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Solidarity, Not Charity

International Aid Workers in Gaza

By Yipeng Ge

The issue of foreign international humanitarian workers trapped in Gaza has made headlines in the mainstream media and stories on social media over the past few days due to the indefinite closure of the Rafah border crossing in Gaza.

The restriction of people at borders is rooted in systems and histories of  colonialism and imperialism. The curtailing of the right to movement is embedded in the injustice of classism, racism, and other forms of oppression. I recall learning about frontline humanitarian negotiation in the context of the Ukrainian-Russian war by spending time in Poland with other graduate student researchers, hearing the narratives of humanitarian work on the ground in Poland and at the borders in support of Ukrainian refugees. During this experience, I remember that my professor, who oversaw our visit and has had decades of experience in frontline humanitarian negotiation, said that his one wish is a world without even the idea of borders. Reflecting on this, I, too, now wish for this same world without borders. Even more so now, as I reflect on the current issue of foreign international humanitarian workers who are trapped in Gaza.

We have been bearing witness to almost eight months of overt genocide in Gaza, taking place in the context of the ongoing Nakba experienced by Palestinians for over 76 years, manifested in an apartheid state, expanding its settler-colonial project into the occupied West Bank and beyond, and continuing to deny the right of return for Palestinian refugees in the diaspora. This past week was the 76th anniversary of the ongoing Nakba, which forcibly displaced and ethnically cleansed over three-quarters of a million Palestinians from their traditional homelands in Palestine in 1948. It is in this context that we must understand our role as foreign international humanitarian workers seeking to support humanitarian efforts on the ground in Gaza.

All this must be said and centered when considering the path forward for humanitarian work in the current context and the beyond-challenging reality of Gaza. As we continue to witness ever-worsening conditions in Gaza, including the closing of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Palestine by the occupying Israeli forces since Monday, May 6, 2024, I worry deeply for the over 2 million Palestinian lives that continue to hang in the balance in the Gaza Strip. The closure of the Rafah border is significant because it is the primary entry point for humanitarian aid and international or foreign healthcare workers supporting an already collapsed healthcare system in Gaza. This is also the border through which Palestinians have been fleeing the indescribable and unlivable conditions in Gaza and seeking necessary medical care and treatment in hospitals in the surrounding countries that cannot be offered in Gaza. The movement of Palestinians receiving healthcare services outside of Gaza, the delivery of aid, and the entrance of healthcare workers through this border have completely ceased since its closure. I am also horrified at the continued evacuation orders (read: ethnic cleansing and forced displacement because there are no safe or resource-rich places left to evacuate to in Gaza) being given to people in Rafah by the Israeli forces, a place where 1.5 million Palestinians shelter, over half a million of whom are children. For 17 years before October 7, 2023, Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip, limiting the movement of Palestinians between their own territories that remain occupied by a brutal military force and also drastically limiting the humanitarian aid needed for a population to thrive.

Once again, we must understand our role as foreign international humanitarian workers who seek to support humanitarian efforts in Gaza in this context.

I am concerned by the reality of the Rafah border crossing closure and occupation by the Israeli forces not only as it affects the entire population in the Gaza Strip but also with regard to my healthcare-worker colleagues, Palestinian and foreign internationals, who remain trapped in the Gaza Strip with no clear timeline for exiting. My concern for my international colleagues is tempered and understood within a context that acknowledges the realities of the ongoing Nakba and the Palestinian right to return. My colleague and friend, currently in Gaza, shared the following on Friday, May 17, 2024, which aptly explains the current situation:

Every humanitarian aid worker deserves to be let out. If we can all agree that it is unacceptable for Israel to prevent their exit from Gaza, then we should all also be able to agree that the Israeli occupation of all of the Gaza Strip – which has impeded the exit of any Palestinians for the last 17 years – is unacceptable.

I’m hearing about some [organizations], won’t name names, but primarily American [ones] that have launched public campaigns to “release the docs.” This is gross and disappointing. What should be a moment of solidarity is turning into yet another moment of members of the international community throwing around their privilege to take care of themselves at the expense of the Palestinians.

We need to use our voices for mutual good, so if anyone is advocating for the release of humanitarian workers/doctors, I urge caution. And I really hope no one is advocating for my group. We want the focus centered on the larger issue: the brutal military siege of Gaza. If Israel leaves, if the tanks roll out, if the occupation ends, all this is over. Aid rolls in, humanitarian workers can rotate out, and Palestinians can freely rebuild their lives with the dignity and self-determination that they deserve.

Having volunteered as part of a medical humanitarian mission in the Gaza Strip back in February 2023, I am intimately aware of the privilege of entering and exiting Gaza as a foreigner, a right that is denied to too many Palestinians. This privilege that I hold is something I do not take lightly as a Canadian citizen and passport holder.  I have been able to visit the traditional homelands of Palestinians when my friends and colleagues, who are Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, have not yet been granted their right to return.

We must remember not to replicate or perpetuate the same systems of oppression and harm that we long to dismantle for the Palestinian people. We must not resort to tactics and strategies through our communications or advocacy that lead to leveraging our privilege as foreign international humanitarian healthcare workers without acknowledging the operating context of the ongoing Nakba, lest we risk amplifying anti-Palestinian racism by dehumanizing or dismissing Palestinians and their narratives.

Humanitarians fundamentally understand and believe that all lives are equally valued, important, and worth protection and care. We must act accordingly, especially in times like these. My life is not more valuable or meaningful than any other life in this world, including the life of a Palestinian. Even if others choose to perpetuate racism, discrimination, and harm, we do not have to repeat these narratives or endorse them. We can choose a different path forward. We owe Palestinians solidarity, not simply charity.

We are all freer and safer when Gaza is no longer under siege and blockade. We are all freer and safer when Palestine is free.

  • Yipeng Ge, MD MPH CCFP, is a first-generation Chinese Canadian immigrant. He is a family physician and resident physician in public health and preventive medicine. He received a master of public health degree (health and social behavior) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Yipeng is a board member of the Canadian Public Health Association, Canadian Doctors for Medicare, and Humanity Auxilium. He is passionate about tackling health and social inequities by addressing the social and broader determinants of health, including anti-racism and decolonizing work and practice in medical education. Yipeng has worked for various global health organizations, including the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, and the Population Health Research Institute in Hamilton, Ontario. In 2020, he was Canada’s official youth delegate to the 73rd World Health Assembly and the 58th Pan American Health Organization Directing Council.

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