these authors have written their own accounts on the last assault (The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza; Shell-Shocked).


Q - Is it hard to continue doing this draining work? How do you cope?

MG: It’s difficult to talk about it sitting here in sunny Tromsø, where we have not a single checkpoint, not a single drone, and my fridge is full of food, we shower in drinking water and have none of the hardships Gaza’s people face. I can say what I want, wherever I want. Talking about the horrors of Gaza in this very luxurious place opens up a flood of tears, which I keep under control while working in Gaza. While there, I have to maintain a firm focus, almost callousness and determination to manage your tasks. I’m able to be an operative clinician in these horror scenes because I work with Palestinians who are experienced and extremely brave. They have this very strong decency. They never become impolite, they never get abusive, they keep a calm and a control which is incredible, given that this was the fourth massive Israeli attack in only eight years, and by far the most massive and brutal. And don’t forget that the medical staff will also receive neighbors, friends, relatives, and God forbid, children and spouses among the injured and killed coming to the hospitals.

Despite this almost unbelievable hardship, they take care of me. They make sure I am looked after, and they always treat me with greatest inclusive respect. I am lucky also to have very good colleagues here in Tromsø, a fantastic family, and a very close and understanding partner. It opens up when it’s feasible to open it up, and then I cry. I’m also privileged to be able to convey what I have experienced through a large number of lectures on Gaza, and writing books on the subject. The best way to deal with trauma and extreme experience is to talk and be listened to.


Q - People tend to forget about Gaza once it’s out of the headlines. What is the medical situation like after a ceasefire is declared?

MG: The situation in Gaza is extremely difficult, also from a medical point of view. It’s a population of close to 1.9 million people now, and they need medical services for ordinary things just like any other civilian population. They need vaccinations, treatment for chronic disorders, the everyday injuries and preventive medical follow-up like pregnancy and mother-child care. People in Gaza also have cancer, chronic diabetic ulcers and psychiatric needs. I can list huge medical needs that are not sufficiently dealt with as a result of the siege and the destruction. More than 50 percent of the hospitals and 60 percent of the primary health clinics in Gaza suffered damage or frank destruction from the Israeli bombing.

The Gaza Ministry of Health announced late August this year that the healthcare system in Gaza is on the verge of collapse, warning that hospitals could stop operating due to the territory’s energy crisis. The Shifa Hospital, Kamal Adwan hospital, the European Gaza Hospital, and Rantisi Hospital could stop offering services because they are about to run out of fuel. The current situation is the worst since the Ministry of Health was created in the Gaza Strip. But let me be clear: I have regular contact with my colleagues, and they go on, they introduce new treatment options, they do what they can. They are not giving up and they are not waiting for the world to help them.

Of course, the ongoing Israeli siege is the core problem for the medical system in Gaza now.

Israel enjoys total impunity. This impunity is a major moral, political, and security challenge for the world. The occupation of Palestine is often called ‘the mother of all wars’ and I think it’s time that the good people of the U.S. force their government to stop the support of Israel and its apartheid regime. The most important thing I can do as a medical doctor is prevention, and the most important medical prevention there is now is to tell people about the situation on the ground and the living conditions for the people of Gaza. Israeli government policies are killing the people systematically through starvation, with bombs, and by denying people their fundamental human rights.


Q - When you picture the future of the Palestinians, what do you see?

MG: I’m an optimist. All empires collapse and the colonial and racist political Zionism of Israel is going to collapse. What we can do is speed up the time, the weeks, the days, the years, until we reach a just political solution for both people. That is our obligation and that is our duty. We’re living in the history books, as I’ve said before, and history will judge us. The Western powers are betraying the systematically oppressed Palestinian people, a people being exposed to systematic mass killing.

We’re not talking about a ragtag guerilla army or a ragtag group of religious fanatics; we’re talking about the state Army of Israel, supported by the U.S. government. These are the people responsible for 551 Palestinian children being killed in Gaza in 51 days. And I use the very simple question: What would the world have said and done if Palestinian fighters, God forbid, had gone into Israel and killed 551 Israeli children? Just that comparison should illuminate the hypocrisy in the West.

My greatest source of optimism is what I see when I am in Gaza and the growing international solidarity with Palestine, in particular the BDS movement.

The dignity of the Palestinian people, the way they maintain their human values, is an inspiration to me. I think they carry our dignity on their shoulders. If you want to see what it means to be a human, you should go to Gaza these days.