“Man-Made Hell on Earth”: A Canadian Doctor on His Medical Mission to Gaza

PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 25 Mar 2024

Jeremy Scahill | The Intercept - TRANSCEND Media Service

Warning: This article contains graphic images.

A 6-year-old Palestinian girl after an eye removal operation at European Hospital near Khan Younis, Gaza. Shrapnel and a 2- to 3-inch stone hit her left eye after the bombing of a building next to the makeshift shelter she was living in with her family. According to Dr. Yasser Khan, her father died and her mother was injured in an Israeli attack. Photo: Yasser Khan

“I saw scenes that were horrific and I never want to see again,” said Yasser Khan, a surgeon from Toronto.

23 Mar 2024 – Throughout the past five and a half months, Israel has waged a full-spectrum war against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. The United States and other Western nations have supplied not only the weapons for this war of annihilation against the Palestinians, but also key political and diplomatic support.

The results of the actions of this coalition of the killing have been devastating. Conservative estimates hold that more than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed, including 13,000 children. More than 8,000 people remain missing, many of them believed to have died in the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli attacks. Famine conditions are now present in large swaths of the Gaza Strip. The fact that the International Court of Justice has found grounds to investigate Israel for plausible acts of genocide in Gaza has not deterred the U.S. and its allies from continuing to facilitate Israel’s war.

The massive scale of human destruction caused by the attacks would pose grave challenges to well-equipped hospitals. In Gaza, however, many health care facilities have been decimated by Israeli attacks or evacuated, while a few remain open but severely limited in the care and services they offer. Israeli forces have repeatedly laid siege to hospital facilities, killing hundreds of medical workers and taking captive scores of others, despite thousands of internally displaced Palestinians sheltering in the health care complexes. This week, Israel again launched raids on Al-Shifa Hospital, reportedly killing more than 140 people.

For months, doctors across Gaza have performed amputations and other high-risk procedures without anesthetics or proper operating rooms. Antibiotics are in short supply and often unavailable. Communicable diseases are spreading, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are forced to live in makeshift shelters with little access to toilets or basic sanitary supplies. Many new mothers are unable to breastfeed and infant formula shortages are common. Israel has repeatedly blocked or delayed aid shipments of vital medical supplies to Gaza. Basic preventative medical care is nearly nonexistent, and medical experts predict that malnutrition will condemn a new generation of young Palestinians to a life of developmental struggles.

The result of the onslaught against medical facilities is that there is only one fully functional hospital remaining in the territory, the European Hospital in Khan Younis. Dr. Yasser Khan, a Canadian ophthalmologist and plastic surgeon, just left Gaza where he spent 10 days at the hospital performing eye surgeries on victims of Israeli attacks. It was his second medical mission to Gaza since the war began last October.

Canadian surgeon Dr. Yasser Khan with a Palestinian boy who sought shelter in the European Hospital near Khan Younis. Khan recently returned from a 10-day medical mission in Gaza.
Canadian surgeon Dr. Yasser Khan with a Palestinian boy who sought shelter in the European Hospital near Khan Younis. Khan recently returned from a 10-day medical mission in Gaza. Photo: Provided by Yasser Khan

What follows is a transcript of a lightly edited interview with Khan.

Jeremy Scahill: Before we talk about your latest medical mission to Khan Younis in Gaza, I wanted to ask you a bit about your background and your medical practice.

Yasser Khan: Well, I’m from the greater Toronto area here in Canada, and I’ve been in practice for about 20 years. I’m an ophthalmologist, but I specialize in eyelid and facial plastic and reconstructive surgery.

So that’s my sub-specialty and that’s what I’ve been doing for about 20 years. And I’m a professor. I’ve been to over 45 different countries on a humanitarian basis where I’ve taught surgery, I’ve done surgery, I’ve established programs. And so I’ve been to many types of areas and zones in Africa, Asia, and South America.

JS: And Dr. Khan, tell us about how you ended up going to Gaza for the first time. I think you went on your first mission over the winter period, but talk about how you ended up even getting on an airplane to go into a war zone where the Israelis were raining scorched earth down on the Palestinians of Gaza.

