‘Serving the Palestinian Cause is Serving the Cause of Justice, indeed, of God Himself!’: Dr. Ang Swee Chai
Dr. Ang Swee Chai, now 61, was born in Penang, Malaysia, grew up and studied in Singapore, and has since 1977, joined her husband to live in exile in Britain. She has a Masters degree in Occupational Medicine, is a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and is now working in Britain at the St. Bartholomew’s and the Royal London hospitals – the first woman to be appointed orthopaedic consultant since the hospitals were founded several centuries ago. With her husband, Francis Khoo and some friends, Dr. Ang helped to form the British charity, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) following the 1982 SabraShatilla massacres. In 1987, PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat awarded Dr Ang the Star of Palestine, the highest award for service to the Palestinian people. She has co-authored Field Manual in War Surgery, a hand book based on experiences in the war front. Dr Ang Swee grew up supporting Israel. She was told that Arabs were terrorists. But in 1982, the British media broadcasted the relentless bombing of Beirut by Israeli planes. Shocked, her view of Israel began to change. It was then that she heard of an international appeal for an orthopaedic surgeon to treat war victims in Beirut. The petite woman – she is just under 1.5 meters – resigned her job in London, bade her husband farewell and set out on a journey to civil war Beirut. Her book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, is the true story of one woman’s journey to make the world notice the plight of the Palestinian people.
Recently, Dr. Ang Swee Chai was in Bangalore for the launch of the Kannada version of From Beirut to Jerusalem, translated by Fakir Muhammad Katpadi, and published by Other Books, Calicut. Here she spoke to Biju Abdul Qadir of Young Muslim Digest extensively on the experiences that transformed her life and outlook amidst the ruins of Sabra and Shatilla. Presented hereunder is the abridged text of the interview.
Q: In From Beirut to Jerusalem, you have given us an idea as to how your perceptions about the Palestinians changed dramatically after your having actually lived with them and their suffering. Did this change in viewpoint involve a deeper understanding of Islam as well during that period or since? Have you been reading on Islam since your time with the Palestinians?
ASC: I was brought up as a Zionist Christian, but I realize now that somewhere along the line, our church had, instead of becoming God-centered or Christ-centered, become Israel-centered. While today I wouldn’t be knowing as much about Islam as I would want to, I do realize that for Muslims God is the central focus of their lives. But for me, who was brought up as a Zionist Christian, Israel had become the new idol. I was only eighteen when Israel won the six-day war in 1967, but I really celebrated with my Christian friends, overjoyed that Israel had crushed the Arabs.
My church taught me that the Palestinians were just the Philistines from the Old Testament. The conversion of the Philistines to the belief in God was however never taught to me. So when I went out to Beirut, I was totally prejudiced against the PLO and never knew that the Palestinians existed as a people. I held that the PLO was just a terrorist group that was anti-Israel and anti-Jew, and one that hijacked airplanes. In fact, when I met my first Palestinian I was shocked that he was a very civilized person, a university lecturer, in fact, who told me about the history of Palestine. On the other hand, soon I would be seeing Israeli bombs being dropped over Beirut and Lebanon killing innocent people mercilessly. This was while Israel justified its own actions before the world – a stand which personally I could not accept as anything but outrageous. This was the beginning of my own transformation. The standard public response to Israel’s many atrocities – whether in 1982, or in 2006, or in Gaza 2009 – was the token expression of anger and regret. But to go beyond that stage, to actually understand the plight of the Palestinians, and to love them was something else: and that has been my journey.
My understanding and long-held beliefs were thus undergoing a radical change, but if not for God’s mercy which plucked me out of my situation and placed me in the midst of the Palestinian people I’d not have seen their suffering, and more importantly, I would not have been able to live with them, befriend them and feel the Palestinians’ love, generosity and kindness and would not have learned to feel what they feel. There was something else about the massacre that many people do not pick up, since there’s a very subtle angle to this… Israel had bombed and besieged Beirut and had forced the PLO into evacuation from Beirut, leaving the women and children defenseless… Thinking that with the departure of the PLO, peace would be given a chance and they could begin to rebuild their lives, the refugees came back to their homes… It was at this exact point when the Palestinians had begun painting their walls, when their children had started to come out and play, that the Israeli tanks appeared, surrounded Sabra and Shatilla and began their work of destruction. This much the world has known, but what was personally very painful to me was that the Israelis had sent in the Christian militia to do the killing in the camps…Small children were brutally killed, women were raped and murdered, men had their throats cut with hatchets and in several cases had crucifixes carved on their bodies. It was a very bloody, bloody scene….
