Calls alone won’t solve Gaza conflict

2014-08-10 15:00

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For three weeks now I’ve been gripped with a horrible sense of powerlessness and seething frustration.

Civilians are being killed, maimed and injured as fighting in the Gaza-Israel conflict intensifies.

The Israeli Defence Forces continues to rain a torrent of bombs and shells on Gaza – a place roughly the size of the city of Joburg, but nearly twice as densely populated.

I get alarming daily dispatches from colleagues working in Gaza – a city under siege, where no one is safe. Many of the patients lucky enough to make it to the emergency rooms where we are working die within minutes due to the severity of their injuries, and hospitals are also being bombed.

Our teams working alongside Palestinian medical staff can only offer the best possible medical care to the injured and try to save as many of the critically wounded as possible under difficult circumstances.

But we have become acutely aware of the limits of our action: you cannot stop this war with doctors.

And as a South African, I am worried our government is not playing a strong enough part in ending the bloodshed, which is not only an affront to our conscience, but to the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

President Jacob Zuma’s dispatch of a delegation to convey the South African government’s “growing concern” about what is a humanitarian disaster is not enough.

Despite the very clear rules of war under International Humanitarian Law, hospitals are no longer places of safety in Gaza. Just this week, Al-Shifa, Gaza’s biggest hospital and the main referral hospital for the entire strip, was hit by Israeli fire.

In the past month, other hospitals have been targeted. And a week ago, when Al-Wafa Hospital received a warning that it was to be destroyed, hospital staff were forced to make extremely tough decisions about what to do about the patients on oxygen lifelines who could not be moved from their beds.

Nurses trying to evacuate patients into the streets collapsed from smoke inhalation as the attack started. It was remarkable that no one was killed.

We are adamant that hospitals shouldn’t be bombed – but neither should schools, or a civilian population trapped in what has been called “an open-air prison”.

Israel’s military is showing disregard for civilian life and infrastructure in its offensive. The power supply, unstable at best, is now down for 20 hours a day due to damage following the bombing of the strip’s only power station.

This affects everything from the work we do in operating theatres to the water pumps that provide water to the entire population. Today, 80%

of Gaza’s population cannot access safe drinking water.

We have seen that the “advanced warning” systems that Israeli authorities boast of to the international media do little to prevent deaths and injuries. Our doctors have seen patients who have been maimed by missiles that hit UN schools, designated as shelters for the terrified population.

With more than 40% of the area of the Gaza Strip labelled off-limits by Israel, ostensibly to prevent civilian deaths, people do not know where to find safety for their families any more.

They have nowhere to run and, with the blockade in place, precious few basic medical supplies can reach the teams trying to help them.

It’s high time the South African government steps up efforts based on our own history of overcoming oppression and violence through negotiation.

The outpouring of support from South Africans to the people of Gaza in recent weeks, as well as our government’s historic support of the people of Palestine generally, is rooted in a recognition that parts of their ongoing struggle mirror our own history.

Are there lessons to be learnt from the international community’s isolation of apartheid South Africa as a diplomatic tactic to force a permanent change?

These are not the first military attacks we have witnessed along with the people of Palestine. For this reason, we know that “humanitarian” ceasefires and truces have minimal impact on a fraught and desperate population, who live in fear of the next bombardment.

South Africa needs to rediscover its conscience and add its voice, loud and clear, to the call for a solution – not a truce, not a temporary ceasefire, but a political solution that stops the bloodshed on both sides.

Barnwell is president of Doctors Without Borders Southern Africa

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