The Nation / July 6, 2021
A young medical student speaks out about life in the besieged Strip, the persistence of Israeli attacks, and the need for real solidarity.
In mid-May, as the Israeli military pummeled the Gaza Strip with shattering force, a medical student in the southern city of Rafah sent a plea to a friend, who shared it with another friend, who shared it with The Nation. The students name was Noor Alshaer, and she was desperate to to speak up—“for our voices to be heard, for our story to be out,” as she wrote.
“I have lived through three heinous wars only to live up to the fourth that already feels worse than all the previous three piled up together,” she continued. “Safety is not option in the strip, and it hurts me so much reading the news on the Western media, seeing how the stories are all one-sided.”
In June, I finally had the chance to speak with Alshaer from her home in Gaza. Though she has lived in the coastal Strip since birth, her family is originally from Bir al-Saba, an ethnically cleansed Palestinian town conquered by Israel in 1948 through aerial bombardment. (Over 70 percent of Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees from other parts of Palestine.)
For two brief years, Alshaer studied neuroscience at Washington and Lee University in Virginia but she had to return home during the Covid-19 pandemic. Israel did not allow Alshaer to leave the Strip to return to school—Palestinians must apply for a permit to leave Gaza, and are rejected more often than not—so she enrolled in medical school in Gaza.
It was as a medical student as well as a civilian that Alshaer experienced the 11 days of Israel’s latest bombing siege. During that time, Israeli precision-guided airstrikes killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, while over 72,000 Gazans were made homeless; 13 Israelis, including two children were killed. While Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, the violence faced by Palestinians has not ceased—in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel, or of course in Gaza. There, in the besieged Strip, people are not only struggling with the aftermath of the onslaught, but also with ongoing bombing.
As Alshaer said: “The cease-fire doesn’t mean that Israel stopped activities in Gaza. Two days ago, they sent around 10 quadcopter aircrafts to the Strip. That’s breaking the cease-fire, but who cares? Nobody cares, and nobody listens to us…” And she noted, nobody, above all not the media, stays focused on Palestine when the bombs stop falling. “When the media stops talking about Palestine, we think of it as the victory of Israel.”
The rest of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
AMAL HADDAD: A few weeks ago, a cease-fire was announced, but Gaza is still under total blockade, and violence towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel is ongoing. What does a cease-fire mean for Gaza ?
NOUR ALSHAER: What a lot of people fail to understand is that the cease-fire does not mean life is perfect now. Before the attacks, it was already miserable. The blockade has been imposed on Gaza since 2007. We are [at] the mercy of the Israeli government. They decide all aspects of our life. They even put us on a diet: Israel counts the calories that come into the Strip and decides how much food we’re allowed to eat. This is apartheid: It should not be acceptable.
Now we are at a much worse quality of life than before the attacks because we lost people who are important to us. Israel destroyed most of our infrastructure. Israel keeps claiming that they did not mean to target civilians, they were trying to get fighters. But now there are so many civilians who were injured in the attacks asking for permits to leave, to go to hospitals in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and they’re denied a permit. If you really did not mean to injure civilians, then you would allow them to access treatment, right?
They’re punishing us because they feel that Palestinians are actually strong enough to resist; they always thought “the old will die and the young will forget.” But now they’re seeing that we still care about our basic human rights, that we want to live, we are going to do any form of resistance to live. They’re surprised about that. And they’re punishing us for that by making our lives worse.
In the recent siege, Israeli bombs damaged or destroyed hospitals, crucial infrastructure, and Gaza’s only Covid testing site. Can you speak to the state of the medical system and health crisis in Gaza now, and specifically with regard to Covid-19 ?
We really don’t have a place to do Covid testing. Moreover, we never had enough vaccines coming into the Strip. That’s also evidence of the apartheid system. If you look at percentages, how many Israelis have been vaccinated versus how many Palestinians, there is a huge difference. Doctors here are already overworked. They even killed some doctors. In the al-Wahda street bombing, for example, they killed Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf [the head of internal medicine at al-Shifa hospital, who supervised the treatment of people with severe coronavirus]. The health sector here is suffering like it always has, and people who are trying to leave to seek treatment are not allowed to do that. It’s deliberate: wanting to kill the people of Gaza.
A lot of the training we get as medical students is just how to deal with what’s happening. They give us emergency tactics and strategies that we can use to help people [get out] from under the rubble. During the active bombardment, I was constantly revising all the first aid and emergency techniques that I’ve ever learned in my medical education and watching videos that the school shared with us so we’d be able to help when needed. And I was imagining me with my family under the rubble, because nobody felt safe. We were also exchanging videos with each other about how you could last the longest under the rubble. That’s the spirit here.
In the past, I used to think about pursuing a career abroad. But I completely changed my mind because people here are in need of people who can help them. That’s why I’m pursuing a career in oncology, because I want to build a sustainable and independent infrastructure for cancer treatment inside the Strip. We don’t have anything like that here. We’re under the mercy of the Israeli government if they let cancer patients leave. If they don’t, people have just died. And sometimes they let little children go for chemotherapy without the mother. It’s cruel.
In the US, people often present what’s happening as a conflict between Israel and Hamas, and Hamas is presented as the instigator. What would you say to this ?