Q: You have mentioned that there were blacks in the militias which ravaged the camps…
ASC: Yes… The morning we were allowed out of the basement operating theater at the hospital where we were working, we found groups of people – old people, women and children on both sides of the road in the main street of the camp. The road itself was lined by people with machine guns who were speaking into walkie-talkies and receiving instructions. These people were clearly of various ethnicities – some were African blacks while others were fair with blond hair – all were a totally different collection. Now, in retrospect, I realize that these could not have been Lebanese. Although by and large the blame for the massacre was put on the Phalangists, I don’t think that the Phalangists were there in it alone… because this group of people was definitely not Phalangists… For one thing, they could not even read Arabic…
Clearly, these people had been brought in from outside… But because some of them have been identified as Christians it has created a big problem for Christianity. Can you just imagine the people in the camps: most of them were Muslims, but some of them were Christians and even Jews. Now that’s an important thing to note because these Christian Phalangists were also killing Christians. But even more important than that was a family of Jews… This was not well-publicized, but if you look into the archives of newspapers of the time in 1982, there will be a small little two-liner about a Jewish family which was massacred. In killing this family, they had killed a survivor of the holocaust as well. Actually the killings at Sabra and Shattilla had nothing to do with God, nothing to do with religion. It was all about brutality, about cruelty.
The Palestinians are a lovely people whose submission to God is such that they are able to take their murder and suffering at the hands of the Israelis with calm equanimity. This, in fact, should be the model for every Christian – submission and obedience to God. I wanted then to know what it was in Islam that makes the Palestinians the kind of people that they are.
Q: In your opinion, to what degree has Islam inspired the Palestinian resistance?
ASC: I would say that to be a Palestinian requires a very special blessing. He who suffers much naturally survives with much grace [from God]. People who don’t suffer, who live the easy life, are in no need of the grace of God. But the Palestinians through all their suffering have remained dignified, focused, and human: this is a special blessing from God. You see, these people are often frustrated and angry at their predicament, dispossession and of their being refugees for four generations, but over the years I have seen the Palestinians become more and more religious. Today I have come to such a stage that I do not really care whether they even turn to God anymore, but I feel that God’s blessing has come down to them. Otherwise it is impossible for them to have persevered for so long I think it is true to say that I have not studied Islam as much as I have seen Islam in action. The kindness and magnanimity of the Palestinian people, despite the wrongs done to them, is just unbelievable. For instance, in south Lebanon where Israel had occupied the area, or in the occupied territories in Palestine, in the first intifada there was this incident: an Israeli soldier got lost in a refugee camp and couldn’t find his way out. And if you have ever been in a refugee camp, you will know that being lost in one is no easy thing. Anything can happen to you in that restricting space. But there was this Palestinian woman who gave him bread and water and showed him his way out to safety. A foreigner who was present on the scene enquired with her as to why she was doing this. Her reply was: ‘I am a Muslim and I am a mother. Isn’t he also somebody’s son?’ That speaks volumes for Palestinian magnanimity more than anything else…
Throughout my time in the Middle East, and the refugee camps I have visited, I have often found the way they greet each other with Assalamualaikum quite remarkable. Sure, Muslims do greet each other with the same greeting elsewhere too like here in India, but the greeting is often casual, often lifeless. But if you were to hear this in a Palestinian home, in a refugee camp, where half the alley has been bombed out, where two-thirds of the young men have either gone to prison or have been martyred, and where maybe one or two more have joined the resistance, meaning they could die any moment, and where the Israeli planes might fly in any time, and where you cannot look out the window because the drones could be out there, this word – Assalamualaikum – becomes even more important. It becomes something really very special.
You have asked me about the role Islam plays in Muslim resistance movements throughout the world, and this is one very personal instance that I can cite in response. I was once in Algeria to attend a conference on Palestine and a young lady was taking us around to visit the graves of the martyrs and other places. I understood the Algerian revolution very well having come from Sabra and Shatilla where people have been dying – it was a very miserable feeling for these people, for the question of their continued existence as one people haunted them; questions like whether they were always going to remain refugees, the urban poor, or how they were going to rebuild their lives, their aspirations and the cohesiveness of their society, has their civilization been destroyed forever, will their young children be allowed to grow up.
As we progressed on our tour, my guide told me something of the history of modern Algeria. ‘The French came,’ she said, ‘and took away our country, captured our people and subjugated them. They even took away our language because today most Algerians speak French, but the one thing that they failed to take away from us was our Qur’an. And with that we still remember who we are.’
Q: How do you perceive the West’s approach to the Muslim world?
ASC: I think the West has got a problem in failing to understand what Islam really is. In the US, after September 11 and in the UK after July 7 we do not understand Islam properly. I would even say that we have deliberately gone out of our way to misunderstand our Muslim brothers and sisters. We got a problem because the truth is that Muslims – and I mean devout, Godfearing, practicing, Muslims and not those Muslims who go out and gamble, consume alcohol etc – are people who do everything possible in their lives to respect God. These are people whom you cannot physically try and beat them down. For a Muslim his or her God pervades the whole of their life and being and so they would not do anything to betray Him.. You cannot force a Muslim to do something which he was taught not to do all his life. What we really do in the West is to paint an ugly picture of the Muslims so that we fear them and vilify them so that ultimately we can have the pretext to destroy them. This will remain the problem of the West until they begin to see eye-to-eye with the Muslims as they are.
How many times have the Palestinians tried, and tried in vain, to explain their case to people in the West! But nobody wants to hear them. On the contrary, there’s just more and more bad propaganda written about them, and that too, by people who have not even spent a night in the refugee camps. One thing is certain: as long as we have the courage to speak out for justice, we have really got trouble on our hands! Of that we may be dead sure!