YK: Well, you know, all these things, you never plan for them. You never plan to go to an area like Gaza. And I was on the first North American mission. It was about eight of us that went, seven or eight of us that went, surgeons from both the U.S. and Canada, and you can never plan for these and it was just a random conversation with one of my surgical colleagues, who’s a thoracic surgeon, by a scrub sink. And, you know, we’ve been watching this mass killing or slaughter for the last — at that point in time for about three months — livestreamed for the first time ever, I think. And so I think a lot of us were suffering, and he caught me in my down moments. He goes, “Listen, I’m going to Gaza.” And I said, “What? How? I mean, how are you getting in? Nobody’s going there, right?” He [says] they’ve been trying for six weeks, and finally the WHO [World Health Organization] gave them the green light and so everything’s fine. “You may not be approved. I know it’s probably too late, but let me send your information in. I mean, who knows? I need your passport, your medical degree, and your blood type.” And to be honest, I didn’t even know what my blood type was. I just guessed AB, and at the time I just sent it to him right away. And two days later, miraculously, I was approved. To get into Gaza, first of all, nobody but a health care worker or a physician or a team can get in, and to get in you have to be approved by the WHO, by the Israeli authorities, and the Egyptian authorities. So that’s how I got in first.

JS: Describe that journey of how you then go from Canada to Gaza. What is it like? How do you end up getting into Gaza?

YK: Well, I had one day to book my flight. I booked my flight. I got as many supplies as I could together, and I flew into Cairo. And from Cairo, you meet a U.N. convoy that leaves every Monday and Wednesday, nowadays, at about 5 a.m., and it’s about an eight, nine-hour journey through the Sinai Desert. It’s long because you go through multiple checkpoints. It’s a demilitarized zone and so there’s Egyptian army checkpoints all the way through. And then we get to the Rafah border, which is right now controlled by Egypt and has been forever. And then you go through your immigration and then you get to the Gaza side and that’s controlled by the Palestinians.

JS: What was your first impression on that first trip once you crossed over from Egypt into Palestinian territory, into Gaza?

YK: I got there at about 6:30 p.m. at night and nobody travels at night. In fact, the U.N.’s time limit is 5:00 p.m. because anything moving at night, the Israeli forces attack through drones or other missile attacks. But, you know, the two guys that came to pick me up from the hospital said, “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it. Trust God.” And so I still went.

So just to describe to you, my first 20 minutes were when I was driving through at night. We were the only car on the road. And it was dark because there’s no fuel, there’s no electricity, so it’s dark, and the road was empty. And I mean, that was quite scary. I basically made my peace with God, and was ready to go at any point in time. But, I’ve never been more happy to see the emergency sign at a hospital, and that’s [when] I knew I’d arrived. The first thing I noticed at the time — this was in Khan Younis — Nasser Hospital and European Gaza Hospital were the only hospitals left in the Gaza Strip, fully functioning hospitals at that point in time.

Khan Younis was still a city, an intact city, but there’s battles going on. So when I exited the car, I could hear the 24-hour buzzing of drones, and it was quite loud, 24 hours, it never went away. I never saw the drones myself because they’re high up, but it’s Israeli drones: There’s either spy drones or there’s a quadcopter, which is the weaponized drone that can fire missiles and gunfire. And so they’re humming around. The other thing that I heard was bombs. And like a “boom” of bombs, basically every hour, every two or three hours; there was like bombs that would shake everything up. So that’s the first images I had.

But the other images I had was like a mass refugee camp. So basically at that point in time, two months ago, about 20,000 people had sought refuge both in the hospital and outside the hospital. And these weren’t tents. They’re still not tents. They’re makeshift shelters with bed sheets or plastic bag sheets. The ones outside sleep on the floor. They’re lucky [if] they get a carpet or a mat. There was one bathroom at the time for about 200 people that they have to share. And inside, the hallways of the hospital were also made into shelters. There was hardly any room to walk, and there’s children running around everywhere. It’s important to remember all these people were not homeless. They all had homes that were destroyed. They’re all displaced people that took shelter in the hospital.

Khan estimates that some 30,000 Palestinians are now living in and around the European Hospital in Gaza in the hope that Israel will not attack it. “These people were not homeless,” he said. “They all had homes that were destroyed. They’re all displaced people that took shelter in the hospital.”
Khan estimates that some 30,000 Palestinians are now living in and around the European Hospital in Gaza in the hope that Israel will not attack it. “These people were not homeless,” he said. “They all had homes that were destroyed. They’re all displaced people that took shelter in the hospital.” Photo: Yasser Khan

“What we’d been seeing livestreamed on Instagram, on social media or whatever, I actually saw myself and it was worse than I can imagine.”

