“In total darkness, even a candle makes a difference.” Such were the the words of Dr. Atif Kubursi, Professor of Economics at McMaster University and guest speaker at the panel discussion “No Health in Occupation.” The event, organized by the grad student group Public Health Social Justice Collective, gave insight into the declining living standards of the Palestinian people based on the testimonies of a panel of experts. The panelists included Dr. Ruchama Marton, founder and president of Physicians for Human Rights-, and Dr. Abdel Rahman Lawendy, who, in 2008, was part of an international medical team to Gaza during the Israeli military effort “Operation Cast Lead.”
The PHSJC, a group of politically active graduate students at U of T, organized this dialogue with the aim of conducting an “open and honest discussion of the public health responses to the Israel-Palestinian responses.”
Andrea Albagli, serving as moderator, opened up dialogue by stating the bias of the group toward the Palestinian people as being in the interests of “the health of all people, especially those that have been marginalized.”
Each of the panelists gave the audience an insight into the bleak standard of living of Palestinians from the perspective of their respective disciplines.
Kubursi spoke with fervor as he addressed the issue from an economic standpoint. Being a member of the United Nations Economic Commission for Western Asia, he spoke of his recent visit to Beirut, where he was part of a team that conducted a study on the “Israeli occupation and its impact on the people.” Having stated the dismal findings of this survey, he ended on a positive note, airing his belief that peace in the region was possible through the “will, commitment and effort” of the people. His ending statement, “give the Palestinians a chance- end the occupation,” was greeted with rousing applause from the audience.
Adding to the discussion, Dr. Rahman recounted his experiences as an orthopedic surgeon as part of a relief team during the conflict three years ago. Although born and raised in Canada, he attributed his bias toward the Palestinian people to his Arab heritage and his role as a health service provider. His presentation, which included graphic images of casualties, outlined the grim reality faced by civilians during the conflict and elicited strong reactions from the audience.
Dr. Rahman alluded to Dr. Kubursi’s survey, which determined that Palestinians are one of the “most water-stressed” people in the world, an issue that is on everyone’s minds as U of T holds its annual Water Week. Dr. Kubursi’s study determined that the average Palestinian has access to a tenth of the minimum water requirements defined by the World Bank. Emphasizing the importance of clean water, Dr Rahman stated that he would “take clean water over all the hospitals in Toronto in order to maintain a city’s health.”
Paying tribute to the spirit of the people he met in the Gaza Strip, he professed his admiration of the humility and civility of the people in an environment he deemed to be “complete chaos.”
Being the last of the panelists to speak, Dr Marton added a wealth of experience to the dialogue. Dr. Marton has been credited with introducing the concept of “human rights” into Israeli society, and in 2005 was collectively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize along with a group of 1000 women.
She outlined the role played by Physicians for Human Rights- Israel in the conflict, emphasizing that as a political organization, PHRI strived for solidarity amongst the Palestinian people, saying “If you neglect even one, the effort is useful for nothing.” Dr. Marton ended her segment with the powerful call to "prevent, protect and protest” against human rights violations.
A message shared by the panelists was one of hope. Dr. Marton, while noting the “need to combine understanding with action,” acknowledged a change in Israeli society, one that was more aware of the injustices meted out to the Palestinian people. Dr. Rahman echoed this belief. Tying his optimism to the dramatic political shift that is currently sweeping the Middle East, he eagerly commented that Israel was not “living in the same neighborhood as it was a few months ago.