Interview with the Norewegian physician who helped the oppressed people of Gaza


Erik Fosse

Kourosh Ziabari – Fars News Agency: Dr. Erik Fosse, a prominent Norwegian medical doctor, who has been in the Gaza Strip during the recent Israeli incursion tells Fars News Agency about his experiences with the deadly Israeli aggression and its impacts on the Palestinian civilians.

According to Dr. Erik Fosse, more than 400 children were killed during the Israeli regime’s military operation in Gaza since early July and about 30% of the injured are children 18 years old or below (the international bodies have put the number at over 475).

“I’ve worked in the Middle East and with the Palestinians for more than 30 years, and what often surprises me is not the fact that so many people get traumatized by these wars, but that all the young people that experience tragedies like this are so resilient and end up growing courageous people,” he said.

Erik Fosse is a Norwegian physician and professor of medicine at the University of Oslo. He is the director of the Intervention Centre at the National Hospital “Rikshospitalet”. Dr. Fosse is known globally for his humanitarian work in Palestine both during the 2008-2009 Gaza Massacre and also in the recent war that the Tel Aviv regime launched on Gaza in July.

Working with another Norwegian doctor Mads Gilber in the war-hit Gaza, Fosse has been at the center of Israeli and Western media’s attention in the recent weeks. They’ve been providing medical services to the severely injured Palestinians in the Al-Shifa Hospital. In 2013, the two Norwegian colleagues published a book entitled “Eyes in Gaza” which is a first-hand account of their observations during sixteen days of presence in the besieged Gaza Strip during the 2008-2009 22-day war. Last year, King Harald V of Norway appointed Fosse as Commander of the Order of St. Olav.

In an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency, Erik Fosse talks about his impressions about the children of Gaza who have been the target of Israel’s ceaseless airstrikes, the psychological difficulties the people of Gaza undergo as a result of losing the members of their family, the international community’s response to the war on Gaza and the legal aspects of Israel’s deadly offensive into the besieged enclave. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: Would you please tell us about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip since you have been there for the last time, the situation of the hospitals and their treatment of the injured? Please, give us a picture of the situation in the caged Gaza Strip.

A: I left the Gaza Strip three weeks ago and there are two major problems. First is the background of the humanitarian situation due to the siege that has lasted now for seven years, which caused serious problems to the Gaza’s economy, including the huge unemployment. The people of Gaza have compensated for a long time for the consequences of the siege through the tunnels to Egypt. But after the coup d’etat in Egypt last year, the tunnels were closed down and therefore the impact of the siege by Israel is now stronger and much more notable.

The main problem of the siege is its impact on economy; there’s no trade, and business is impossible. They made some money on the tunnels, which means that the money could get into the Gaza Strip, but now the tunnels are closed down. This is the main impact, because it makes Gaza a society with no normal business and no real money flow. This is very bad for the society.

Then, of course, you have the impact on the getting of fuel and technology for the generators and daily life. This impacts the people’s ability to get electricity and clean water. Then we have the direct impact on goods such as foodstuff and clothing for the people with little money. It’s also becoming extremely difficult for the hospitals to get instruments and medicine. This is taking a lot of time and also is becoming so expensive for them. Then we have the current situation with the civilian casualties that we have seen in the previous attacks like this, as of course in the present situation. I must say that today, the number of casualties, the number of injured and destroyed buildings are much higher than the attacks in 2008-2009. We have more than 9,000 injured and close to 2,000 dead and that’s more than what we saw in 2009.

For the hospitals, this means that since the war started on the sixth of July until now, they have been on constant alert, including the Al-Shifa hospital where I worked. The staff work one day on and one day off, and they’ve been doing this for more than one month. And when they are on the job, they have to work almost 24 hours continuously, because they are receiving so many injured people, and they should fight against the clock to make as many people as possible survive. The dirts, dispensables and other resources at the hospitals are reaching a maximum point, and this is an impossible situation that has lasted for one month, that is a very long time, while I will remind you that the war in 2008-2009 lasted three weeks.

Q: It was in the reports that during its month-long incursion into the Gaza Strip, Israel used banned weapons, including depleted uranium and white phosphorus against the civilian population. Is it true, and if so, then what is the impact of using such materials on the unarmed civilians?

A: Actually, I have no information about the depleted uranium or phosphorus. It’s allowed to use phosphorus weapon, but it depends on how you use it. About the depleted uranium, I don’t know. I think the most important thing about what we have seen by the use of weapons is that it’s legal to use weapons against military organizations. The problem is that we see very sophisticated and accurate weapons used against the civilian population. So, it’s not necessarily that such weapons are illegal; it’s more related to the way they are used. When it comes to depleted uranium, I think it’s also a matter of the type of weapons and explosives which contain the uranium. I personally have no experience in this war of depleted uranium or phosphorus weapons, but I have seen patients hit by very accurate weapons, bombs and rockets. Also, you can question the routine of bombing civilian houses because, even if they [the Israelis] announce the bombing 80 seconds before they bomb, this cannot be in accordance with the international law.