So that’s the kind of mass chaos that I encountered initially, and then I was told that every time there’s a bomb, give it about 15 minutes and the mass casualties come. That was the other thing that at the time shocked me: What we’d been seeing livestreamed on Instagram, on social media or whatever, I actually saw myself and it was worse than I can imagine. I saw scenes that were horrific that I’d never witnessed before and I never want to see again. You have a mother walking in holding her 8, 9-year-old, skinny — because they’re all starving — boy who’s dead, he’s cold and dead and [the mother is] screaming, asking for someone to check his pulse and everybody’s busy in the mass chaos. So that was kind of my initial welcoming scene when I entered Khan Younis the first time.

JS: You’ve just come out now from your second medical mission. You were in Gaza for 10 days. Describe the scenes that you witnessed this time in Gaza, but also specifically in the hospital.

YK: Well, I must admit the first time I went there it was partially getting used to what’s going on, seeing the mass casualties, seeing the hospital, meeting the doctors and the nurses and health care workers, getting familiarized with the surroundings, and also doing the operations. This time, I was over all that introduction.

It was quite demoralizing. You’ve gotta be on the ground to see how bad it is. In two months, things were not only the same in a bad way, but they’re much, much worse because now, two months later, Khan Younis has literally been destroyed as a city. It was an active, hustling, bustling city. The Nasser Hospital, as you know, it’s destroyed now. It’s basically a death zone. And there’s decomposing bodies in the hospital now. It’s been evacuated. And I will add one thing: As a health care worker, I know fully well that to build a major, fully functioning hospital takes years to perfect and build and process, right? So it’s a sheer tragedy that it’s destroyed in mere hours, so it’s really unfortunate.

The European Hospital, which officially has 240 beds, is at more than 300 percent capacity, and many internally displaced people have set up temporary shelter in the hallways of the hospital. “There’s no place to move now in the hallways,” he said. “The sterility of the hospital has significantly decreased.”
The European Hospital, which officially has 240 beds, is at more than 300 percent capacity, and many internally displaced people have set up temporary shelter in the hallways of the hospital. “There’s no place to move now in the hallways,” he said. “The sterility of the hospital has significantly decreased.” Photo: Yasser Khan

So now [at European Gaza Hospital] instead of 20,000 people, there’s about 35,000 people seeking shelter in a hospital that’s already beyond capacity. And so now, both outside and inside, there’s a mass of people. There’s no place to move now in the hallways. The sterility of the hospital has significantly decreased. The European Gaza Hospital, all you have to do is go online and look at their pictures before. It was a beautiful, gorgeous hospital. Well-built, well-run, good quality control — and now it’s reduced to a place that is a mess. It’s a mess. There’s people cooking inside the hospital hallways, there’s the bathrooms, there’s people mixed in with the people who are sick, with major orthopedic injuries, post op. There’s no beds. So sometimes people go and just sleep in their little makeshift shelters. And so infection is, if you can imagine, infection is rampant. So if you don’t die the first time or if your leg or arm is not amputated the first time, it is for sure with infection. So then they have to amputate it to save your life. So it’s much, much worse.

“They’re doing sometimes 14, 15 amputations, mostly on children, per day, and they’ve been doing it for six months now.”

The other thing I noticed was now, more so than even before, the health care workers and nurses and the doctors, they’re just burnt out. I mean, they’re just spent. They’ve witnessed so much in almost six months now. They’ve seen so much on a regular, hourly, daily basis. When I operate [at a hospital in Canada], typically speaking, I’ve got a few mostly elective lists, elective kind of not urgent problems that you gotta fix. And then there’s some trauma, or something that comes in that’s a bit more urgent once in a while, right? That’s my usual list. But [Palestinian medical workers], they are working on a daily basis on the most horrific, explosive trauma that you’ve ever seen. They’re doing sometimes 14, 15 amputations, mostly on children, per day, and they’ve been doing it for six months now.

The thing I try to emphasize to people is that it’s not only the actual medical trauma, it’s the other trauma associated with it in that these patients come in, if you’ve been involved in an explosive injury, and you come in injured, guaranteed you’ve lost loved ones. Guaranteed. So you’ve either lost a father, a mother, a child, all your children, all your family, your uncle, aunt, grandparents, your house, whatever. You’ve lost something. So every patient that comes in, not only is severely injured, is dealing with this trauma.

