Can Health Care Personnel Speak Out on Health and Human Rights Issues in Gaza?

Alice Rothchild

In the United States, the right of medical personnel to speak out about the ongoing assault on Gaza and the urgent need for a ceasefire is under threat. Similarly, an article in The Lancet calls out the reluctance of medical professional organizations, journals, and lobbies to take any meaningful stand against the systematic obliteration of health systems in Gaza, identifying this controversy as “The Palestine challenge to US medical ethics.”

Since October 7th, I have witnessed this “challenge” at 14 medical schools and health related institutions, as medical students and residents report push back from other staff and administrators, including warnings of dismissal, loss of residency options, and accusations of antisemitism when educational sessions or protests are organized. A Palestinian-American nurse at a New York Hospital was fired after receiving an award “for her compassion in caring for mothers who had lost babies,” when she referred to the war in Gaza as a “genocide.” A USAID senior adviser on gender, maternal and child health, and nutrition, was told he could either resign or be fired after his presentation on child mortality among Palestinians was cancelled by USAID leadership.

In May, I received an invitation from several physicians at Harvard Medical School to speak on the health and human rights consequences of the war on Gaza. That lecture at Brigham and Women’s Hospital was cancelled. Rescheduled at the School of Public Health, it was cancelled again due to vague administrative and “safety issues” and an accusation of antisemitism. I had just returned from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where a similar presentation at the medical school was abruptly “postponed indefinitely.”

Earlier that month, Doctors Without Borders had called for an immediate and sustained ceasefire in Gaza following the Israeli military’s deadly airstrike on a camp in Rafah. The airstrike killed 45 people, wounded 200, and occurred shortly after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt military operations in Rafah and a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories issued a report entitled Anatomy of a Genocide. The UN Human Rights Council also stated there were reasonable grounds to believe the Israeli military was committing genocide. The International Criminal Court sought arrest warrants for both Israeli and Hamas leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity following the October attacks.

In the face of widespread calls on campuses and in communities across the globe to address the consequences of the Israeli attacks on Gazan hospitals, universities, and civilian infrastructure, the rising levels of starvation, deaths, and injuries, Palestine Legal has documented a McCarthyite campaign targeting solidarity movements, criminalizing dissent, and censoring “pro-Palestine” speech. Even calling for a ceasefire is considered too threatening. In the Boston area students from Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Emerson, and UMass Amherst were met with threats of academic sanctions, disciplinary notices, suspensions, revocation of housing, withholding of degrees, aggressive unrestrained counter-protestors, arrests, and raids by campus, State, and Boston police in riot gear.

Meanwhile, in Gaza 500 health workers are dead, hundreds have been arrested, detained, and tortured in Israeli prisons. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Health in Humanitarian Crisis Centre, and the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health predicted in a report published on February 19, 2024 that over the next six months if the status quo persisted, there would be 58,260 excess deaths due to injuries, infection, and untreated chronic illness, and up to 22% more children under six would suffer from severe malnutrition. Their second report, published June 5, 2024, projected 3,509 traumatic war injury deaths in the Rafah governate alone in the next 90 days.

The scale of injury and death, the apparent deliberate destruction of the Gaza health care system, and the racist and genocidal intent in the language of Israeli leadership is highly problematic for the world of medicine. Health workers have been outspoken about international crises such as Ukraine but are being silenced on the issue of Palestine.

The war in Gaza and US funding has exposed several central political and moral issues of our day: the interlinked roles of structural and individual racism, Islamophobia, dehumanization, the impact of settler colonialism on the perception of the human rights of an indigenous population, and the socio-political contexts that lead to the destruction of public health. Medical and academic institutions should welcome these challenging conversations, wherever people are suffering and dying from violence or neglect, particularly when the United States is the main funder of that violence. The suppression of discussion on Palestine goes against our oath as physicians and the stated mission and values of our medical institutions. Historically, it is also clear that silence in the face of atrocities only enables the medical community to ignore, condone, and sometimes even commit grave injustices. When I gave my (cancelled) presentations in alternative locations, audiences were engaged and eager to consider the facts and potential solutions to resolve this humanitarian and human rights catastrophe.

Alice Rothchild is an author, filmmaker, and retired obstetrician-gynecologist, formerly Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, and fellow in the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, United States.