19 January 2009: Dr Atallah, a physician in Gaza, invited us to meet him in his home in Gaza City, just a few blocks away from the Shifaa Hospital.
Early this morning, he and his family returned to their home after having fled five days earlier when the bombing attacks on Gaza City had become so fierce that they feared for their lives.
“Believe me, when I would drive from the hospital to the place where my family was staying, I prayed all the way,” said Dr Atallah, “because the Israelis would shoot anyone on the roads at night.”
Dr Atallah has been practicing medicine as a general surgeon all of his adult life. Now, at age 61, he says he has never seen such terrible and ugly wounds as he saw during the past three weeks when he and a surgical team tried to help numerous patients with broken limbs, shrapnel wounds, and severe burns. Neurosurgeons, vascular surgeons, orthopaedic and general surgeons worked together on patients, as a team, trying to save them, but there were many whose lives they couldn’t save.
He described patients with shrapnel wounds in their eyes, faces, chests and abdomens, patients whose legs were amputated above the knee. Most, he said, were civilians.
“These are strange ways of destroying the human body,” said Dr Atallah. “Please, come tomorrow to the Burn Unit, and you will see patients suffering from the use of white phosphorus.”
Dr Atallah said that he began to understand the extent of the trauma and danger by listening to the stories of wounded and injured patients.
“Some were sitting in their houses when a tank bomb hit them. They didn’t know what happened to them,” said Dr Atallah. “Survivors would reach the hospital after many of their relatives had been killed.”
Patients from Beit Lahia told him that in one case, an extended family of 25 people had been attacked while inside their home. When relatives came to help them, Israeli snipers shot eight of them. Many of the wounded were left to die. Ambulances and Red Cross relief workers were not allowed to enter the area.
At one point, Israel announced a lull in the fighting, but then bombed the Palestine Square, near the municipal offices. Four people came to the hospital, severely injured. “We couldn’t save them,” said Dr Atallah. “Seven others were injured, and they survived.”
“In Gaza City, all of the important buildings necessary for maintaining a city have been bombed,” said Dr Atallah. “From ministries to civilian police stations, all have been destroyed. Some were Hamas buildings, but not all.”
We had just walked through the area where the buildings housing ministries of justice, education and culture were completely destroyed. Driving into Gaza City we saw mosques, factories, houses and schools reduced to rubble. We asked Dr Atallah to tell us why, in his opinion, the Israelis had attacked Gaza so fiercely.
He believes that the attacks are essentially irrational, but that a main cause for the timing and the magnitude of these attacks is that certain Israeli candidates for upcoming elections want to assure the Israeli public that they are willing to use military force to ensure security for Israelis. “Palestinians all the time pay the taxes in blood,” said Dr Atallah.
“One of the worst aspects of this war,” says Dr Atallah, “is the lack of respect for the UN. Three United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools were bombed. In Jabaliyah, more than 45 people were killed at a UN school; F-16s bombed UNRWA supplies and stores.”
“In Shifaa Hospital, we saw plumes of smoke day and night. All Gaza, every day, was covered with smoke and chemicals. We don’t know how it affects the health.”
“Yes, ‘rocklets’ did go out,” says Dr Atallah, referring to Hamas rockets fired into Israeli towns, “and we felt sympathy for any Israelis hurt by the rocklets. But, if someone hurts you with a pin, you don’t cut off his head. You ask WHY the person tried to prick you with a pin. Consider that people here are trapped in a prison and there is a shortage of everything. No one can repair anything. People wanted borders opened so that goods could come and go. After six months of closed borders, people are frustrated. Now, one side declares a ceasefire, they say nothing about opening the borders, nothing about withdrawal, and yet they want NATO to help tighten the siege.”
“I hope President Obama will be much better than George Bush concerning these things,” said Dr Atallah. “Human beings that have such a strong army should be civilised and not behave like a terrorist group. Fanatics can be expected to use terror, but a democratic state shouldn’t use fallacious statements as an excuse for massive killing. A state which does this should be brought before an International Court of Justice.”
The strongest weapon
“And yet,” he said, “we must experiment with ways of love. We are trying, with Jewish people… by feelings and actions. We need to succeed. We need to live together. We are trying to be in good relations with all the partners, all the views.”
“The strongest weapon all over the world is love,” says Dr Atallah, adding that he has always believed this and has said this to his colleagues, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, throughout his career.
He recalled declaring this same belief at the Eretz border crossing, shortly after the Israelis launched “Operation Cast Lead” on 27 December. He had been among the 200 Christians who were chosen (800 had applied) to cross the border and celebrate the Orthodox Christmas holiday with family members in the West Bank. When the attacks began, he ended his holiday and hurried to the border, knowing he must return to his work and his family. At the border crossing, he greeted soldiers, “Merry Christmas.”
Soldiers answered, “Do you have weapons?”
“Yes,” Dr Atallah replied, “I have the strongest weapon of all, the weapon of love.”