I had one girl who basically lost all her siblings, 8-year-old beautiful girl, lost her siblings. She came in for a leg fracture, was under the rubble for 12 hours. And her mother died, all her siblings gone. And all her family [were] gone, her aunts and uncles. As you know, it’s a generational killing, like slaughter. Generations. There’s about 2,000 families that have been erased now completely, are gone. Nonexistent. So it’s generational trauma or death or slaughter, and so her father was out burying his wife and his killed children while she was by herself getting her leg fracture repaired. And while she was under there for 12 hours, this 8-year-old girl, next to her was her grandmother and her aunt, dead, lying next to her for 12 hours.

Khan said this 8-year-old Palestinian girl was trapped for 12 hours under rubble alongside two of her dead relatives after an Israeli attack. Her mother and other siblings were killed in the strike. “Her father was out burying his wife and his killed children while she was by herself getting her leg fracture repaired,” Khan recalled.
Khan said this 8-year-old Palestinian girl was trapped for 12 hours under rubble alongside two of her dead relatives after an Israeli attack. Her mother and other siblings were killed in the strike. “Her father was out burying his wife and his killed children while she was by herself getting her leg fracture repaired,” Khan recalled. Photo: Yasser Khan

I saw this one guy who had his face split open, and he was under the bubble for eight days. I don’t know how he survived, and they were able to get him out. He lost both his eyes, but they were able to put his face back together again, and he survived. So, they’re dealing with this, all this.

So two months ago it was bad, and two months later, it’s even worse. I could see, actually feel the burnout [among Palestinian medical workers], but they’re superhuman. They keep on going when the rest of us will lose our crap, the rest of us lose it. But they keep on going because it’s their steadfastness and it’s their faith. And they still consider their mere survival as their resistance. You know, they will survive the Israeli bombing no matter what because that’s their form of resistance. No matter what they tried, no matter how much they try to kill them, basically is their attitude.

JS: Dr. Khan, as I’m listening to you, I’m also recalling over these past five-plus months all of the episodes where Israeli forces have attacked or laid siege to hospitals and other medical facilities in Gaza. And I’m specifically thinking of the medical staff at Nasser Hospital, which was raided on February 15 by Israeli forces, and scores of medical personnel were snatched, taken prisoner by the Israelis. And the BBC recently did an exposé documenting what I think can clearly be called the torture of these medical workers, including holding them for prolonged periods in stress positions, dousing them with cold water, using muzzled dogs to menace them, blindfolding them, and leaving them in isolation.

And I’m thinking of the testimony you’re offering about the steadfastness of the doctors and then imagining after months and months of just amputating limbs from children, sometimes without any anesthesia, then having this occupation force come in; snatch doctors, nurses, other medical workers; and then subject them to torture under interrogation aimed at getting them to confess that somehow Hamas is using their hospital as a Pentagon, basically, to plot attacks against the Israeli occupation forces. What kinds of stories did you hear from Palestinian colleagues about these types of raids and actions by the Israelis against medical facilities, doctors, nurses, et cetera?

YK: This has been a systematic, intentional attack on the health care system. The bizarre thing of all of this is that the Israeli politicians have not hidden it. They have said open statements about creating epidemics. There’s been tons of open statements about what they intend to do. So you can’t even make this stuff up. It’s bizarre how they have openly said this, right? But having said that, I think over 450 health care workers have been killed — doctors, nurses, paramedics, over 450 — when they’re not supposed to be a target, right? They’re protected by international law. Doctors have been kidnapped, specific doctors who are of unique specialties have been targeted and killed.

Doctors have been kidnapped, and, yes, they have been tortured. They dehumanize the doctors and health care workers when they capture them. We’ve seen pictures of them, so we know this happens, and it does indeed happen. A few of the doctors went through torture, and one doctor that came back, he’s a general surgeon, he came back, I was speaking to his wife, and he’s not the same anymore. He was tortured and he still has torture marks over his body, and he’s a general surgeon. That’s it, just a medical professional. The assistant director of the hospital was basically declothed and beat up in front of all the other hospital workers just to kind of insult and degrade him because he’s their boss. And they’re beating him up and kicking him and swearing at him, and everybody witnessed this, and they did it purposely in front of his workers. So, it’s a further dehumanization of a human being. These doctors when they come back, the few that are released, there’s still a lot that are under custody with the Israeli forces, they’re not the same anymore. For me, as a surgeon, it’s really heartbreaking for me to see that. As a surgeon, we have people’s lives in our hands and we heal. And then to see them mentally reduced to nothing is hard to take. Yeah. It’s hard to stomach.

