Israel-Gaza conflict: Medical charity official likens job to ‘patching up torture victims in an open-air prison’

Comments by senior Médecins Sans Frontières official expose ethical dilemma of humanitarian work in conflict zones

Robert Fisk
Friday 18 July 2014 13:02
A Palestinian man is left distraught after losing relatives in an air strike
A Palestinian man is left distraught after losing relatives in an air strike

In an unprecedented criticism of the Israeli siege of Gaza, a senior official in the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) humanitarian charity has described his organisation’s work among the 1.8 million besieged Palestinian refugees as akin to being “in an open-air prison to patch up prisoners in between their torture sessions”.

Jonathan Whittall, head of humanitarian analysis at MSF, who worked in Libya during the 2011 war, in Bahrain during the uprising of the same year, in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan and Darfur, has bluntly asked his colleagues: “At what point does MSF’s repeated medical action in an unacceptable situation [like Gaza] become complicity with aggression and oppression?”

Unlike other medical charities, MSF has always encouraged its staff to speak frankly about the dangers and moral problems they face, and the long and passionate report from Mr Whittall – unlike those of other humanitarian groups, which prefer to silence their staff – is in keeping with MSF’s rules. But its accusations against Israel are sure to arouse fierce Israeli condemnation during a disproportionate war – supposedly fought to prevent Hamas rocket attacks on Israel – in which the Israeli military has killed well over 200 civilians, many of them women and children.

“An entire population is trapped in what is essentially an open-air prison,” Mr Whittall writes. “They can’t leave and only the most limited supplies – essential for basic survival – are allowed to enter. The population of the prison have elected representatives and organised social services.

“Some of the prisoners have organised into armed groups and resist their indefinite detention by firing rockets over the prison wall. However, the prison guards are the ones who have the capacity to launch large-scale and highly destructive attacks on the open-air prison.”

In a comparison which is also certain to infuriate Israel, Mr Whittall, who is based in Beirut, says that the limitations of humanitarian groups in Gaza are not unique. “In 2012,” he writes, “MSF closed its projects in the prisons of Misrata, Libya. Our doctors were outraged to be in a position where we were providing treatment to patients who were being tortured by state authorities. At the time, MSF spoke out strongly: ‘Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not repeatedly to treat the same patients between torture sessions’.”

Since 2010, MSF has run a post-operation clinic in Gaza City, where 80 per cent of the patients suffer from severe burns, and provides specialised hand surgery in the Nasser hospital at Khan Younis, and intensive care training to medical and paramedical personnel at both the Nasser and Shifa hospitals.

During conflict, Mr Whittall adds, “the voice of outrage of MSF medical teams is drowned out by the propaganda war that erupts each time a [military] operation such as this takes place and by the concerns that too loud a voice of criticism could cut off the organisation’s surgical teams from being able to reach the Gaza Strip.” Although Mr Whittall does not say so, the same constraints were felt by humanitarian groups when confronted by civilian populations in desperate need of help in the Syrian war.

The MSF official also notes that while confronting the “limits of humanitarianism” is a daily reality for MSF field workers, “it is made only more apparent by the duration of the suffering and the international political configuration that allows for the sick political statements and endless violence to continue.” Mr Whittall says that as “the open-air prison of Gaza braces for more air raids and a possible ground operation,” the limits of MSF’s work remain obvious, and he demands that Palestinians should be allowed “to move freely and to seek safety in times of violence, including into Egypt… Civilians and civilian infrastructure – including medical workers, health centres and ambulances – should never be targeted. Humanitarian aid and its workers should be given unhindered access at all times – not as a favour but as a legal responsibility.”

Mr Whittall’s analysis will evoke much sympathy among other humanitarian organisations, and with EU officials who find that their assistance in the Palestinian occupied territories or Gaza is taken for granted – or even abused – by the Israelis. EU humanitarian projects, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have been destroyed by the Israeli army – with afterwards scarcely a breath of criticism from the EU itself, which has no connection with MSF.

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