Q: Something which has been very much discussed in the recent weeks by the media is that as a result of the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, it was impossible for the hospitals to get medicine and medical supplies needed for the treatment of the patients and wounded, especially the children who were affected during the attacks. Do you have any specific information on that?

A: We could get some, but there were definitely things which we couldn’t find in Gaza. It was really difficult to get them through, particularly from Israel, so that is correct. It’s also the case that there were medical persons, people like me – I had to leave Gaza after one week, and then I tried to get back 10 days later, but I was not allowed in and never got any permission to enter again. And I think this was also an experience for lots of international organizations that because of the siege, weren’t allowed to send health workers in. I stayed one week in Israel trying to get a permission to enter Gaza by the end of the attack.

Q: What do you think about the international responses to the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip and the silence of the Western governments that even refused to verbally condemn the massive civilian casualties? Why do you think they didn’t show any firm reaction and were so inattentive to the atrocities that took place in this one month of continued attacks on the besieged Gaza?

A: Well, I don’t know why, but I’m disappointed by the European Union and the United States in this [sic] and think it’s quite clear whatever they think about the Palestinians and Hamas as an organization or Israel, there’s definitely a huge asymmetry in the casualties. Hamas has fired more than 3,000 rockets against Israel, but in fact the casualties are really low. The main casualties on the Israeli side are military personnel. If you look at the Palestinian side, the story is completely different. The majority of victims are civilians, 35% are under 18 years and children and also the absolute majority of the injured are civilians.

Whatever you think of the parties, I’m really shocked that the international community didn’t react strongly to this huge asymmetry and also the deliberate targeting of the houses of the people when you know that the people actually have no income and from the outset live under very bad conditions and if you raid their homes, we will not know the long-term impacts and the number of casualties and the material damages in the months to come can be much more higher, so I’m really surprised that the international community didn’t react directly to the humanitarian disaster and the complete asymmetry of civilian casualties on the two sides.

We cannot really compare rockets fired mostly like symbols against Israel that caused very little damage and the using of most sophisticated weapons directed towards the civilian population of Palestine. And then, they of course explain that Hamas is hiding among the civilians, but I think this argument is not valid. Hamas is a political party. They [the Israelis] are targeting their political leaders and they are by international law identified as civilians. If you look at the location of IDF headquarters in Israel, it’s in the center of Tel Aviv, so they are also hiding among the civilian complexes and this is the same in all countries, so actually there’s no excuse for the enormous attack on the civilian population.

Q: Just recently, the British MP George Galloway has made the argument that if Hamas, as claimed by Israel, is hiding its weapons in the civilian areas and using the people as a human shield, then why should Israel target and attack this human shield? If it knows that the weapons are being put in places where thousands of unarmed civilians live, then why should Israel bomb such areas and regions?

A: That’s an excuse. First of all, Gaza is a densely populated area. There are very few regions where there are no people and I think this is the reason they are attacking the civilians. I think to them these civilian Palestinians are of less value, so they are expendable to get through the weapons. To me, as a medical doctor, what I see is that they attack civilians and I think there’s no valid excuse for that. Then, when it comes to Hamas and its policy, this is another issue. It is a political party and of course they have to be accountable for their actions. This is an asymmetry and a total disregard of the civilian wellbeing and the civilian lives.

We must understand that the United Nations still defines Gaza as an occupied territory and a territory occupied by Israel. That means that Israel is responsible for the civilian wellbeing and health. Therefore, they have a responsibility for these people and I don’t think the way they attack them is showing that responsibility.

Q: During the 2008-2009 Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip known as the Operation Cast Lead and also during the recent military operation against the besieged Gaza, there have been suspicions that Israel used some form of Dense Inert Metal Explosive (Dime) that you said is very much dangerous and destroys everything within a four-meter radius. Would you please explain about the characteristics and impacts of such a material against the civilian population?

A: This is not a dramatic and sinister weapon. This is because the bombs that are carried by unmanned drones have to be very light because the drones cannot carry that much weight. So actually they drop these bombs that have a very strong explosive effect, but in a very short range. On the other hand, these bombs can be navigated, they have small wings, camera, etc. and are extremely dangerous. However, if they are used against the military targets, they are perfectly legal. If they are used against the civilians, that’s of course an illegal use, and since they are very accurate weapons, we have a lot of civilians injured by it, which again, is an illegal use of the weapon.

