Gaza and the Death of Humanitarianism

Guernica

On 28 May 2024 Dr Christos Christou, the International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) delivered a powerful address at the National Press Club of Australia on the state of humanitarianism in the world with a focus on two critical crises of our time: the wars in  Gaza and Sudan.

Although not widely reported in the mainstream media press (with honourable exceptions being SBS, ABC and the Guardian) the Greek-born doctor’s dire message about the killing of humanity, especially in Gaza, was profound and gut-wrenching.

(L-R: Moderator Anna Henderson, SBS, Jennifer Tierney, MSF Australia Executive Director, and Dr Christos Christou – image credit: Hilary Wardhaugh Photography)

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was founded in 1971 in Paris as a volunteer humanitarian organization providing medical assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from healthcare.  Today, according to MSF Australia website, it is a worldwide movement of more than 42,000 people.  However, its operations in Gaza have been severely impacted by the ongoing conflict.

Born in Trikala in central Greece, Dr Christos Christou graduated from Aristotle University’s prestigious medical school in Thessaloniki and obtained a PhD in surgery from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens as well as a Master's degree in international health with a focus in health crisis management.  He went on to specialize in general and emergency surgery.

Dr Christou joined Médecins Sans Frontières in 2002 and was elected president of MSF Greece in 2005.  After a break, he re-joined MSF in 2013 for assignments in a number of conflict zones, including South Sudan, Iraq and  Cameroon, as an emergency and trauma surgeon.

He was elected MSF's international president in June 2019.

Dr Christos Christou (image credit: Hilary Wardhaugh Photography)

Dr Christou’s address was stark as it was poignant, coming a day after a horrific Israeli airstrike on tents in a refugee camp in Rafah in southern Gaza which killed over 30 refugees.  The carnage and destruction was “unimaginable” in the words of the MSF President, nothing that the victims, mostly women and children, had followed evacuation orders to leave northern Gaza only to be bombed in the south, "proving beyond doubt that there is nowhere safe in Gaza".

Eyad Baba AFP via Getty Images
Image credit: Eyad Baba (AFP via Getty Images)

Dr Christou’s address to the National Press Club is tragically compelling.

In relation to the most recent attack, he explained that MSF is doing what it can to care for some 180 people who were injured:

“We are working from a very small clinic, in a shed. What we can do is limited, because the Gazan healthcare system has been dismantled: piece by piece, hospital by hospital by hospital. There were 36 functional hospitals in Gaza before the war. Now only nine are partially functioning.”

Dr Christou emphasised that hospitals and healthcare are “sacred spaces” which are protected by international humanitarian law so that organisations such as MSF can work in conflict zones. Regrettably, in Gaza, these principles have been repeatedly eroded to the point where they have become “meaningless.”

Despite MSF’s clearly defined a humanitarian role, Dr Christou lamented the fact that their teams often come under direct in what has become a pattern of attacks, even when travelling in marked convoys, as part of what he described as Israel’s “indiscriminate and disproportionate military campaign”.

Dr Christou reminded his audience that over 260 humanitarian workers have been killed in this war while providing care, or while sheltering with their families, including the tragic loss of Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom, who was working for World Central Kitchen.

He also pointedly shared the names of five MSF colleagues who have been killed in Gaza since 7 October and shared their names because they deserve respect and recognition:

  • Mohammed al Ahel, lab technician
  • Alaa Al Shawa, volunteer nurse
  • Dr Mahmoud Abu Nujaila
  • Dr Ahmad Al Sahar
  • Reem Abu Lebdeh, physiotherapist and MSF UK board member
Mourning the MSF dead

MSF mourns their loss and demands accountability for their deaths.

Dr Christou also explained that the attacks on healthcare are not isolated to Gaza.  MSF teams in the occupied West Bank have also witnessed repeated instances where healthcare has been hindered or blocked outright during raids by Israeli armed forces with specific targeting of ambulances and medical staff, accompanied by acts of violence and killing, even within hospitals.

But it is in Gaza where there has been a “systematic destruction of the healthcare system”, according to the MSF President.  While more than 35,000 people have been directly killed in Gaza, more than 79,000 have been injured, and an estimated 10,000 remain trapped under rubble.  Put bluntly, there are thousands of other ‘silent deaths’ as people escape the bombs only to be killed by infected wounds, chronic diseases, or malnutrition.

