Interview with Dr. Basil Baker: Quick Death under Fire, Slow Death under Siege
It was very early on Monday morning 18 August. At 4:00 A.M., I tried calling Dr. Basil Baker on his cell phone from my Skype connection in Washington, DC. Dr. Baker answered at 11:00 A.M. in Gaza, saying that he would finally be able to speak to me in just a little while. We had tried to do the interview a few times already during the cease-fire that had gone into effect on 11 August, but he had not been able to spare the time necessary because he was constantly caught up in the pressing needs of the hospital where he worked. That morning, at 5:00 A.M. my time, noon his time, we finally conducted the interview, I from my home and he from a street corner in the North Rimal district of the Gaza Strip.
Dr. Basil Baker is a neurosurgeon. He was on duty in Gaza throughout the second intifada and the last three major Israeli offensives on the territory. Currently, he is the head of Neurosurgery at al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical complex andmain referral hospital. Located in the North Rimal neighborhood, close to Gaza City and Shuja‘iya, al-Shifa was at the center of one of the most heavily bombed areas during the summer 2014 Israeli offensive. Al-Rimal registered the second highest number of casualties for the entire territory, and the medical complex at al-Shifa turned into a physical refuge for thousands of people: the injured who had been admitted to the hospital but had no homes to which they could return; those who no longer felt safe taking shelter in the United Nations schools that Israeli missiles targeted; and those just waiting to hear news of their loved ones among the injured, the sick, and the dead.
As with its previous assaults on Gaza, the Israeli military did not spare the hospital during this summer’s operation, claiming that Hamas used al-Shifa as a base to conduct operations, and to hide some of its senior military cadres, launch rockets, and stockpile munitions. On 28 July, the hospital’s outpatient department received a direct hit and was damaged, but fortunately no deaths or injuries ensued. Other medical facilities suffered much worse fates, including al-Durrah Children’s Hospital in nearby Gaza City, where Israeli fire killed a two-year-old child in intensive care, and wounded thirty others.
As he spoke, Dr. Baker emphasized that he wanted the interview to convey two things. Firstly, that regardless of the assault, which had the global media’s attention, Gaza’s population was being slowly but deliberately killed. The assault, he said, brought massive destruction and quick death, but the siege entails a slow death by suffocation. Secondly, with or without the offensive, Gaza is, in his words, unlivable: the air, the soil, and the sea are all polluted; there are food, electricity, and water shortages; the population is trapped inside a territory whose borders are sealed by Israel, Egypt, and the sea; there is no respite or leisure possible.
The day I called Dr. Baker was day five of a five-day cease-fire, which had come right after an earlier truce of three days. Dr. Baker and his colleagues had finallymanaged to ease some of the pressure on the hospital and to restockmedical supplies. There was no way of knowing the kind of chaos the Gaza Strip would descend into around nightfall. For me, there was no way of even imagining it. But they were already anticipating what would unfold in the coming hours, preparing as much as they could for the carnage that might follow—which it did for the entirety of another week.