Concerning the injuries, these weapons don’t create shrapnel in the air. The victim is hit by a liquid metal that is very hot; a lot of energy is emitted in a short distance. These weapons are shot into the ground and a lot of energy comes from down-up so very often we see the lower parts of the body are seriously injured with agitation. This weapon is commonly used in the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

I think it’s wrong to talk about illegal weapons. We should talk about the illegal use of weapons and that is why it is important for us to record what type of weapon has been used if we have a civilian victim, because it should be a very precise and accurate weapon and the victim is a civilian person, and there are no military injured in the same event, so in my opinion that’s much more interesting to discuss. No weapon is legal, even in war, to be used against the civilians. It’s not legal to bomb a house because we suspect something is being hidden there.

Q: Some of the actions of Israel during the recent aggression against the Gaza Strip, according to many international law experts, amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity because of the deliberate targeting of the civilian population. Is it really possible and practical to hold Israel accountable over these crimes and launch an independent inquiry into its conduct? Will the US and its European allies allow such an investigation to take place?

A: Well, I don’t know. But with regard to the 2008-2009 attacks, we had the Goldstone Report and that definitely explained everything to the UN officials regarding that campaign. I think it’s quite natural that they [the Palestinians] follow up with an independent international inquiry by the UN and I really hope that’s going to happen. Then, there will be the international law institutions that have to follow up such issues, but how that’s going to be done, we don’t know. And of course, it’s important that all the UN member states follow this impartially and take action.

Q: Something which has been very much striking during the recent Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip is the killing of children. Do you have any figure of how many children were killed? Why do you think Israel has targeted the children in such a broad extent?

A: In my opinion, we have seen evidence that children have been affected by very precise weapons. I suspect that children are targeted not simply by an accident, because of the nature of the victims. For example, there were four children playing at the beach while they were attacked by a modern cocktail rocket, and there were no adults nearby. It’s very difficult to understand that it was an accident. If you look at the actual numbers, as of August 10, it was 1,935 people killed, at least those whose bodies were found in the ruins, and 9,886 people injured. When we look at the number of children, there are 467. I’m a bit uncertain where they put the age limit, but I think in this statistics, it’s 18 years. So around 24% of the killed are children. And if you look at the injured, there are 3,009 recorded children injured which is close to 30% of the total children. This is very similar to the figures in the Operation Cast Lead.

Q: You’ve been to the Gaza Strip for a long time in 2008-2009 and also in the recent weeks, and have just returned to Norway. What were the most striking and heartrending scenes that you witnessed there? What have been the most important experiences you’ve had, especially in the Al-Shifa hospital which I noted was attacked several times by the Israeli army?

A: The biggest problem for me is the issue of children. It’s not necessarily the injury of the children; but you have an injured child in the bed, and you know that her parents, brothers and sisters are all killed, and so a couple of others; they’re struggling with their own injuries, but eventually we would have to tell them that they no longer have a family, and they have to be taken care of by their uncles or aunts or somebody else. Behind all the figures of the injured and killed, you have several families that have lost their children, and the children that have lost their parents. And of course this is going to be a tragedy for this people for a long time. I’m really sorry about this. I think about my friends in Gaza and the years to come when they have to live with these problems. It’s very difficult for anybody from the outside to really understand or comprehend the situation that is devastating the Palestinian families.

Q: So, what’s your perspective on the psychological impact of the recent war on the people of Gaza? They have to live with bitter and painful memories and heartrending scenes that they constantly witness.

A: As I said, this is something which they have to live with for many years, and they have to cope with it and struggle with it, and for some of them, it’s going to cause a severe damage to their mental health. I’ve worked in the Middle East and with the Palestinians for more than 30 years, and what often surprises me is not the fact that so many people get traumatized by these wars, but that all the young people that experience tragedies like this are so resilient and end up growing courageous people. Of course they will carry this burden and trauma with them, but amazingly the majority of them grow up and become positive and important citizens of the Palestinian society. But of course they have to carry this burden with themselves for their whole life. When you look at these figures, almost 2,000 people killed, the majority of them are parents and children that have to grow up.

Q: And finally, I want to ask you the reason why you have been to the Gaza Strip. There are many Western statesmen, politicians, intellectuals, authors and activists who are watching the mass killing in the beleaguered territory in silence and inaction, but you’re one of those who have broken the wall of silence and took action to help the people of Gaza. What has taken you to Gaza?

A: Well, I work for different organizations and they have projects. I’ve been to Gaza in May this year. We have lots of projects with them. We know them and I’ve worked with them in the wartime. I think that I can make a difference. It’s very important for the leadership of Gaza and my colleagues that somebody come and share his experiences in these difficult times. So, it’s quite natural for me to go there due to a long-term collaboration both in peace and war, and I always support them. I think it’s a privilege because most people in the world have to look at this and have no way of helping, so at least I can be there and support them when they are in such a need. So believe me, in a situation like this, they need all the support they can get from anywhere. I’m honored to have been able to work with them and actually very grateful that I’ve had such an opportunity.

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