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This doctor is urging medical leadership on ceasefire in Gaza and Israel, as United Nations warns of threat to global security

Croakey is closed for summer holidays and will resume publishing in the week of 15 January 2024. In the meantime, we are re-publishing some of our top articles from 2023.

This article was first published on Thursday, December 7, 2023


Introduction by Croakey: United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has written to the President of the UN Security Council warning of the risk to “international peace and security” from hostilities in Gaza and Israel, and calling urgently for a humanitarian ceasefire.

It is the first time he has invoked Article 99 of UN Charter. In the letter, which has been released publicly, Guterres urges the Security Council to help avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, and calls on the international community to use all its influence to end the crisis.

“Amid constant bombardment by the Israel Defence Forces, and without shelter or the essentials to survive, I expect public order to completely break down soon due to the desperate conditions, rendering even limited humanitarian assistance impossible,” he wrote. “An even worse situation could unfold, including epidemic diseases and increased pressure for mass displacement into neighbouring countries.”

Guterres said that more than eight weeks of hostilities in Gaza and Israel had created “appalling human suffering, physical destruction and collective trauma across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory”.

“The situation is fast deteriorating into a catastrophe with potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region. Such an outcome must be avoided at all cost,” he wrote.

Describing horrific conditions of civilians in Gaza, Guterres said the healthcare system there is collapsing. “Hospitals have turned into battlegrounds. Only 14 hospitals out of 36 facilities are even partially functional.”

The warning comes as multiple humanitarian and health organisations step up pressure for a lasting ceasefire (see links towards the end of this post).

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk told a media conference on 6 December that Palestinians in Gaza “are living in utter, deepening horror”.

“The catastrophic situation we see unfolding in the Gaza Strip was entirely foreseeable and preventable. My humanitarian colleagues have described the situation as apocalyptic,” he said. “The international community needs to insist with one voice on a ceasefire, immediately, on human rights and humanitarian grounds.”

Meanwhile, the relative silence of many health and medical organisations in Australia in the face of World Health Organization pleas for “collective efforts to bring an end to the hostilities and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza” have been noted by many, including Dr Lucy Mitchell.

Below she shares an open letter urging the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) to show leadership in advocating strongly for a ceasefire. Her letter is followed by a response from the RACGP, and links to further statements and coverage from humanitarian and health voices.


05/12/23

To the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners,

I write to you as a doctor who is about to start training with your College, as a mother of two young children, and as a member of the community.

Along with much of the world, I continue to watch in horror as innocent children, families and civilians die in the thousands in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. In the 24 hours after the temporary pause on violence ended, a further 700 Palestinians were killed by Israel’s intensifying military action, making the death toll at time of writing over 15,000, including 6,150 children. United Nations experts have called it “a genocide in the making”.

Palestinian children are being killed at a rate of one every 10 minutes, prompting the UN Secretary General to call Gaza a “graveyard for children”. The rate and number of children being killed in Gaza is strikingly higher than in other conflicts, with more children being killed in the first week of the war in Gaza than were killed in the first year of the war in Ukraine.

This overwhelming killing of children is enormously distressing, and as I embrace my own two young children I am aware that I cannot comprehend the pain and grief of the parents and families who have lost theirs in the thousands. I hold my toddler’s hand and kiss his face and see the images of Palestinian parents holding, kissing and rocking their dead or wounded children. I soothe my baby and am indescribably grateful that she does not know the sound of bombs dropping, or the horrific trauma and fear of those hearing them.

I condemn violence of any kind and condemn unreservedly the actions of Hamas on October 7th. I grieve the loss of the 1,200 people killed by Hamas in Israel, and for the ongoing suffering of those still held hostage, those who have lost loved ones, and those who have experienced and continue to experience pain and trauma.

Medical personnel are working heroically in Gaza in indescribable conditions so completely removed from the ones with which I am familiar, risking their lives every moment to try and save others whilst feeling “totally abandoned”. Hospitals in Gaza are struggling to provide care amidst evacuation orders, power cuts, fuel shortages and severely restricted aid, and 26 of the 35 hospitals in Gaza are unable to function.

According to the World Health Organisation, there have been 178 recorded attacks by the Israeli Defence Force on medical centres in Gaza. More than 200 medical personnel have been killed in Gaza since the conflict began, including doctors with Médecins Sans Frontiers. In addition to the sick and wounded, seeking shelter in the hospitals are some of the 1.8 million people in Gaza who are now displaced. That is nearly 80 percent of the population. There is nowhere safe for Palestinians to go, with areas in the South of Gaza previously declared safe zones now facing escalating strikes. There is a “catastrophic humanitarian situation” in Gaza as people suffer starvation, thirst, disease, and sanitation crises, which will kill many more Palestinians in the months to come.

There are about 50,000 pregnant people in Gaza, and approximately 180 births every day. The United Nations Children’s Fund warns that “women, children and newborns in Gaza are disproportionately bearing the burden of the escalation of hostilities in the occupied Palestinian territory”, and caution that maternal deaths and complications affecting women and their babies will rise due to the lack of sanitation, support and medical care.

When I experienced obstetric emergencies after both of my births, I received medical care that saved my life. Having been working in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and having had my own babies, I am aware of how important psychological safety, support, and healthcare are for the wellbeing of a mother and her baby, and feel immensely distressed to think of the women birthing alone without shelter or medical care, in company with immense loss and grief amidst a warzone.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) released a statement on the Israel-Gaza conflict on October 23rd, asserting that “all people, including pregnant women, women who have recently delivered, newborns and children, have a right to life, health and dignity” and calling “for the immediate protection of civilians and healthcare, and … the need to end hostilities.” The full statement can be read here.