As a medical student, I can’t just try to fix the symptoms and completely ignore the disease that causes symptoms. And that’s what happens in the media. Israel actively attacked worshippers in Jerusalem during the holiest days of Ramadan, using tear gas and throwing stun grenades inside the mosque, and didn’t allow a lot of paramedics to come in. Hamas stood up to the ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. Obviously, Hamas is not Gaza; Hamas is just a group of people who decided to resist the occupation this way.
They stood up and peacefully asked Israel to stop what they’re doing in Al-Aqsa mosque, because if not, they were going to respond. They gave a whole week before they came back again to say, “We’re trying to negotiate. Leave Palestinians and worshippers alone. Stop injuring them. Stop attacking them.” Israel ignored that and then Hamas gave them a timeframe of when they were going to start shooting rockets. Their rockets are homemade, and Israel has the Iron Dome, which is the greatest defense system in the world. They have bomb shelters, which is something that we in Gaza do not have. We can hear the bombings happening around us and there is literally nothing we can do. The most we can do is just step away from windows. Sometimes we take them off, but sometimes we don’t do that because the other day they exposed us to highly concentrated tear gas in Rafah, my city. It’s not equal. And it definitely did not start with those Hamas rockets.
At the end of the day, it’s not a story about Hamas. The first Hamas rocket was in 2001 and the occupation and apartheid policies started in 1948. To ignore all the facts—the ethnic cleansing, the apartheid system, the whole occupation—and blame Hamas is just absolute ignorance. To make everything about Hamas means actively wanting to turn a blind eye to what’s actually happening.
Palestinians have rarely been afforded a voice in Western and especially American news outlets. Though this may be beginning to change, what do you think Americans are still missing about Palestine ?
We’ve seen the protests, and we know that there are higher numbers than ever in solidarity with Palestine. It makes our hearts warm. But what Americans are actually missing is that these protests are not going to change the reality. It’s good to see people in solidarity, but our problem is not, for example, the American government not knowing what’s happening. The American government has always been aware of Palestinian suffering. And the Israeli government has always been aware of it.
Now the people know they actually need to force their governments to impose sanctions and withdraw all funding from Israel. That’s tax money being used, and since it’s a democracy they should have a say in where their money goes. Protests are symbolic, and they’re not going to make a direct effect unless they actually keep pushing.
I think a lot of Americans are still missing BDS. BDS would make a lot of difference and actually impose sanctions on Israel and change the reality for the Palestinians. It would get us much closer to our freedom and getting our rights back and stopping the killing of Palestinians. I think some people are lost what with all the allegations and attacks on BDS that call it anti-Semitic, but there’s always going to be attacks against what we say in Palestine. It’s time for them to actually believe us.
What’s something you love about Gaza and your community ?
The resilience of people in Gaza is absolutely amazing. After the cease-fire was declared, we’d lost so many lives. People lost their homes. I lost my pregnant cousin with her child. Her other son is alive—he lost his mom and sister, but he just made it. We lost people we care about. But as soon as the cease-fire was declared, we all came into the streets. We missed Eid, because Eid was during the attacks, so we started doing takbeer for Eid, like Allahu akbar. All of us, walking in the streets, at 2 AM. During the attacks, the nighttime was always the worst; there’s always more bombing during the night. We got used to staying up late, and the night of the cease-fire everybody left their houses wearing their Eid clothes. The next day I saw people all wearing Eid outfits going to the sea and to parks. [One moment] we were all at risk of being killed at any second. And now everybody is just moving on. It’s just amazing.
The second thing is that even though we were actively being attacked, people were OK with us being attacked if it meant we were standing in solidarity with the people in Jerusalem. Every time I think about it, I’m amazed. We knew that we could be killed at any second. But if it meant that we’re at least taking some of Israel’s power away from Jerusalem to be with us, we were fine with it. And right now, the government is talking about a prisoner swap, but I saw people starting campaigns asking for the detainees to [come] from Jordan. They’re saying, these people have been there for a long time. That’s what people in Gaza are like: Let’s prioritize the Jordanian detainees and then we can think of Palestinian detainees. After everything we’ve witnessed, everything we suffered here, the sacrifices and the care about other people is just absolutely amazing.
In May, Palestinians participated in a general strike across Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank. This was the first time a strike was observed in all of historic Palestine since 1936. Are you seeing more unity between Palestinians across historic Palestine and in the diaspora ? What, to you, could this mean for the future ?
Recently, we started to believe that people really didn’t care about Palestine, that we would have to keep dealing with the misery of the occupation and the blockade on our own. But people rose up for Palestinians, especially Palestinians themselves. Gaza’s blockaded; there’s the settler colonial projects in the West Bank; in ’48 lands, Palestinians are second-class citizens. We in Gaza see what’s happening in Jerusalem and then Gaza rises up, and then we started asking people in the West Bank to protest for us and they did, and then people in 1948 occupied lands also rose up for us. People in Jordan and Lebanon came out at the border and tried to come in and help us. This is proof that we’re actually one people, even when the colonial project always tries to separate and divide us because that’s the best way to defeat a people. The strike was a slap in the occupation’s face, because no matter how hard they try to separate us, we are going to rise up for each other because we’re all Palestinians, and we’re going to come back to Palestine.
Amal Haddad is a Jordanian-American writer and undergraduate student