JS: I wanted to ask you about an op-ed that a colleague of yours wrote. It was an American doctor, Irfan Galaria, who penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on February 16 after returning from Gaza, and I believe that doctor was at the European Gaza Hospital and described a scene and I’ll just read from their experience at the hospital:

“I stopped keeping track of how many new orphans I had operated on. After surgery they would be filed somewhere in the hospital, I’m unsure of who will take care of them or how they will survive. On one occasion, a handful of children, all about ages 5 to 8, were carried to the emergency room by their parents. All had single sniper shots to the head. These families were returning to their homes in Khan Yunis, about 2.5 miles away from the hospital, after Israeli tanks had withdrawn. But the snipers apparently stayed behind. None of these children survived.”

This should be shocking to the soul of everyone who hears those words from an American doctor describing children between the ages of 5 to 8, arriving in that emergency room with, according to the doctor, single sniper shots to the head. Talk about the kinds of injuries or fatalities that you witnessed during your time there.

YK: Yeah. I know Irfan, and he’s a really good guy and he saw a lot there and I spoke to him when he got back. I myself did not see, when I was there, what he described. But definitely the doctor spoke about it for sure, and it was well known that that indeed was happening on the ground. We hear reports from the West Bank as well, where 12-year-olds or 13-year-olds are shot for nothing really, for no reason at all, just for the sake of being shot. So, it’s not something which is far-fetched, and it is going on.

During his 10-day medical mission in Gaza, Khan performed surgery to remove the eyes of multiple children and adults wounded in Israeli assaults. He described the appearance of these pervasive injuries as the “Gaza shrapnel face.”
During his 10-day medical mission in Gaza, Khan performed surgery to remove the eyes of multiple children and adults wounded in Israeli assaults. He described the appearance of these pervasive injuries as the “Gaza shrapnel face.” Photo: Yasser Khan

What I saw — I’m an eye surgeon, an eye plastic surgeon, and so I saw the classic, what I penned “the Gaza shrapnel face,” because in an explosive scenario, you don’t know what’s coming. When there’s an explosion, you don’t go like this [cover your face], you kind of actually, in fact, open your eyes. And so shrapnel’s everywhere. It’s a well-known fact that the Israeli forces are experimenting [with] weapons in Gaza to boost their weapon manufacturing industry. Because if a weapon is battle-tested, it’s more valuable, isn’t it? It’s got a higher value. So basically they’re using these weapons, these missiles that purposely, intently create these large shrapnel fragments that go everywhere. And they cause amputations that are unusual.

Dr. Khan performed surgeries to remove eyes of multiple children wounded in Israeli strikes, calling the injuries “the Gaza shrapnel face.”

Most amputations occur at the weak points, the elbow or the knee, and so they’re better tolerated. But these [shrapnel fragments] are causing mid-thigh, mid-arm amputations that are more difficult, more challenging, and also the rehabilitation afterward is also more challenging. Also these shrapnels [are] unlike a bullet wound. A bullet wound goes in and out; there’s an entry and exit point. Shrapnel stays there. So you gotta take it out. So the injuries I saw were — I mean, I saw people with their eyes blown apart. And when I was there, and this is my experience, I treated all children when I was there the first time. It was kids that [were aged] 2, 6, 9, 10, 13, 15, and 16, and 17 were the ones that I treated. And their eyes unfortunately had to be removed. They had shrapnel in their eye sockets that I had to remove and, of course, remove the eye. There’s many patients, many children who had shrapnel in both their eyes. And you can only do so much because right now, because of the aid blockade and because of the destruction of most of Gaza, there’s no equipment available to take shrapnel that’s in the eye out. And so we just leave them alone and they eventually go blind.

