‘End the occupation’: SNP MP and surgeon denied entry to Gaza by Israel speaks out

Veteran humanitarian Dr Philippa Whitford calls for end to the Gaza blockade to allow medical relief to reach Palestinians in need

DR PHILIPPA WHITFORD, the Central Ayrshire SNP MP and breast cancer specialist, has called for the end to the blockade of Gaza by the Israeli military and emphasised the necessity of the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), after being formally denied entry to Gaza by the Israeli Government.

Dr Whitford was forced to cancel her trip, which would have seen her provide training to surgeons in Gaza on much-needed, up-to-date surgical techniques, two days before departure. According to the Sunday Times newspaper, Israeli embassy officials have “intimated” that Dr Whitford’s request for entry was denied to protect her personal safety.

Earlier today (13 November), Al Jazeera reported that Israel and Hamas have agreed to a ceasefire, following 48 hours of intense hostilities between Israeli forces and Palestinian resistance factions. The fighting broke out in the aftermath of a botched Israeli commando operation on the evening of 11 November, which broke the previously agreed ceasefire.

During the hostilities, over 460 rockets were fired from within Gaza, in what Israeli media have described as the largest projectile barrage yet from within the territory. According to Al Jazeera, Hamas have requested that the ceasefire with Israel be arranged with Egypt, the United Nations, Norway and Switzerland acting as mediators. In response, the Israeli Government has said that it reserves its freedom to operate.

READ MORE: MP Dr Philippa Whitford spends parliamentary recess performing surgery in Palestine

Against the backdrop of this renewed violence, Dr Whitford’s cancelled trip was intended to be the latest MAP mission as part of a three-year programme to provide focused, specific medical relief to Gaza that extends beyond crisis management.

During the first Palestinian intifada in the 1990s, Dr Whitford and her husband both lived in Gaza while volunteering at a UN hospital. She has served as a volunteer specialist on many occasions since, most recently during the 2016 and 2017 parliamentary recesses, which she spent in the West Bank performing operations on breast cancer patients and visiting Gaza to provide advice to local hospitals.

Following the Israeli Government’s refusal to allow Dr Whitford access to Gaza, a spokesperson for the UK Israeli embassy in London highlighted a statement by the UK Foreign Office that “advises against all travel to Gaza. Entry to, and exit from, Gaza can be very difficult”.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Dr Whitford confirmed that the deputy Israeli ambassador has agreed to meet with her next week to discuss the matter. Regarding her formal denial, Dr Whitford said: “Obviously, I don’t think it’s justifiable. Medical Aid for Palestinians are bringing doctors in regularly; I was in over the last two years.

Regarding the reasons behind the Israeli Government’s decision, Dr Whitford said: “I think it’s pretty much that they’re now aware I’m a Member of Parliament, which they weren’t, I don’t think, particularly aware of before. Now, whether they have more concerns about something happening to an MP because it would cause more news, I don’t know. They haven’t actually let Members of Parliament into Gaza now for eight or nine years. So, is it supposedly to protect us, or stop people from seeing the terrible conditions? That’s just conjecture. But other doctors go in and out.”

“They haven’t actually let Members of Parliament into Gaza now for eight or nine years. So, is it supposedly to protect us, or stop people from seeing the terrible conditions?” SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford

Asked if the Israeli Government had denied entry to any other members of the latest mission, Dr Whitford said: “On this specific mission, we had two others doctors who didn’t receive permission, but they weren’t denied. Mine was formally denied, and it was about 48 hours before we left the UK, so it meant I was only able to go to Jerusalem and the West Bank. We used all of the time and we were busy, but it meant that the training program we had planned in Gaza didn’t go ahead. We only got one of our doctors and our cancer nurse in, whereas the whole aim is that you’re taking what’s called a multidisciplinary team and working with your counterparts.

“There would have been a Palestinian surgeon from Jerusalem and myself and we would have been operating with local surgeons, teaching them a new technique we’re trying to introduce. Our oncologists would have been working with their oncologists, etc. Obviously, it’s very expensive for all of this be set up, and for our goals for this visit not to happen.

Dr Whitford went on to say that the nature of a formal denial may put her future medical relief efforts in jeopardy: “I’m the only one who got a formal denial, and once you’ve been formally denied, you’re unlikely to get in in the future, either.

“On top of our breast cancer project, there was also a plastic surgeon who didn’t get in; again, not denied, just no permit issued. He was part of a limb reconstruction team, so he was also quite critical to the team.”

“The same happens with patients – about 45 per cent of patients who apply for a permit to come out of Gaza to go to Jerusalem for treatment will not receive permission. It’s the same for doctors trying to get out to access training, which is one of the reasons we were trying to bring the training to them.”

“They’re celebrating that electricity will now be available 16 hours a day instead of just four. The water isn’t drinkable; there’s raw sewage pouring out across the beaches into the sea, contaminating it… The place is in an awful state.” SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford

Asked if MAP would be able to find a qualified replacement for her, Dr Whitford said: “They will. I’ve basically set this project up with Medical Aid for Palestinians. When I went out in 2016, visiting Gaza at that time, it was clear to me: all women were having mastectomies basically, and they were all having very radical surgery in their armpit that leaves a lot of complications. While we occasionally have to do such radical surgery, it’s not the routine anymore. So, literally, their women are having a routine an operation that’s maybe 20 or 30 years old.”

