In Israel-Hamas war, where are the voices of the healing profession? – January 3, 2024

first published in The Seattle Times

Surgeons operate on a Palestinian wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in a hospital in Rafah on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023. (Hatem Ali / The Associated Press)

It is possible to be horrified by the deaths and injuries resulting from Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israeli civilians and at the same time be horrified by the Israeli military response that is killing tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians living in Gaza.  

Until recently, the health care professions that have spoken out about wars in Afghanistan and Ukraine in the past have been either silent or defended the bombing campaign. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health provided an excellent description of the catastrophic health crisis in Gaza but did not call for an end to the bombing. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies took a similar approach.  

The American Medical Association declined to debate a resolution calling for a cease-fire. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has been remarkably silent, despite the fact that over 180 pregnant women are delivering daily in Gaza under bombardment. The American Academy of Pediatrics has updated its policy to emphasize protection of children during armed conflict but has not mentioned the estimated more than 15,400 women and children killed or the thousands injured, still under the rubble, or severely emotionally traumatized during the conflict. 

Some organizations have spoken out for an end to the carnage. The American Public Health AssociationDoctors Without Borders, the  World Health Organization, the prominent medical journal The Lancet, and the World Federation of Public Health Associations have all called for a long-term cease-fire, release of hostages, restoration of water, fuel, electricity, and adequate humanitarian aid.  

To my medical colleagues who have not spoken out, I ask: When is the line crossed? 

  • When the number of women and children killed in Gaza exceeds the number of civilians killed by the U.S. and its allies in nearly 20 years of war in Afghanistan? 
  • When a group calling itself Doctors for the Rights of IDF Soldiers advocates for the bombing of all hospitals in Gaza, using hateful rhetoric implicating the entire civilian population, after 45 prominent Israeli rabbis state that the Israeli military has a right to bomb Al-Shifa Hospital? 
  • When the provision of food, fuel, electricity, oxygen, medications, and clean water are deliberately denied as a weapon of war, targeting an entire civilian population that now faces dehydration, starvation, lack of access to health care, and unimaginable emotional trauma? 
  • When hospitals and ambulances are targeted and destroyed with patients and staff inside, when incubators fail due to the lack of fuel such that sick newborn babies are wrapped in foil and laid next to each other to keep warm, and when parents are writing their children’s names on their extremities so they can be identified after the bombs fall? 
  • When Dr. Muhammad Abu Salmiya, the director of Al Shifa Hospital, is detained by Israeli forces, along with other colleagues, and a convoy from Doctors Without Borders is targeted by Israeli fire, killing one person? 
  • When over 312 medical workers have been killed, more medical staff are being arrested, interrogated, and detained, and only a third of the hospitals are even partially functional? 

We can agree that Hamas’ attack on Israeli civilians was a war crime, but why is it so difficult to acknowledge that the Israeli military attack on health care facilities and personnel, water and sewer infrastructure, housing and educational institutions, killing more than 21,978 civilians and displacing 85% of the population, is also a violation of the right to health in defiance of international law, and therefore a war crime, too? 

As health care workers, we have a choice. As Frantz Fanon stated, doctors can heal “the wounds of humanity” or we can be complicit in systems of oppression. We can resist or collaborate with the unfolding violence in Gaza. We can be silent and fearful about our reputations and careers, or we can recognize that making the accusation of antisemitism against those who speak out against the wholesale slaughter of civilians is a poisonous form of silencing and weaponization. 

To stay silent is an ethical failure by the U.S. medical profession. Palestinian doctors and health workers have refused to abandon their patients under devastating conditions. We should honor and support their commitment and our colleagues who are promoting their efforts, working for a total cease-fire, release of hostages, massive humanitarian aid, and an end to the oppressive occupation and siege. 

Editor’s note: The Seattle Times occasionally closes comments on stories. If you would like to share your thoughts or experiences in relation to this editorial, please submit a Letter to the Editor of no more than 200 words to be considered for publication in our Opinion section. Send to:

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author and filmmaker focused on human rights and social justice. Until retirement she served as assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School.

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