And so I saw these facial injuries, I saw limbs of children just kind of hanging off, barely connected. I saw abdominal wounds where you had, of course, the intestines exposed. And the thing is that the emergency does not have room, so they’re all over the floor. So you have these massive trauma, and [the patients] are on the floor. And sometimes they get forgotten in the mass chaos.

There was a 2-year-old baby who came in from a fresh bombing. He lost his aunt and his sibling, and his mother was in the OR being amputated. And she was actually a U.N. worker, by the way, a Palestinian U.N. worker. So he was just forgotten on the floor somewhere with major, major head trauma. Fortunately, after about two hours, they found him. And, because he had no — I mean, his mother wasn’t there, his father wasn’t there, there’s no family there — and fortunately, they found him. And they took him up to neurosurgery, but I don’t know what happened to him because that was on my last day that I was leaving. So I remember that very well. So it was just injuries that you have never seen before and the degree to it was amazing.

UNICEF said in December — and this was a low number — that there was over 1,000 children that had either double amputation or single amputation. This is only in December. It’s a very conservative estimate. Some people have said about 5,000 children. This is in January. So if you look at two months later, it must be 7,000, 8,000 now, either double amputees or single amputee, like arm, leg, both legs, both arms, mostly children. The thing is that in any normal amputation, in a normal circumstance, a child who gets amputated goes through about eight or nine operations until they’re adults, to revise the stump and fix the stump. Who is going to do that now? Not only have they lost their supports, their entire family structure, they don’t have the family structure or the infrastructure to do that because it’s all been destroyed.

JS: Were you just in one hospital, or did you go to multiple hospitals?

YK: No, so I stayed in European. The first time I was going to go to Nasser, but it got too dangerous and I think the fear was that the Israelis would just close off the road and then I’d be stuck in Nasser Hospital, so I didn’t go, but I went to European. And now there’s only one hospital, really, left, which is the European Hospital. One fully functional hospital exactly. They have these clinics across the city — I mean, they call them hospitals sometimes, like the Indonesian field hospital, things like that, but they really aren’t fully functioning hospitals. They’re clinics that have one or two services that kind of are more than just a clinic, but they’re mostly just clinics. So there’s really only one fully functioning hospital now, which is the European hospital, and therefore the impending invasion of Rafah is quite worrisome for me.

JS: At the European Hospital, are there sufficient supplies to manage the influx of patients? You’re describing an apocalyptic scene, particularly with these amputations among children. Are there adequate supplies to handle the demand in that hospital where you were?

YK: Definitely two months ago there weren’t. On my last day when I was leaving, they ran out of morphine, and morphine is needed in a lot of orthopedic and major trauma. You need morphine for pain control. So they ran out of morphine, and they ran out of a lot of the antibiotics as well, about two months ago. Now, two months later, supplies have come in. So they do have supplies that are running out pretty fast and they do run out. So, they’re coming in, but their equipment is rusted, new equipment is harder to come in, because anything that’s dual purpose, for example, the Israelis stop from coming.

So a lot of medical equipment is not coming in, unfortunately, and as a result a lot of equipment is rusted and it’s old, and it needs to be replaced, but these Palestinian doctors are very innovative and they’re geniuses, all of them are. What they’re going through, what they’ve done is amazing. I mean, hats off to them for sure. But yeah, it’s a mess. I mean, even the ORs are a mess. They’re a disorganized mess. People are frustrated. There’s a lot of frustrations, and I don’t blame them.

Khan operates on a patient in the European Hospital in Gaza in early March. Palestinian doctors in Gaza, he said, “are working on a daily basis on the most horrific, explosive trauma that you’ve ever seen.”
Khan operates on a patient in the European Hospital in Gaza in early March. Palestinian doctors in Gaza, he said, “are working on a daily basis on the most horrific, explosive trauma that you’ve ever seen.” Photo: Provided by Yasser Khan

JS: Talk about the conversations you were having with Palestinian colleagues. You described a bit of this, but you are coming from Canada. You had colleagues that also came from the United States, and you’re going for these 10-day periods or so. I know there are some doctors that have stayed longer, but relatively short periods of time. And we all have to remember the Palestinian doctors and nurses and medical workers that are there, they’re simultaneously doing their job and many of them have lost their families, their spouses, their children, their grandchildren. This is their reality. They don’t leave. And I’m wondering as a medical professional from Canada, what that’s like to talk then to your Palestinian colleagues and what impression it has left on your heart?