Dr Christou accused the Israeli government of pursuing a policy of deliberate deprivation by only allowing a trickle of food and water to enter Gaza with the result that people are unable to access adequate food and are simply starving with cases of malnutrition appearing.  Incredibly, MSF medical teams have had to rapidly retrain as they have not treated malnutrition before.

According to MSF, the current siege by Israel is stopping the entry of fuel and medicines. Since the closure of the Rafah border in early May, barely any essential humanitarian and medical aid has been able to enter and the situation in Gaza has never been so dire in the face of "Israel’s indiscriminate and disproportionate military campaign".

Dr Christou also called upon Australia, as part of the international community, to insist on immediate humanitarian access using the roads and entry points that already exist.

Dr Christou also reminded the National Press Club that Australia also has an important role to play in the context of the United Nations Security Council’s recent vote for a ceasefire which Israel has "blatantly ignored" by continuing its attacks on civilians and medical personnel and expanding attacks in Rafah.  According to Dr Christou, this is about impunity, a total disregard for the laws of war, and now it must become about accountability:

“Beyond words, Australia must take immediate concrete actions to hold Israel to account. Australia must apply appropriate sanctions on Israel, as it would to any other global State that refuses to comply with UNSC resolutions.”

Image credit: Hilary Wardhaugh Photography

MSF is about defending humanity but its President despairs:

“The International Court of Justice ruled in January that Israel needs to take steps to prevent plausible genocide in Gaza. The court said Israel must take all measures to stop killing Palestinians in Gaza, and must allow sufficient humanitarian assistance. But what we are witnessing is that this ruling is being blatantly ignored …  Recently the ICJ issued another ruling, for Israel to halt its offensive on Rafah. Within a few days, Israel bombed the tents for displaced people in Rafah … Frankly, I have run out of words.”

It will be recalled that the ICJ recently ordered that Israel:

(a)  Immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part

(b) Maintain open the Rafah crossing for unhindered provision at scale of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance;

(c) Take effective measures to ensure the unimpeded access to the Gaza Strip of any commission of inquiry, fact-finding mission or other investigative body mandated by competent organs of the United Nations to investigate allegations of genocide.

Dr Christou added:

I wish I could find the words to express the smell of infected wounds. The cries of mothers who’ve lost their children. The constant sound of drones. The level of desperation of my colleagues.

Instead, Dr Christou relied on the words of his Australian colleague, psychologist Scarlett Wong, who told him the story of one of their Palestinian colleagues, a psychologist who had lost her entire family, but returned to work the next day because it was “better than sitting alone in her tent grieving”.

Scarlett Wong (MSF)

The Sydney-based psychologist has elsewhere stated that Palestinians were dying from "man-made starvation", pointing out that whilst she had experienced starvation before, she had never seen people "be starved".

Dr Christou added:

“I am appalled by the continued and complete disregard for life we are witnessing in Gaza.  MSF is frankly horrified by Israel’s assault on Gaza. And we remain horrified by Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October. We feel the pain and the suffering of people in Israel whose family members were killed or taken hostage on 7 October. We feel the suffering of families of those arbitrarily detained from Gaza and the West Bank.”

What is needed is an immediate and sustained ceasefire.  In Australia and New Zealand, more than 85,000 people have added their voices to MSF's statement of support for a ceasefire in Gaza and Israel. 

And yet it is simply appalling that such heart rendering words are followed by obscene acts by people such as the former US Ambassador to the UN, and failed Republican Presidential nominee, Nikki Haley who was captured signing munitions destined to be used in bombing targets in Gaza with the blood curdling and genocidal spray “Finish Them”.

As another prominent Greek intellectual, Yanis Varoufakis, wrote on X (formerly Twitter):

As Dr Christou concluded:

"The complete indifference to humanitarian laws in Gaza and Sudan, without any accountability, makes our world a terrifying place. A place where violence is uncontested, and civilians unprotected.  The ramifications of this impunity will echo across generations, and across the world. We have a collective responsibility to do all we can to stand on the side of humanity."

 

We all fervently hope that the underlying ethical and humanitarian imperative of Médecins Sans Frontières will prevail.

 

George Vardas is the Arts and Culture Editor

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