The whining buzz of drones overhead provides a constant background to the sound of bombs exploding intermittently every few seconds - muffled in the distance, sharper if nearer. Hearing this is unnerving, even if it is for only a few tape-recorded minutes. Photos of medical staff tending too many wounded patients in the emergency room of Gaza's Shifa Hospital augment the tension.
The tape recording was made and the photos taken by Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian anesthesiologist specializing in emergency medicine. He and his compatriot Dr. Erik Fosse volunteered their services in Gaza's main hospital during Operation Cast Lead. They, the medical workers and patients in Shifa Hospital, and the million and a half residents of Gaza heard the drones and bombs night and day, around the clock, for 22 days.
Gilbert and Fosse were participating in the Norwegian tradition of government-funded medical solidarity teams sent to help out in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Cambodia and Kurdistan. Gilbert, who was on a U.S. speaking tour in April, has seen a lot, including Beirut in 1982 during the Israeli invasion. For more than 20 years he has visited Gaza to work and teach medicine. He was there in October and found Gaza's 15 hospitals "on their knees," lacking everything because of Israel's 18-month siege. Then came its attack on Gaza by air, sea and land. Gaza in January was his most horrifying experience ever, Gilbert said.
He and Fosse arrived in Gaza City on New Year's Day, Gilbert recalled, during a funeral procession for a friend and colleague-a Gazan doctor who was killed earlier that day when Israel targeted the ambulance in which he was riding. On the second day of its attack, Dec. 28, Israel had bombed Shifa mosque, just opposite the hospital, shattering all the windows in the hospital and making it difficult to keep patients warm or muffle the sound of bombing.
The huge number of casualties meant that medical workers had to evacuate patients to other hospitals to make room for the newly injured. But Israel also targeted hospitals, such as Al Quds, and threatened to bomb Shifa, accusing the hospital of harboring a Hamas bunker. Gilbert said he never saw any bunker and called Israel's threat psychological terrorism. Of the hundreds of dead and wounded he saw, Gilbert said only five were fighters. All the rest were civilians.
Never, Gilbert said, has he participated in so many amputations. He attributed this to Israel's use of DIME (dense inert metal explosive), a weapon Israel also used in 2006, during both Operation Summer Rains in Gaza and its summer attack on Lebanon. DIME is a tungsten alloy that explodes with a powerful bolt of concentrated power. The U.S. Air Force developed DIME, Gilbert explained, for targeted executions that limit collateral damage to within tens of meters-a precaution that is meaningless in such a densely populated area as Gaza. He showed photos of DIME's victims-limbs amputated with hardly any bleeding or shrapnel, and red marks on the torso from blast injuries that probably caused internal injuries-but, Gilbert said, there was no time to perform post-mortems. DIME is possibly radioactive, he added, as lab tests produced cancer in muscle tissue.
Gilbert described a system of structural apartheid, whereby those few Israelis who were injured were airlifted to medical care, whereas the thousands of wounded Gazans were caged in. On Jan. 8 Gilbert was in a 16-ambulance convoy carrying patients wounded in Israel's attack on a U.N. school to the Rafah crossing for treatment in Egypt. The Red Cross vehicles and ambulances were clearly marked with lights flashing, Gilbert said, and the convoy's movements had been coordinated with the Israeli army. Before they had barely left Gaza City, however, Israeli machinegun fire forced them to turn back.
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is 100 percent manmade, premeditated, and meticulously executed, Gilbert emphasized. He quoted President Shimon Peres saying on Jan. 14, the 19th day of the massacre, that "90 percent of the operation has gone according to plan" and Cast Lead is "a strong blow to the people of Gaza." Peres did not say "to Hamas," Gilbert underlined. This means that the more than 1,400 Palestinians killed, 5,300 injured, 1,000-plus buildings and 41 mosques bombed, as well as the attacks on all government buildings, ambulances and hospitals, factories and farmland were all according to Israel's plan.
None of this was supposed to be revealed to the wider world. Gilbert noted. Israel barred journalists and other humanitarian workers from entering Gaza. He and Fosse were allowed in thanks to strong support from the Norwegian government and help from Egypt, Gilbert said. Their mobile phones were jammed, but they still had contact with the outside world through a Palestinian Ramattan News Agency satellite link car. The two doctors gave 15 to 20 interviews every day. Those Google "Mads Gilbert" will see the responses of Israel's apologists, who call him a "shill for terrorists" and accuse him of supporting 9/11.
When asked what people can do to help, Gilbert suggested finding creative ways to do what one likes best. After Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, for example, Norwegian producer Erik Hillestad produced a CD entitled "Lullabies from the Axis of Evil," from which Gilbert played the hauntingly beautiful "This Never Ending Night," sung by Palestinian Rim Banna and Norwegian pop singer Kari Bremnes.
Gilbert doesn't believe in taking Palestinians to the West for medical care, but rather in strengthening Gazan society. As an example of a funding project that does not make Palestinians feel helpless, Norwegians raise money for the Gaza Municipality Limb Shop that makes prostheses in Gaza itself. What would really help, Gilbert added, is if President Barack Obama would do what President John F. Kennedy did in 1963 in front of the since torn down Berlin Wall: go to the West Bank and Gaza and declare, "I am a Palestinian."
Gilbert concluded by saying that what he will remember most about Operation Cast Lead are the courage and spirit of the doctors, nurses, and volunteers who worked amid chaos in a well-organized manner. Many lived in the hospital the whole time. The Gazan doctors told the Norwegians, "We need you, not for lack of doctors, but to stand with us." They, Gilbert emphasized, are the real heroes and "the strongest and most graphic example of human dignity."