The Australian Medical Association has also made a statement, urging “that all parties involved in the conflict in Israel and Gaza must respect the principles of medical neutrality during times of armed conflict” and expressing their support for the World Medical Association’s calls, which include that International Humanitarian Law be respected. The Australian Federation of Medical Women has called for peace in Gaza and urged the Australian Government to act.

More than 3,000 health professionals have signed an open letter calling for “an immediate ceasefire and lifting of the siege in Gaza”, including fellows from seven different medical colleges in Australia and fellows of the RACGP. Protestors are turning out in the hundreds of thousands across the globe, and leading international organisations including Amnesty International, the World Health Organization and Médecins Sans Frontiers are calling for a ceasefire. Jewish Voice for Peace are demanding a ceasefire in their protests across America, where they chant “not in our name”. The pressure on the Australian Government to call for a ceasefire is growing.

Medical colleges represent a diverse membership and this diversity of beliefs, lived experience, identity and culture is a great strength and asset. There is no space or justification for any form of hate speech, Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, and holding an awareness of and sensitivity to the suffering and pain that many people are experiencing is paramount.

It is important that leaders can demonstrate the ability to condemn the actions of a political institution without this being conflated with the criticism of a people or a faith. Much like it must be possible to condemn the actions of Hamas without being labelled as Islamophobic, it must be possible to condemn the military actions of Israel – and their occupation and illegal settlements in Palestinian territories and blockade of Gaza – without being accused of anti-Semitism.

Hospitals, staff and the wounded are protected under International Humanitarian Law in times of conflict. So are refugee camps, which have also been heavily bombed by Israel. Israel cannot be above International Law; it is imperative for any moral integrity that these laws are respected. We must value a Palestinian life the same as we value an Israeli life; there cannot be, in the words of Queen Rania Al Abdullah, “a glaring double standard in the world”.

As a junior doctor in Australia, I look to the medical colleges for leadership on issues that threaten humanity, health, and the values we strive to embody. I am proud of the RACGP’s strong history of advocacy for refugees, marriage equality, the Voice to parliament, abortion access, and climate change, and I am disappointed at the College’s silence now. To maintain silence is to be complicit in the atrocities that are occurring before our eyes.

There is no end in sight to Israel’s military offensive, and many are warning a genocide is occurring. We must show solidarity with healthcare workers in Gaza and do all we can to protect against the loss of innocent life and unimaginable suffering. We must put pressure on our Government to act, and medical colleges have a vital role in this.

I urge the RACGP to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza and Israel, to condemn all forms of violence, to advocate for the protection of innocent people and children and their right to healthcare and safety, to call for the safe delivery of aid and medical care in Gaza, and to demand that International Humanitarian Law and medical neutrality be respected.

When we look back on this time of indescribable despair, I hope the college can say it advocated for humanity.

Sincerely,

Dr Lucy Mitchell.

• Lucy Mitchell is a junior doctor who has been working in Obstetrics and Gynaecology on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country (Canberra). She is passionate about health equity and has a strong interest in women’s health, refugee health and First Nations health. She is currently on parental leave with her second child and plans to pursue training in General Practice.


Response from RACGP

The Chair of the RACGP Board, Dr Lara Roeske, provided the following response:

“The impact of war on the health and wellbeing of civilians constitutes a public health emergency, particularly for the children and most vulnerable.

“The short term and long term impacts of trauma, loss, persecution and safety are immense. The RACGP is politically neutral in this space; however, we acknowledge the harm and trauma of war and its impact on our members is important. Our hearts go out to our members and their families, especially those who are caught up in the conflict.”


More from X/Twitter

Read 4 December statement: The Elders call for urgent review of foreign military assistance to Israel over Gaza atrocities.

The Elders, an independent group of global leaders working for peace, justice, human rights and a sustainable planet, which was was founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, call for governments providing military assistance to Israel to review their approach, and set conditions for any future provision. They warn that Israel’s renewed military campaign in Gaza risks fuelling an escalating cycle of mass atrocities.

“Israel’s disproportionate response to the horrendous terror attacks by Hamas on 7 October – which the Elders unequivocally condemned – has reached a level of inhumanity towards Palestinians in Gaza that is intolerable….If the world can watch this scale of brutality and suffering and not prevent it, we have lost our common humanity.”

The Elders reiterate their call on President Biden to set out a serious peace plan and help build a new coalition for peace to deliver it.

The statement is signed by:

  • Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and Chair of The Elders
  • Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary-General and Deputy Chair of The Elders
  • Graça Machel, Founder of the Graça Machel Trust, co-founder and Deputy Chair of The Elders
  • Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and former Director-General of the WHO
  • Helen Clark, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand and head of the UN Development Programme
  • Elbegdorj Tsakhia, former President and Prime Minister of Mongolia
  • Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • Hina Jilani, Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and co-chair of the Taskforce on Justice
  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia and Nobel Peace Laureate
  • Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile
  • Juan Manuel Santos, former President of Colombia and Nobel Peace Laureate
  • Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico.

 

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk at press conference ahead of Human Rights Day
Statement by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: “The human suffering in Gaza is a permanent stain on our shared humanity.” Access the Gaza food security report here. Read the open letter to President Biden Statement by Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council: 

“The pulverising of Gaza now ranks amongst the worst assaults on any civilian population in our time and age… Our colleagues in Gaza ask themselves a simple question: how is it that these atrocities are beamed across the world for all to witness, and yet so little is done to stop them?

“Countries supporting Israel with arms must understand that these civilian deaths will be a permanent stain on their reputation. They must demand an immediate ceasefire in Israel and Gaza…The situation in Gaza is a total failure of our shared humanity. The killing must stop.”


Previously at Croakey

 

 

 

 

 

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