Occupational Health: Bearing Witness to Palestinian Lives

(Photo Credit: Mohammad Asad Muhaeisen)

Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh is a Palestinian citizen of Israel from the Galilee village of Arrabeh. After receiving his medical degree from Harvard, he became the first Western-trained doctor in his village and as a former public health employee of the Israeli Ministry of Health was responsible for several Palestinian and Jewish communities in the Galilee. His experiences with the Health Ministry exemplified the state’s disregard for the well-being of its Palestinian citizens and the disparity in allocated resources between Arab and Jewish towns. In response, Dr. Kanaaneh left the Ministry and co-founded the public health organization The Galilee Society to serve neglected Palestinian villages and towns. He is the author of the memoir A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel and the recent collection of short stories Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee. Below he provides an engrossing account of the panels on Palestinian public health held during the Harvard Arab Weekend 2015 (November 5-8).

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“As leaders from Washington to Westminster stood aside and watched the slaughter with cynical passivity, Gilbert sounded the alarm, alerting the world to the crisis unfolding before his eyes.” That is how Max Blumenthal, author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) describes the courageous act of my Norwegian friend and colleague, Dr. Mads Gilbert, in dashing to Gaza in the summer of 2014 to volunteer his medical expertise and acute witnessing talents at al-Shifa Hospital. There, he experienced firsthand “[t]he sounds of bombs and screaming bodies torn to pieces and a society reduced to rubble; but I also saw camaraderie, dignity, human courage and unflinching resolve.” Those are the seeming contradictions at the heart of the massacre of Shujai’ieh, “The Land of the Brave,” and Gaza at large standing today as a testament to the inhumanity of humanity in the 21st century.

Mads Gilbert. (Photo Credit: AP)
Mads Gilbert. (Photo Credit: AP)

I want to sum up my impressions from the Fifth Harvard Arab Weekend (November 6-8, 2015), which I spent in the company of colleagues involved in the health politics of Palestine. But my emotions keep interfering with my thoughts, tender emotions of deep empathy with the likes of Mads, of anger at co-opted influential politicians, of pride of my medical colleagues and fellow Palestinians alike and of hope triggered by what I witnessed during the weekend.

An ensemble of young Arabs, especially Palestinian health professionals, had organized two consecutive evenings of health-focused academic events. They are at various stages of training at Harvard medical institutions, acknowledged to be among the best teaching and research facilities anywhere in the world. The young people put on well-organized and well-attended sessions with excellent content: The larger of the two events, the subject of my report here, had the mocking title of “Occupational Health”: followed by the explanatory phrase “Multifaceted Constraints on Access to Healthcare in the Palestinian Territories.” It had over four hundred attendees by my guesstimate filling the large auditorium to overflow capacity without a single heckler. Ten years ago Americans walked away at the mention of Palestine. And the intermission screen showed a heart-wrenching photo of a child standing alone in the ruins of Shujai’ieh, sad but defiant, one of the slides that feature in Dr. Mads Gilbert’s book “Night in Gaza” (2015) while the audio played Rim Banna’s “Ya Leil ma Atwalak – Too Long the Night.” There could have been no better match of audiovisual effect for the subject matter.

And yet I am deeply disturbed and disappointed: Consider, if you will, the sincere efforts of my fellow physicians Mads Gilbert and Alice Rothchild on behalf of the Palestinian people and in defense of their human rights. Or consider the recent writings of Max Blumenthal and the activist media efforts of Phillip Weiss of Mondoweiss, or of Marc Ellis, … and the list is almost endless. They are most effective communicators and ardent defenders of human rights, first and foremost of Palestinian basic human rights. But then look at retired Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, at Las Vegas casino mogul and Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson, and at the endless list of anti-justice baddies. When humans are good they are great. But when they are bad, they are so Goddamned terrible. But then again, the whole Israel-Palestine arena is such a glaringly black-and-white dichotomy that it has no middle ground; it is sickening. On the one hand you have a people claiming their right to self-determination and to their inherited homes, property and culture. On the other, a declared and well-planned and executed colonial project targeting the same piece of land, the last ongoing colonial enterprise on the face of earth. This is where justice issues become of the essence, where justice for the weaker party becomes an existential threat to the colonizer by the latter’s calculations. The only way out, they apparently have concluded, is to physically eliminate their vanquished opponents, “to confirm the kill” so to speak.

