Erasmus MC initially rejected the event by student associations IFMSA-Rotterdam and Avicenna, as becomes clear from correspondence seen by EM. It was supposedly ‘political in nature’, ‘of no interest to students’ and ‘not linked to education’. Moderator Thea Hilhorst, professor of Humanitarian Studies at ISS, alluded to this in her opening words at the beginning of the meeting: “Tonight is not primarily about politics but about health workers in Palestine who are unable to provide health care and about patients who are unable to access health care.”

No political context

“We were told that the event would not be allowed”, says Anna le Clercq, member of IFMSA-Rotterdam. “This was a first for us, because we’ve organised activities about Global Health with a political context without any problems in the past.” The decision appeared to have come from higher up, from the Executive Board. So the student associations contacted the Executive Board themselves. Eventually, the Executive Board decided that the event could take place, but only – as correspondence with the organisation states – if the subtitle, ‘A comprehensive approach to the crisis in Gaza’, was removed and the event was not political.

“Erasmus MC particularly emphasised its neutrality in this conflict”, Hilhorst says. As a moderator, she finds the Executive Board’s approach incomprehensible. “The lecture is about a humanitarian situation in Gaza and how to deal with it as a doctor. It focuses on the attacks being made on health care, a subject that students are allowed to be critical of. Why can’t a meeting be political? The Executive Board should encourage students to speak out in favour of humanitarian law.”

Academic freedom for students

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Loes de Kleijn, researcher and trainee general practitioner at Erasmus MC, is also critical of the censorship imposed on the meeting. She is part of a collective of staff at Erasmus MC that is advocating for health care in Gaza: the Erasmus MC Palestine Advocates Team (EMPA-T).

De Kleijn is concerned about students’ academic freedom. “It’s part of their development as doctors. Also, Erasmus MC itself has taken strong positions on situations in the past. In 2022, the Ukrainian flag was raised in support of the Ukrainian people, and the tower of Erasmus MC was coloured green in solidarity with the Iranian people and the demonstrators on Malieveld.”

Destruction of health care

The evening consisted of a talk by Professor Mads Gilbert, anaesthesiologist and head of the Emergency Medicine Department at the University Hospital of North Norway. Gilbert has regularly worked and taught at Palestinian hospitals since 1989 but is now having to watch with concern as the Israeli army attacks them.

Silence and a sense of horror and sadness descended on the medical students, doctors and researchers present when Gilbert showed them the harsh conditions in Gaza. “The destruction of health care and the obstruction of emergency aid are resulting in what doctors in Gaza are calling the ‘Triangle of Death’: death from starvation, dehydration and (simple) diseases, including infections, diabetes, treatable cancers and pregnancies.”

“It’s an indisputable fact that hospitals are being targeted. There have been more than 600 targeted attacks on health care workers. A total of 120 ambulances, 24 hospitals and 62 care centres are now non-functional, which equates to more than 80 per cent of health care.” Gilbert showed the audience photos of Palestinian colleagues and medical students he had taught in the past. Israeli army attacks have killed them – and sometimes their entire families too – in hospitals, on the streets and in their homes. So, Gilbert was sharp in his condemnation. “The biggest problem for health care in Gaza is the Israeli occupation.”

Violation of law

Speaking after Gilbert was Craig Jones, a lecturer in Human Geography at Newcastle University. “International humanitarian law is based on the need to protect medical professionals and the wounded”, Jones said.  “Yet Israel has attacked just about every hospital in Gaza. By its own admission, it has done this because of the exceptions that exist in the legislation in question.”

Jones has spent years researching how Israel uses legislation for military purposes. As an example (simplified), he said: “Israel has shown photographs of several weapons that the army claims were found in Al-Shifa hospital. Israel argues that the large-scale bombing of the hospital is now justified under international law.” To leave the audience in no confusion, Jones adds that he disagrees with this course of action and believes it violates international humanitarian law.

Need for discussion

After the lecture, the huge need for information and discussion was clear. For example, a physician-researcher raised questions about links that EUR and Erasmus MC have with Israeli universities, via which they allegedly worked on military systems and doctrines that are now being used in attacks on Palestinian colleagues. A student also asked for advice on the stance Board members at the university should take to the war and humanitarian crisis in Palestine. “I would hold them accountable for the links they are maintaining with these universities”, Gilbert replied. “Have they thought about what they will say when their grandchildren ask what they did or did not do when a genocide was happening?”

Hospitals must be safe places

In a response (which can be read in full here), Erasmus MC’s Executive Board stated that it had not said the lecture could not go ahead, merely that the original subtitle, mentioning the Gaza conflict, would have to be removed because of ‘the neutral stance we want to take to conflicts happening around the world’.

The Board has also stated: “After all, it is important for hospitals to always be accessible and safe for people who are in need of help.” This should apply regardless of background, religion, past deeds, etc. This is why, for many years, the policy on room use at Erasmus MC’s Education Centre has been that associations are welcome, provided their meetings are not about politics or religion or of a commercial nature.”

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