Doctor Ghassan Abu Sittah relived his experience treating patients in Gaza amid Israel’s ongoing aggression of the Strip at Doha’s Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.
British-Palestinian plastic and reconstructive surgeon Doctor Ghassan Abu Sittah delivered a lecture on Tuesday at Doha’s Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.
At the event, “The Destruction of Gaza’s Health Sector: Confronting Devastation and Forced Displacement,” Abu Sittah recounted his 43-day experience while in Gaza working with Doctors Without Borders to support the enclave’s shattered health sector.
The event coincided with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s 44th Summit meeting, which is being hosted in Doha.
“The heroism shown by medical personnel, in every war and confrontation, is a continuation of what’s been happening after the Nakba,” the Doctor said at the opening of his speech.
Ghassan arrived in Palestine on October 10. During his lecture, he revealed that it took a whole day for him to reach Al Shifa Hospital from Egypt’s Rafah Border Crossing due to Israeli bombardment of Gaza’s Rimal neighbourhood, which hosts residential buildings and aid offices, such as UNRWA’s Gaza Public Information Office.
For Abu Sittah, Israel’s shelling of soft targets is indicative of its objectives. “When you kill more than 20,000 people, injure 40,000, and leave the wounded to die slowly right before the eyes of their families – this will only convince people to leave the Gaza Strip and their homes,” he said
To date, the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor estimates that since October 7, Gaza has suffered a death toll of over 21,000 people, with over 13,000 of those casualties being women and children. The Palestinian Health Ministry has had serious issues, communications and otherwise, in being able to confirm the death count and currently measured the death toll at over 16,000.
Speaking to Doha News after his lecture, as a British-Palestinian, Doctor Abu Sittah discussed the guilt felt by Palestinians in the diaspora, of not being in Gaza during this difficult time. “You always think about those you’ve left behind,” he said.
“Today when I was watching the news this morning… You know what’s happening in the emergency departments and operating rooms. It just breaks your heart all the time.”
A flood versus a tsunami
As a medical student, Ghassan joined the medical frontline during the First Intifada uprisings in 1987 and later volunteered again in 2000 as a surgeon during the Second Intifada.
“In the Second Intifada, I was a young surgeon working at Al Awda Hospital in Jabalia in Gaza,” Ghassan said on Tuesday.
The years 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2018 saw him return to his native Palestine during waves of violence by Israeli forces against Palestinians. For Ghassan, his frequent return to the medical frontline in Gaza was a personal journey in continuing the Palestinian legacy of upholding the nation’s health services.
“This effort continues today,” he said. “The Al Awda Hospital was bombed many times, but it still continues to operate.”
During the 2018-2019 Great March of Return demonstrations, Israel killed at least 195 Palestinians, according to a March 2019 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report. In the demonstrations’ aftermath, OCHA “expressed concerns about the excessive use of force deployed by [Israel forces] contrary to applicable standards under international law,” the report said.
“From the beginning of this war it became apparent that the difference with previous wars on Gaza was between an ordinary flood and a tsunami,” Abu Sittah said in reference to the scale of destruction inflicted by Israel.
With health needs continuing to soar in Gaza, a December 4 World Health Organization news update cited Palestinian Health Ministry figures that indicate a 171% bed occupancy rate among dwindling numbers of functional hospitals. Worse still, intensive care units have a 221% occupancy rate.
“Gaza cannot afford to lose another hospital,” the WHO further warned.
Systematic targeting of Gaza’s health sector
Israel troops besieged Gaza’s Al Shifa medical complex in November. “Israeli forces raided Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital on Wednesday after laying siege of the enclave’s largest medical facility for days,” Al Jazeera reported on November 15.
Later reports from Al Jazeera on November 27 said that Israeli tankers and troops laid siege on Northern Gaza’s Indonesian Hospital.
On November 15, Israel forces posted via X that they were carrying out a “a precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the Shifa Hospital, based on intelligence information and an operational necessity.”
Despite their claim, 24 patients at Al Shifa were reported to have died between November 15 and 17 due to Israel’s blockade causing power cuts and manufactured fuel shortages.
“We are left with nothing – no power, no food, no water. With every passing minute, we are losing a life,” Muhammad Abu Salmiya, director of al-Shifa Hospital, told Al Jazeera on November 17.
For Ghassan, Israel has promulgated that Al Shifa was not a hospital from the outset. According to the surgeon, from the beginning, Israel had maintained that “Al Shifa is not a hospital. Underneath it, there are command and control centres. This made it apparent that there was an Israeli decision to target health sector.”
“If I was to be asked ‘what is the safest hospital in Gaza?’ I would have said the Baptist Hospital,” he added. However, as reported by Al Jazeera on October 18, the hospital compound was struck by a bomb blast, killing at least 500 people. As well as patients, many of those killed were civilians taking refuge in the hospital.
In a November 15 Human Rights Watch report, Israel’s destruction of Gazan health facilities was denounced as “unlawful,” with the organisation further calling for a war crimes investigation against the occupying country.
“The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the ICC should investigate,” their report said.
For Ghassan, however, “Israel seems to be the only country which is allowed to systemically target hospitals. After the targeting of the Baptist Hospital, they immediately started targeting other hospitals, including children’s hospitals.”
“Even Palestinian children enjoy no protection in this world,” he said.
Israeli use of white phosphorus
During Tuesday’s talk, Ghassan said he treated patients with white phosphorus burns. “After a wave of incendiary bombs, [Israel] returned to using white phosphorus,” he said.
He further detailed widened usage of the corrosive substance by Israeli forces at Al Shati refugee camp when faced by grassroots resistance.
On November 28, in tandem with the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, the Doctor discussed with New Scotland Yard his eyewitness testimony to charge Israel with war crimes.
When asked by Doha News if he was confident in Israel being duly held to account for its crimes by Scotland Yard, Doctor Abu Sittah said he was “slightly optimistic,” rather than confident. “For the first time [these instances] are being tried in local courts, rather than international courts.”
Israel has used white phosphorus in the past, which when used in densely populated areas, human rights groups say its use amounts to a war crime because its effects are indiscriminate.
The last time Israel employed white phosphorus was in 2009. As confirmed by an Amnesty International report, Israel had deployed white phosphorus in densely civilian populated areas of Gaza.
According to Reuters, in 2013, Israel said it would phase out its usage of white phosphorus munitions after growing criticism of committing war crimes.
Amnesty’s report detailed white phosphorus as a corrosive substance that can burn through flesh and into a person’s bone upon contact. Phosphorus will continue burning the victim until it is exhausted of oxygen.
“Amnesty International’s delegates found still-burning white phosphorus wedges all around residential buildings on Sunday. These wedges were further endangering the residents and their property; streets and alleys are full of children playing,”the report said
The report followed Israel’s December 2008 to January 2009 assault on the Gaza strip. According to Middle East Monitor, during the three weeks offensive, almost 1,400 Palestinains were killed, with scores more injured.
In an August 2009 report by France 24, Israel admitted use of white phosphorus munitions during the combat, but denied violating international law “claiming that such weapons were not fired into areas populated by civilians.”
When asked by Doha News what justice for Palestine and its people would look like, Doctor Ghassan said “freedom, and an end to this unending occupation.”