Last week I sat down at a coffee bar in Johannesburg with my friend Jonathan Whittall, who happens to be the South African head of advocacy for Doctors Without Borders based in Beirut.
I knew he could tell me many tragic stories of far away places. The menu for human misery was diverse - did we want to discuss hospitals under siege in Syria, the recent trauma of civilians in Mosul, or perhaps most urgent - the dire straits of the health-care system in Gaza? I settled for Gaza, seeing as my coffee companion had been receiving daily briefings on the situation.
It was obvious that the state hospitals in Gaza such as Al-Shifa must be breaking under the pressure of wounded demonstrators pouring in from their camp-outs close to the Gaza fence.
But little has been said about the trauma of ordinary Gazans in urgent need of medical attention.
The question posed was, “Do you have any idea of what a cancer patient in Gaza goes through?”
Sadly the notion had never crossed my mind, but I shuddered to imagine the reality, knowing that the Israelis at times make passage out of Gaza almost impossible.
Exit permits can take five months to approve, and approval comes in the form of an SMS, which arrives either the night before or sometimes on the day, and is for 24 hours.
Many of the cancer patients have had their cancer spread to various other organs by the time they manage to get out of Gaza for chemotherapy.
There are no drugs for cancer patients in Gaza’s state hospitals and with 44% unemployment in a population of 1.8 million, most patients cannot afford to buy the drugs privately and are sentenced to a slow death.
The woman who recently pleaded for treatment for the two lumps in her thyroid gland was told there are no operations available at Al Shifa before 2020.
My friend tells me Gaza ran out of 40% of essential medicines earlier this year. The most horrible statistic is that 54 patients died while waiting for approval to leave Gaza last year, 46 of whom had been referred out for cancer treatment.
If you are sick in Gaza you might as well start counting the days, as there is not even insulin for diabetics.
What Israel is doing to the civilian population of Gaza is suffocating it through blockade, and ensuring an unbearable strain on resources. It is not just medicine: they have managed to ensure that 98% of Gaza’s water supply is undrinkable, and there is only four hours of electricity a day.
People simply don’t have access to the bare necessities of life. We used to care about human security - the right of human beings to those basic elements such as health care, food and water, accommodation.
In Gaza people haven’t even been able to restore their bombed-out accommodation from the last Israeli military onslaught, given that the Israelis won’t allow in building materials such as cement - all under the pretence that Hamas might use cement to build tunnels.
As if the daily struggle to survive isn’t bad enough, there are hundreds of Palestinian youngsters who every week are maimed for life by live ammunition shot by the Israeli security forces on the other side of the Gaza fence.
From Jonathan Whittall’s perspective, the intention of Israel is to disable and incapacitate Gazans who demonstrate, and to a large extent they target their limbs.
“Our patients have large exit wounds, their bones are shattered, soft tissue destroyed, and the injuries are extreme. Many have to have repeat surgeries, rehabilitation and amputation.”
For Whittall there is no equivalence between a fully fledged military armed to the teeth, and unarmed protesters who are exercising their right to resist unlawful occupation.
Whittall has done the gamut in terms of war zones, and has been on the front lines of more barbaric conflicts than anyone else I know.
Whittall says that health workers like Razan al-Najar, who was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper while helping a wounded demonstrator at the Gaza border, are undertaking the most dangerous and necessary kind of work.
The question remains as to why the International Criminal Court has failed to indict any of the perpetrators of such crimes, considering that Palestine is a signatory to the Rome Statute, and war crimes committed on its territory can be tried by the ICC.
My heart bleeds for the people of Gaza - the cancer patients, the diabetics, the wounded demonstrators with massive entry and exit wounds from live ammunition, and the young people who say they have no hope for the future, nothing left to live for.
As exporters of the concept of ubuntu - “I am because you are” - shouldn’t we all be weeping bitterly?
* Ebrahim is the group foreign editor
The Sunday Independent