YK: It’s left a huge impression, Jeremy, especially this time. This time I felt the emotional burden more than I did the last time. But, you know, I’ll tell you one thing. I know we talk about the death and the disease and all that, but one thing that we also need to more talk about — and this relates to how they’re doing is the death of their culture and their civilization, which is a genocide or plausible — that’s part of the definition of a genocide, is it not? Every single playground, hangout place, café, restaurant, 500-year-old ancient mosque, 500-year-old ancient church, destroyed. There’s schools destroyed, there’s stadiums, sports facilities destroyed, their hospitals destroyed, their cinemas destroyed, museums destroyed, archives, where they kept their archives, erased, destroyed, burnt, their homes, 80 percent of homes, are all gone now. And even though the homes are empty, they do not need to be destroyed. They’ve been TikToked on for the whole world to see. The Israeli forces have TikToked this and have shown destruction of these homes, of these beautiful people, and then dedicated destruction to their spouses or their children or whatever.

We’ve seen all this. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s all out there that we’ve seen. So they’ve witnessed all this. What the Israeli forces have also done is that once they’ve come in, they’ve depaved the roads. Even in Khan Younis, many of the roads have been depaved. So there’s no roads left. So they’ve seen a complete destruction of their culture and their civilization and their lives, a complete erasure of their culture. And so that by itself is a tremendous tragedy. If we all look at ourselves and see if that happens to us, how would we feel?

So in the backdrop, despite that, they remain hopeful. They really do. There are some that have lost hope and want to get out. There’s a lot of patients that come in, and they may have like a dry eye, and they want a referral to be referred out, like a medical referral, because that’s one way to get out. But first of all, even people with serious medical conditions are not getting out so easily, but they’re all trying to leave just to save their lives, but they all say that they want to leave and come back. They all want to come back, right? Because there’s something magical about the land. Palestinians have been there for thousands and thousands of years, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Palestinians. They have a very strong connection to their land, and they don’t want to leave. They’d rather die than leave, but at this point in time, they want to leave, be safe. So that’s their philosophy. In the end, I think what holds them together is their faith. They have faith in God. They have faith in justice. God’s justice. They have no faith in humanity’s justice at all. And I don’t blame them. We have really abandoned them. Not us, as in the average person who’s been protesting and advocating for them. But at an elitist or governmental level. They’re encouraged and touched by everybody in the world who has fought for them and advocated for them. They know this, and they are touched by this. But at the other hand, they don’t know what to do. There’s no certainty. So they don’t know how to plan for the future because they don’t know whether there’ll be a Rafah invasion.

“Being wounded in this environment with no health care system, completely collapsed, is a death sentence.”

I was on the ground, I toured the refugee camps, I went around Rafah, I saw, and if there’s an Israeli invasion, I can’t emphasize enough how catastrophic it’s going to be. It’ll be mass killing, mass destruction, because all these figures come in, 50 dead, 100 wounded. But what people don’t realize is, being wounded is a death sentence. Being wounded in this environment with no health care system, completely collapsed, is a death sentence. And the wounded often will lose everybody, like all family members, so they have no supports, especially children, have nobody left to take care of them, not even aunts and uncles. It will be catastrophic. I don’t know what to say to the world to stop an impending invasion. You’ve got to rein this prime minister of Israel in. You got to do something to stop this stupid invasion that he still wants to do, because it’ll be catastrophic.

JS: I was just thinking back to your description of having to remove eyes from children or adults who’ve been hit with shrapnel. I think any of us who’ve ever had an operation or surgery, or we’ve helped a loved one that went into surgery, knows that the path to recovery is often a long one where you have to have physical therapy, you have to come to terms with a body part that you’ve lost and are going to have to live your life without. What’s your understanding of what happens to the patients you operated on who now are entering a reality where they no longer can see? They don’t have eyes, or children that no longer have a leg. What happens to those people after the acute situation is dealt with, that the surgery happens, the amputation happens, the eyes are removed?

YK: Well, Jeremy, that’s what keeps me up at night, and that’s what bears on me a lot. The overall simple answer is, I don’t know. The reason I don’t know is because they’re living in tents and structures. Many of them have lost their family and support, especially children have lost their family and support. Even adults.

