The US Department of State revoked Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sitta’s visa the day before travelling to the US. It is believed that his medical missions in Iraq and Palestine were factors in this decision. Due to this reason Dr. Abu-Sitta was unable to attend in-person as planned.
Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sitta, Head of the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Department at the AUB Medical Center, began with a prerecorded presentation. He has been volunteering at Alwada Hospital in the Gaza Strip for years to provide much needed medical aid to injured Palestinians. Dr. Abu-Sitta helped launch the Conflict Medicine Program at AUB, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to the consequences of war, as part of a wider strategic reshaping of healthcare provision. His book, Reconstructing the War Injured Patient, raises awareness of what it means to care for victims who suffer not only from war injuries but also from the punishing conditions created by the collapse of infrastructure, including health systems.
During his most recent mission, in May of 2018, at Alwada Hospital in Gaza Dr. Abu-Sitta bore witness to the Palestinian Great March of Return, which calls for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. On March 30, 2018, a six-week campaign composed of a series of protests was launched at the Gaza Strip, near the Gaza-Israel border. “It was during this time, that nearly 10,000 Palestinians were injured by Israeli Defense Forces of which 2,210 suffered from gunshot wounds”, emphasized Dr. Sitta. The Alwada Hospital had 500 patients on the waiting list for reconstructive surgery from these injuries.
Frontline field hospitals were created as stabilization points to receive injured protestors as a means of increasing survival rates for patients being directed to the hospitals. On May 14th alone, over 3,000 Palestinians had been injured. “80% of patients suffering from gunshot wounds were in the lower limbs,” he noted “and of all gunshot wounds over 70% were from high velocity rounds.” It has been estimated that 30% of victims were children.
“Had the demonstrations gone anymore it would have collapsed the local health system,” says Dr. Sitta, “hospitals within the area were beyond capacity.”
It was immediately clear that the Israeli Defense Force was using fragmentation bullets, designed to fragment upon impact of the body causing massive tissue damage and injury to nerves. In many cases, these injuries necessitated immediate amputation. Many of the wounded continued to return to the protests even as the IDF continued its deadly crackdown.
“It is not just the bullets and physical damage that are taking a toll on Gaza,” says Dr. Sitta. It is estimated that 95% of Gaza’s water is undrinkable, there are only 4 hours of electricity per day, roughly 45% unemployment and 2 million are denied freedom of movement. “The overwhelming majority of my patients have never been outside of Gaza and anyone 7 years or older has lived through 3 wars thus far.” The Palestinian people continue to live under oppression with little hope in sight that the Israeli government seeks to change its current control over Palestine. Dr. Abu-Sitta closed his presentation with a warning - “with the death toll continuing to rise it is clear that we are reaching another boiling point as the Palestinians make clear that they will not tolerate another 12 years of siege.”
Mohammed Alhammami, third-generation Palestinian refugee from Jaffa, born and raised in Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip added a new lens from which to view the conflict in Gaza. “We don’t often connect the numbers with the stories,” he began “the media focuses on figures, but the lives behind the figures become lost.” Through his work with We Are Not Numbers, an initiative to connect young Palestinian writers with mentors, Mohammed has seen the power of Palestinians reclaiming their narrative. Agency is critical in empowering Palestinians and statistics often times erase identities.
Majd al Waheidi, former reporter in Gaza for the New York Times, provided further evidence for the need of nuanced narratives in covering the conflict. During her time reporting in Gaza she was particularly moved by the story of Hassan, a 28 year old Palestinian attempting to obtain medical treatment in Egypt. After repeated attempts to cross into Egypt, he attempted to swim across the maritime border. He was immediately shot and killed by Egyptian border guards. It is a visceral example of the human rights abuses Palestinians experience on a daily basis.
Audience members engaged with the panelists, with a particular interest in Dr. Abu-Sitta’s work in Gaza. The graphic photos he shared of patients with the room elicited strong reactions with many audience members asking how they could help to effect change. Dr. Sitta and the panelists all agreed that continuing conversations such as these, to keep the spotlight on the Palestinian crisis and holding the US and Israeli governments accountable for these actions are paramount.