Norwegian born Dr. Mads Gilbert starts his presentation.

“The Israel-Palestine relationship is not a difficult conflict; it is a difficult occupation,” said Norwegian-born physician Dr. Mads Gilbert on Oct. 6,  as he began speaking before a crowd of silent onlookers gathered at St. George Maronite Center in the Phoenician Ballroom.

The faces in the crowd were barely lit up by the bluish light of two projector screens on the left and right wings of the stage where the doctor stood. For the next two hours, riding on the inertia of his polemical thesis, Dr. Gilbert described in graphic detail how his experiences treating victims of bombings in the frantic operating rooms of Al-Shifa hospital – the largest medical facility in Gaza – underpinned his solidarity with the stateless Palestinian people.

The organization San Antonio for Justice in Palestine (SAJP) hosted Dr. Gilbert as part of their annual fundraising event “A Night of Hope.” As one of the group’s organizers,  UTSA student Moureen Kaki described the organization, SAJP “was founded to bring awareness to the social, humanitarian and political injustices committed against the people of Palestine.” Partnered with KinderUSA, a non-profit that describes themselves as  “the leading American Muslim organization focused on the health and well-being of Palestinian children,” SJAP uses the “Night of Hope” event to “specifically focus on the humanitarian crisis that affects the children of Gaza, whose lives are punctuated by bombings and are consistently at a shortage of basic necessities including shelter, water, food and electricity” all of which, Kaki said, is “controlled by Israel.”

The group invites prominent international voices to give a presentation each year to cover different dimensions of the Israel-Palestine relationship to attract benefactors willing to make donations to the people of Gaza. Before Dr. Gilbert took to the podium, dancers dressed in black & silver garments rushed about floor of the ballroom, performing a choreographed dance traditional to the Levant region– Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine— known as the “Dabke.”

Dancers performing the Dabke.

Dancers performing the Dabke.

Gilbert’s presentation was interspersed with video clips and photographs of carnage and chaos that the documented over his 31-years of working as a volunteer surgeon in Palestine, Dr. Mads Gilbert was nuanced and careful not to demean the dignity of the Palestinian people he’d grown so intimate with.

Despite having witnessed what he described as “ethnic cleansing” during Israeli attacks, like the 51-day bombardment of Gaza in Summer of 2014 known as “Operation Protective Edge,” he said emphatically that “the Palestinians are a resilient people.”

In a complex juxtaposition of hell and redemptive humor, at one point, Dr. Gilbert described the condition of an operating room at Al-Shifa during that Summer’s bombing campaign as a literal slaughterhouse. In the next breath, however, he described the operating room’s cleaner as a young man named “Shadi” who “always had a joke” and never caved under the duress of the influx of patients that arrived in urgent need of life-saving emergency surgery. This strength still intact, according to recordings taken by Dr. Gilbert during his stay, even as the whirr of Israeli drones were audible just outside the hospital walls. “These are the true heroes,” Gilbert said. “I am just a proxy of their stories.”

For the audience, though, one could tell emulating Dr. Gilbert’s balancing act of joy and pain was not easy. With each statistic and story, like the fact of 2,220 Palestinian and 71 Israeli civilians were killed during Operation Protective Edge, a story of bloody amputation or counting the senseless deaths of 551 children, tears fell around the room. Still, to all this, Dr. Gilbert said repeatedly  that “pity helps no one.”

This is not because he is heartless. Throughout his talk, the emotive inflection of his voice made it clear that such a conclusion would be unfair to make about him. At times, he was strident, such as when he reminded the audience that the occupation of Palestine by Israel is “U.S financed and diplomatically shielded.”

Dr. Gilbert autographs a copy of his book ‘Night in Gaza’

Dr. Gilbert autographs a copy of his book ‘Night in Gaza’

During other moments, he displayed a mix of sympathy and love, such as when he recounted a young boy he had treated in Lebanon in the 80’s who became a double amputee as the result of an Israeli bomb attack. The boy insisted on learning to properly bandage and care for his own wounds. As Gilbert tells the audience, “he learned to do it perfectly and would sing national songs to others walking around the ward.”

The real reason Dr. Gilbert disparages pity is found in something he suggested to the audience: “We have to try to avoid being Orientalist and projecting victim-hood onto a people who display such pride.”

This view extends itself into his medical philosophy as well. “I’ve been more of a teacher than a doctor,” Gilbert said. “Sharing knowledge is sharing power. Many relief efforts that the West do is not sustainable because it’s just going there for a short while and then leaving.”

Because this approach is prescriptive and imposing, Gilbert describes practicing medicine this way as neo-colonial. Instead, he said  “My own philosophy is to let the patient guide the process,” Gilbert said. “Self-determination is an important part of mutual respect, especially if you are coming from the white world. When I work in Palestine, I say ‘how can I help?’ I do not order. I am at their disposal.”

Gilbert also stressed knowing the facts on the ground in places like Gaza, because “unlike emotions, they do not lie.” He derided the “false equivalency” between Israel and Palestine that emotions can sometimes lead you toward creating. Couching his observations in international covenants like the Geneva Conventions, he condemned Israel for it’s  “lack of proportionality and discrimination of civilian versus military targets,” maxims which the conventions detail to constrain acts of war and minimize harm.

Calling it a struggle against “propaganda”, he insisted in fighting over the terms we use to define the issue (“occupation” vs. “conflict,” “apartheid” and “settler-colonialism”) and encouraged young students in San Antonio to “throw away the remote” and partake in resolving the “greatest political conflict of our time” by supporting grassroots international pressure groups like the “International Solidarity Movement” and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and using websites like “whoprofits.org” to identify companies with a financial stake in maintaining the status quo.

For herself, Kaki said Palestinian solidarity activism in San Antonio can have a direct effect on the geopolitics of what many in West consider a faraway quaramire.  

“It’s especially important to San Antonians to understand these issues because of the presence of Cornerstone Church, an institution that uses religion to propagate Israel’s Zionist apartheid agenda,” Kaki said.

Gilbert explained some basic census-style data to make his point about the immorality of bombing Gaza. He told the audience, “Gaza is one of the most population dense areas of the world. It’s home to 1.8 million people and is only 140.9 square miles in size. The average age of a person living in Gaza is 17.6 years of age,” Gilbert said. “When Israel fights wars, it fights them against children. If you are eight years of age or older, you’ve already been through four attacks on your life,” (Operation Summer Rain, Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense, and Operation Protective Edge.)

Dr. Gilbert is currently banned from entering the Occupied territories on the pretext that he is “a threat to national security.”

SJAP has raised $12,000 for the children of Gaza.

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