However, Dr Whitford’s familiarity with Gaza makes her all the more vital to the mission, which often includes medical personnel unfamiliar with the region.

Dr Whitford continued: “I have recruited breast cancer specialists from all over Scotland to be part of this project over three years. I’m only the surgeon on, if you like, a trip a year, but there are others. We are running two to the West Bank and Jerusalem a year, and two to Gaza a year.

“Gaza is a more daunting place for people to go to, but because I lived there – I lived there for about a year and a half back in ’91 and ’92 as a volunteer. I know Gaza; I’ve got friends in Gaza, so I’m comfortable enough to go there. I think that helps when you’ve a team going out, who’ve never been to Palestine and certainly never to Gaza. I was due to go back out next Easter.

“I’d planned to be closely involved in this over the three years that it’s running – obviously, I’m very disappointed. I have friends there – the thought of never being allowed back in is very upsetting.”

READ MORE: Holyrood welcomes Palestinian firefighters trained in Scotland

Describing the specific aims of Medical Aid for Palestinians, Dr Whitford states that it has different goals than other medical relief organisations operating in Gaza, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

“MSF tend to be an early response charity. When I lived there, they had some very specific, small-scale projects. What Medical Aid for Palestinians has very much been about is providing equipment, training… They’re very much about being in it for the long game.”

The need for such medical relief has only increased in recent years, Dr Whitford argues: “Particularly, with UNHCA – the United Nations refugee and works agency that is the main provider of public services, health and education to the refugee population from the 1948 war… Obviously, they’ve had a lot of their funding cut by Donald Trump. So there’s just general pressures on health provision in Gaza, and the background humanitarian situation is already appalling.

“I mean, they’re celebrating that electricity will now be available 16 hours a day instead of just four. The water isn’t drinkable; there’s raw sewage pouring out across the beaches into the sea, contaminating it… The place is in an awful state.

“So to have this agency that’s been working to really trying in a focused way to pick up a few key projects, and introduce knowledge and training and equipment for doctors who can’t easily get out themselves, I think is really important. There isn’t a natural replacement for them, and they have a very high standing among locals.”

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Asked if MAP had encountered any difficulties similar to the FBU shipment of firefighting equipment which, after being sent from Dundee in September 2016, was impounded by Israeli military customs upon its arrival, despite its humanitarian purpose, Dr Whitford said that shipments of medical equipment face different but similarly illogical challenges.

“You have to apply a long time in advance and make it clear what it is. The operation we’re trying to introduce is called Sentinel Node Biopsy, and it is now the routine way of checking the lymph-node status of women with breast cancer, to see if the cancer has spread. We use a little dose of radioactive colloid, which we inject into the breast, it travels to the glands and lights up the lymph-nodes.

“Now, the dosage is miniscule – you don’t wear any protective clothing. They [the Israeli authorities] won’t let that in – they say, ‘Ooh, that would be duel use, they could create a dirty bomb’, or whatever. But you’re talking about a half-life of four hours – by tomorrow, it’s not radioactive worth a damn. There’s often this very rigid, uninformed or certainly not evidence-based obstruction to things. It’s a real labour to get stuff in.”

Asked what action she would like to see taken from the UK Government and international community to improve both medical relief access and the situation in Gaza overall, Dr Whitford replied: “There has to be a lot more pressure to end to occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. We lived there when the peace process started – the Madrid peace conference that started in autumn, ’91. We are 27 years on – more than a quarter of a century – and the conditions are worse.

“The blockade of Gaza, first, should end – that would allow medicines and equipment to get in and patients to get out. Secondly, you need to get back to some form of peace process.” SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford

“Medical Aid for Palestinians and others are trying to ease things, put a sticking plaster on things, but the underlying issue is the occupation and the blockade. Gaza’s now been under blockade for 11 years. It’s utterly claustrophobic. Young men under 50 are not allowed out. You’re stranded in a strip of land that is five miles by twenty-five miles, and has two million people in it – and you’re not allowed out.

“The blockade of Gaza, first, should end – that would allow medicines and equipment to get in and patients to get out. Secondly, you need to get back to some form of peace process. End the occupation, and we get back to working towards a solution.

“At the moment, we’re heading in the wrong direction, between the things that Trump has done and Netanyahu has done. The two-state solution that is widely accepted by the international community and the UN is being undermined. More and more settlements are being built, and old settlements are being expanded. In the West Bank, you’re literally talking about conquest by concrete. I think that undermines the rule of international law. These settlements are illegal.”

While Dr Whitford, a member of the SNP Friends of Palestine, says she supports a two-state solution, she acknowledges that “there are many Palestinians that are despairing of a two-state solution and are talking about a one-state solution.”

Picture courtesy of stichting kifaia

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