Interview with Dr. Mads Gilbert

An excellent interview from Edmonton’s Vue Weekly with PSN’s upcoming speaker, Dr. Mads Gilbert.

Isolated Aid
Western doctor witness to brutal occupation

David Berry /

Norweigan politician and physician Dr. Mads Gilbert has seen more than his share of horror in the Middle East. After visiting Beirut during the Isreal-L ebanon war, and witnessing the bombing of West Beirut in 1982, he has devoted his life to medical solidarity work with the injured and infirm of one of the world’s most volatile and violent in areas.

For the past 15 years, he has focused his efforts on Palestine, training medical professionals and providing medical aid for civilians during the Israeli occupation. It was this work that lead to him and his colleauge Dr. Erik Fosse to Gaza in late 2008 when Israel began its bombing campaign. Due to the clamping down on western doctors and media by the Israeli government, they would become the only western witnesses to the brutal and horrific attacks.

Dr. Gilbert is coming to Edmonton to share his experiences during the attacks as part of the Palestinian Solidarity Network’s Eyes in Gaza event, commemorating the one-year anniversary of the incident. Vue Weekly had a chance to speak with Dr. Gilbert from his home in Norway, just before he left for his cross-Canada tour.

VUE WEEKLY: When you were going in, were you aware that you were going to be the only western doctors in Palestine through the entire conflict?

MADS GILBERT: No, absolutely not. We’re used to working in war zones, not only in Palestine but in other parts of the world, and normally you always find a large contingent of international relief workers, like we see in Haiti now. This was not so in Gaza: it was completely void, not at all the usual caravan of humanitarian efforts. It was empty: no western journalists, no western relief agencies, except for the UN system and the brave professionals there, but the large majority of them are Palestinians. So in fact that was a very weird situation, because it was a disaster and there was no disaster relief there, because they had been denied by Israel and, I’m sorry to say, in part by Egypt. We met a large number of Arab professionals in El Arish who were denied access.

VW: As someone who has been in the area for nearly 30 years now, how would you compare the events of the most recent attacks to some of your previous experiences in Gaza?

MG: I thought in 1982 that I would never ever experience anything as brutal as the bombing of West Beirut, but I’m sorry to say that Gaza succeeded my previous experience. It’s my worst experience ever from a war scenario. The very important thing is that Gaza, having been under siege for many years before, was already on its knees before these attacks started. There was a lack of everything. The population of one and a half million civilians were very hungry, many of them were sick—they had anemia, many of them—and the healthcare system also was degraded, of course. This was really an attack that came on a society that already had a broken backbone.

VW: How much of an effect did the fact that there was such a lack of any kind of western observation have on the severity of the attacks and the situation in Gaza?

MG: I have said before and I maintain that the attack would have lasted one week and not three weeks if western media had been present, and could have showed the world what kind of strategy the Israeli military used. The bombing of civilian houses. Widespread bombing of ambulances. The large number of women and children casualties—every second injured was a child or a woman. All that would have been relayed much more effectively to the public in the west, and I have no doubt that there would have been a very different political pressure on the USA and on Isreal to stop the bombings. Israel really wanted to draw the curtain on Gaza, and in darkness perform their attacks. And having been there, I can understand why they would want that, because the consequences were so dire, and the brutality of the attacks so immense.

VW: When did you realize how important witnessing would be? Was this something you expected to do going in, or was it something that only became apparent when you realized no other western doctors or media would be coming?

MG: It was pretty much immediately. When we got in on New Year’s Eve, there was a striking absence of western media. We were immediately approached by Palestinian and other Arab journalists—at any given time, there are about 600 Arab professional journalists in Gaza, and many of them are contracted with western media outlets. But part of the plot from Israel’s side was that all of the Arab-looking or Arab-native journalists would be bashed as Hamas spokespeople. So pretty much immediately we understood that we had to answer their questions, and as the days passed on, we understood that our information and our observations were quite important for the world to understand what was going on.

VW: What sort of attacks did you come under, then? I imagine if they were painting Arab journalists as Hamas supporters, anyone who spoke out would get a similar treatment.

MG: We were attacked all the time. Fox News ran an interview with me and they put it on their website with the caption ‘Hamas propaganda doctor.’ Of course Israel’s strategy was to try and stain our names by calling us all sorts of things. We have never, ever tried to hide that we support the Palestinian people, but of course we also defend the Israeli peoples right to exist in peace with their neighbours. But the core problem of the situation for most people is the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and we have never made any secret of the fact that we go to Gaza or the West Bank to do medical solidarity work for the Palestinian people because we think they have a just cause. One may dislike or disagree with that, but the fact that we were called liars or unreliable sources by the Israeli government, without any substantiation or proof of errors on our side in what we supported, well, that was a clear-cut smear campaign, and had nothing to do with the content of what we reported. And they keep going with that.

VW: You’ve been quite critical in the past of medical organizations who are reluctant to take a political stance when it comes to conflict issues. But some of the troubles you have come from your very clear political stances. Do you think you would have less trouble if you were less forthright about your politics, or do you think they would attack anyone who was reporting the way you were?

MG: I think the core problem is that once you support the Palestinian people, you will be attacked and smeared by the Israeli state machinery and by the pro-Israeli lobby. Regardless of your position or your ethnicity or your history, they will attack you. Look at what they’ve been doing to Richard Falk, who is a Jew himself and a distinguished international-law expert. Look what they’ve been doing to Richard Goldstone: both of them have been denied access to Israel, despite the fact they’re both Jews, and both Zionists. It’s part of the technique to portray anyone who criticizes, no matter their background, like that.

Wed, Jan 27 (6:30 pm)
Eyes in Gaza
With Dr. Mads Gilbert
ETLC 1-007, U of A Campus
Presented by the Palestine Solidarity Network

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