I had one young man, about 25 years old, he lost one eye that I took out myself. He spent about five, six, or seven years, basically spent thousands and thousands of dollars in IVF treatment because he got married young and they wanted to have a child and they couldn’t have one. So he spent years on IVF treatment and finally had a baby that was 3 months old. And there was a missile attack by Israel at his home. He lost his entire family, including his baby and his wife and his parents and family. He’s by himself, single guy. I took his one eye out, and he has nobody in this world. He just kind of walks around the tent structures, just kind of walking around with no home and trying to sleep wherever he can.

There’s tons of children like this as well. So what happens to them? I don’t know. What’s going to happen to the double amputee child who has no home, no parents and no uncles and aunts or grandparents left, no siblings left either? What’s going to happen to them? Then there’s some kids who have an older sibling that’s 11 years old and they’re like 5 years old. I saw one girl who lost an arm and the only living relative she has is an 11- or 12-year old sibling who’s taking care of her. So I don’t know what’s going to happen because in the current infrastructure, there is no infrastructure, there is no care for these stumps. Many of them are getting infected, these stumps are, after they’ve been amputated — and where are they discharged to? Usually when they’re discharged, because the hospital is trying to discharge them to make room for more people to come in, they’re discharged out to the shelters or tents. That’s where they’re discharged. It’s not like they’re discharged home where there’s proper care.

I will emphasize this, Jeremy, that Palestinians were in an open-air concentration camp for decades. This is not new. It was a struggle, but they were still able to make their life. And because they couldn’t go anywhere, because they’re restricted by Israel and by Egypt on the other side, they couldn’t go anywhere, they put everything into their homes. So their homes were their castles, were their life, were their center of their life and their universe, and they really took a lot of care and attention to their homes. And so now all these people who are homeless, their homes are gone. So, it’s a tremendous effect, and they’re living in tents, and I can only imagine what they must go through. Only a year ago, life was normal so to speak, even though you’re in a concentration camp, but life was still normal. It was their normal, right? And they’re living and they make the best of things. They’re very grateful and gracious people, and steadfast people, and they make the best of every scenario, and they did make the best of even being in a concentration camp. They made the best of it. But now it’s heartbreaking.

JS: I’m thinking of this too, and like anyone who’s a parent, imagine that terror when you lose your kid, you’re at a theme park or you’re out somewhere. And all of a sudden, you can’t see your child and all the thoughts that go through your head and then imagine your child alone in the world, completely alone. And, by the way, they’ve lost their sight. Or they’re a double amputee. I haven’t been to Gaza and seen what you’ve seen, but I have these thoughts all the time, and I think everyone who really has internalized this as a human catastrophe that was preventable, that didn’t need to happen, you think about those children and what does it mean to be alone in this world as a child? But then on top of it, to be alone in this world and it’s hell on earth. It’s bombs. It’s everyone trying to survive. It’s starvation. It’s famine. It’s people fighting over the morsels of food that get dropped from the sky along with the bombs. And as I listen to you, it just punctuates how unconscionable this is to the core of humanity, how unconscionable it is. What is your message to the world right now?

A makeshift graveyard near the European Hospital outside Khan Younis, Gaza. “This is just one graveyard I discovered just outside the hospital,” says Khan. “There’s so many dead.”
A makeshift graveyard near the European Hospital outside Khan Younis, Gaza. “This is just one graveyard I discovered just outside the hospital,” says Khan. “There’s so many dead.” Photo: Yasser Khan

YK: Well, Gaza is basically a man-made hell on earth right now, is what it is, and I think that it’s never too late. If the Israeli invasion of Rafah occurs, it’ll be catastrophic. We have to do all that we can to stop that from happening, put all the pressure we can on our politicians, on the powers that be, to stop this from happening because the health care and the human toll will be unimaginable. The fact is that it’s been 75 years of occupation. In the end, out of all of this death and destruction that’s happened, they need to have their independence, and they need to have their independent state so that they can live their lives with dignity and freedom.

And I’ll tell you one thing: I’ve been to 45 different countries, and Palestinians are among the best people that I’ve ever met in my entire life. They’re the most generous, gracious, kind-hearted, intelligent, and wise people that I’ve ever met. And so they’re worth fighting for. I think it’s an issue of humanity. I will side on the side of humanity anytime. And they are worth fighting for. So I want us all to continue the fight and continue advocating for them until this war stops and they are free.

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Go to Original – theintercept.com


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