The June 10th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Desert Island Discs’, presented by Kirsty Young, featured British surgeon David Nott who, in addition to his regular work, volunteers with Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Whilst discussing the dangers of working in conflict zones, Young asked:
“Are there times when you have to exit mid-operation?”
Listeners then heard the following story (from 23:09 here).
“I was in Gaza in 2014 during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I was working in one of the big hospitals in Gaza City. There was this little girl that had come in, who was about seven, who’d had her…evisceration it’s called, where the bowels are hanging out of the abdominal wall. She’d had severe fragmentation injuries. A fragment had gone into her bladder, her spleen, stomach and so on. I prepared her with iodine and so on. Somebody came up to me and said David, we need to go now. We need to leave the hospital because it’s going to be blown up in five minutes. And…erm….I looked at her and at the time I had no family, I had no siblings, I had nobody and I said well, OK, I’m on my own here and, you know, am I going to leave this little girl on her own to, you know, to die in the hospital? I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to, so I stayed there with her and thought well….”
Young: “So you must tell me what happened? What happened?”
Nott: “So all the staff in the operating theatre left. I was there with the anaesthetist. I looked at the anaesthetist and I said to him do you want to go? He said no, I’ll stay with you and so the two of us just stayed there. We operated, waiting for the bomb to explode onto the hospital and nothing happened. And three or four days later – I’ve got this picture of me and the little girl….”
Young: “Right, we’re gonna take a break. We’re gonna have some music.”
So what would uninformed listeners have taken away from that segment of the programme? Obviously many would have been left with the impression that Israel was the party expected to ‘blow up’ the working hospital and that the fact no strike took place on that occasion was a matter of luck.
From a previous interview given by Nott we can ascertain that the hospital concerned is Shifa hospital and that the date of that particular experience was August 1st 2014. On that day a UN brokered 72-hour ceasefire was supposed to come into effect but Hamas breached it after an hour and a half with an attack on Israeli soldiers decommissioning one of its cross-border tunnels in the Rafah area in the south of the Gaza Strip.
“IDF soldier Hadar Goldin, an officer in the Givati Brigade, was apparently abducted in the Rafah area of Gaza on Friday morning, in an attack perpetrated some 90 minutes after the onset of a truce. He was formally designated missing in action, an IDF spokesman said Friday. Two IDF soldiers were killed in the attack. […]
A suicide bomber and other gunmen engaged the IDF forces as they sought to decommission a tunnel. Shortly after the combined attack, it became clear to Israeli forces in the area that a soldier was missing.”
Later, terrorists also fired missiles at Israeli civilian communities but none of that very relevant context was provided to listeners to this programme. Shifa hospital was of course not attacked on that day or any other and – despite what Nott was told at the time – it was in fact considered to be one of the safest places in the Gaza Strip, as reported by the BBC’s James Reynolds just days later:
“…just to explain where we are; we’re at the Shifa hospital here in the centre of Gaza. When you speak to ordinary people here, they feel that this is about the only safe place that there is in this strip of land – this or the grounds of the other hospitals here – because they believe that Israel will not target hospitals. There are actually some families sleeping outside the hospital – again, they believe that they won’t be hit here….”
Whether or not Mr Nott asked his hosts at Shifa hospital why the secure underground operating theatre located in the bunker underneath that facility was not placed at his disposal is unclear. Had he done so, he would have been able to tell BBC audiences that most probably the reason that his colleagues assumed that the hospital was going to be bombed on August 1st 2014 was because Hamas was using the space beneath his feet as a command centre and refuge – and him as a human shield.
If Kirsty Young had provided that context to Radio 4 listeners, their take-away impressions of this story would of course have been more accurate.