This is where the likes of Mads Gilbert and Alice Rothchild, come into the picture and where I imagine I have some role to play: Alerting the world to what is at stake and to its own moral responsibility towards the Palestinians, starting with those in Gaza, refugees in their camps, residents of occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank and onward to us, the Palestinian citizens of Israel since the day it was established. Present day Zionist colonizers have the means and full intent to ethnically cleanse and/or physically eliminate those standing in the way of actualizing their racist dream of a pure Jewish state west of the Jordan River. As the lieutenants of the enterprise keep stumbling over the reality of the Palestinian vermin infesting their dream vista of greater Israel, they find themselves compelled to remind those terrorists of what awaits them if they do not give up; four such reminders in Gaza in the past seven years, by Dr. Gilbert’s count. And they are likely to do it once again soon to cleanse their Holy Land of those “parasites.” And parasites they are, believe you and me, for otherwise how could they, the powerful and enlightened party with their superior Western ethics, have so remorselessly rubbed so many of them off? Yes, circuitous logic it is! But that is how the cookie crumbles, folks: every killed Palestinian is a terrorist by definition and sprouts a knife next to his or her body; and they are so damn horrible Netanyahu stopped blaming the Germans for the Holocaust and smeared those Palestinians with it. And if they are so horrible, then it is OK to kill them for Israelis are just and wise  … and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

(Photo Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS)
(Photo Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS)

This again is where our panel of medical experts seem to be needed: to testify as practicing specialists to the actual humanity of the Palestinians: The anesthesiologist will show that his ketamine puts Palestinians out like it does other humans and that his painkillers relieves their pain like they do usual humans; the gynecologist-obstetrician will show that they have regular human reproductive organs and reproduce sexually like the rest of us; and the toxicologist will assure us that the same toxins will kill them as they do other humans forced to forage for their food in garbage dumps, provided Gaza’s garbage has food remnants in it. Add all these testimonies up and, horror of horrors, even Ashkenazi settlers may have to admit that Palestinian babies bear some resemblance to their own.

Mads Gilbert doesn’t mince his words; he is with the Palestinians because he is with justice. And he uses pictures of the dead, the maimed and disemboweled; and of the freshly exploded out of their homes for no real reason other than being who they are, Palestinians. Very likely there is an additional rationale for the unspeakable violence, the testing of Israel’s new and improved weapons so it can advertise them at international weapons fairs as “battle tested in Gaza.” And yes, You, world leaders and decision-makers at top levels, I can hear you tsk-tsk-ing under your breath before inviting the Israeli slaughter experts over for consultation.

No shame! But then, we are not talking about humans. Gazans, and Palestinians at large, are terrorists by definition. That is why the panelists’ testimonies to Israel’s war atrocities in Gaza are needed. And they marshaled their evidence so convincingly that I couldn’t control my tears. I wept for Gaza’s subhuman conditions, calibrated and inflicted by Israel with studied precision to keep “the terrorists” at subhuman levels of existence, not to mention the dead, the maimed and the homeless in their hundreds of thousands. But I also wept no less for all the Israelis who have lost their own humanity by their intentional denial of the humanity of the other. And yet, Dr. Mads Gilbert kept pointing to the resilience and steadfastness, the sumod of those Gazans.

(Photo Credit: AFP)
(Photo Credit: AFP)

Why should I find that so painful? Perhaps for the simple reason that I realize that they have no choice but to stand fast. After all, where would they run to with all borders hermitically sealed: A pressure cooker full of humanity and no escape valve? Dr. Akihiro Seita, director of UNRWA’s (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) health program, explained the diseases and mortality as indirect outcomes of Israel’s wars and its siege of Gaza. And Dr. Steven Gilbert illustrated the variety of walls Israel uses, actual concrete walls and allegorical walls causing no less isolation and harm to the health of Palestinians.

That was when Dr. Rita Giacaman, the only Palestinian on the Panel, issued a warning: She cautioned against pathologizing and individualizing what is a socio-political and community-wide affliction by its nature. No amount of drugs and equipment and no number of healthcare professionals can alleviate the community-wide suffering and deprivation as long as the borders around you remain closed, aquifers under you are polluted and drones continue buzzing over your head. Field surveys show over 40% of Palestinians suffer from clinical depression. And that is in the more lightly hit West Bank, not in Gaza.

Alice Rothchild then mentioned the magic Palestinian mantra: BDS. The slow burning coals of the movement didn’t explode into full flames on this civil occasion. But the day cannot be far. We, who are old enough to remember, can tell you that it was when Harvard finally started divesting from South Africa in a serious way that that country’s apartheid system crumbled. That was no coincidence, but the time relationship bears varying interpretations. But no matter which analysis you chose, what brought apartheid South Africa to its knees will bring Israel to its senses as well. Here is what one expert on the matter, Achille Mbembe, concludes in his preface to the just-published collection of essays by African writers entitled Apartheid Israel: “The occupation of Palestine is the biggest moral scandal of our times. … And since all they are willing to offer is a fight to the finish, since what they are willing to do is to go all the way—carnage, destruction, incremental extermination—the time has come for global isolation.” And BDS shares one commonality with the Harvard Arab Weekend that I attended: the youth, the vitality and the sophistication of the women and men behind both of them. I saw and heard Zahra, Ahmad, Tarec and all the others who helped make this session the super success it was. I could see the light at the end of our figurative tunnel of darkness.

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