Q: There are other resistance movements against illegal occupation throughout the Muslim world. How, for instance, would you compare the Chechnyan struggle against Russian hegemony with that of the Palestinians? What do you think are the parallels, if any, and what are the differences?
ASC: I would look at it this way: whenever a people suffers injustice the pain is the same… So I don’t think it is difficult to compare one resistance movement to the other but I would like to think that the Palestinians struggle is different in a few important ways. Their struggle has gone on for so many years fighting not only the Israelis but also the whole of the US arms industry. That is quite a formidable enemy which they have faced for 62 years with their people divided in so many different countries. Also the Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian, respect each other and we do not see ugly scenes of religious strife among them. Of course we do see some trouble between Hamas and the PLO, but these are political differences, and not religious infighting. But the West has portrayed the Hamas as attacking the PA because the Hamas is an Islamic movement, while the PA is not… Realistically, however, it is a political fight between them; it cannot be seen to be a religious fight.
Q: Apart from the political figures in the Palestine movement, can you please comment on your association with other Palestinian intellectuals like the Christian Edward Said and the Muslim Ismail Raji al Faruqi both of whom died as exiles?
ASC: Dr. Faruqi I have not met personally, but knowing al-Faruqi was Palestinian, I admire his compassion for the sufferings of the European Jews, and his clear distinction between Judaism and the horror of Zionism.
Said I have met twice, or maybe even more. Of course, Edward Said was a Christian, but I did not meet him in Church (laughs)… so this was not a religious thing. Both men have been intellectual giants; both were people who analyzed the situation extremely well…
There is also Sheikh Fadlallah who passed away just recently. During the camp war when the refugee camps were besieged and surrounded by the Shi’ite Amal militia, we witnessed a paradox. This was between 1985 and 1989 when the British media portrayed the Shi’ite Amal movement as attacking the Palestinian refugee camps. What they didn’t print, however, is how an Iranian delegation tried to bring food into the refugee camps and how, as a result, some of the members of this delegation were killed.
Moreover, Sheikh Fadlallah himself has used every bit of his influence to help the Palestinians. Some people ask me how, during the camp war, the Medical Aid for the Palestinians (MAP) – my organization – functioned. We functioned during the war because the Imam Moussa Sadr Foundation gave us protection, through an ID card I carried with me during those times. Imam Moussa Sadr was the founder of the Shia Amal movement who disappeared in Libya. So his sister, Rabaat Sadr, ran the Foundation. They protected us and allowed us to help the Palestinians.
The war of the camps was not a war among Muslims. It was a war between Palestinians and anti-Palestinian forces. Many of the shells and bombs that were rained down on the camps were made in USA and some even had Hebrew written on the casings!
Personally, I think it was a disgrace to blockade Bruj-el-Brajneh, Rashiddyeh and Shatilla camp and pound it with shells… Over the three years, Shatilla lost 3,000 lives, and because of the blockade, many of the dead had to be buried inside Shatilla mosque. Some of the bodies remain in the mosque today. The Iranians and some of Sheikh Fadlallah’s people tried to intervene and bring food to the starving people.
In Rashiedyeh Camp, which was also attacked in the South, near Tyre, eight Iranian clerics lost their lives trying to escort food to the starving. So it is a very complicated situation and we must not fall into the trap of oversimplification and say that it was AMAL or the Shi’ite Muslims that were killing the Palestinians.
Having said that, some Muslim individuals do have the blood of the Palestinians on their hands.
Q: Your view of the Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and the extent to which it was instrumental in driving the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000?
ASC: I think the Hezbollah fought the Israelis very well… and Israel just had to go unless they wanted to confront the Hezbollah for the next whatever number of years. I’ve been to the prisons in south Lebanon and although not a witness to how Hezbollah fought Israel, I was able to listen to the testimonies of the Palestinian and Lebanese resistant fighters being cruelly tortured by Israel’s South Lebanese Army. But these men and women – in fact, some of the prisoners were Palestinian and Lebanese women – remained extremely brave and strong throughout the ordeal. I am honoured to have met them and to have listened to the witnesses. People in the West have the wrong image of what Muslim women are… You try talking to the women in the Hezbollah and to the Palestinian women themselves, and then you will see… On the outside they are very gentle, well-educated but, on the inside, they are very, very strong; you just can’t break them. The Hijab and the dress that they wear: these are simply not the issues..
Q: You have written that the Palestinians had transformed deprivation into a principle of non-discrimination which pervaded all their institutions. This is an important observation. Can you elaborate on the same?
ASC: I think that statement was made in relation to the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS). In those days the poor patients in Lebanon had to visit the Lebanese private hospitals which charged high fees which the people simply couldn’t afford. Or they could go to the Palestinian hospitals in Lebanon like the Gaza Hospital or the Akka hospital where the patients were treated for free on strictly humanitarian grounds. At the registration there would be no specifying whether you are a Palestinian or a Lebanese: you were simply a patient…..
Prof. Aziza Khaledi of the PRCS is a wonderful woman: one of the finest women I have met. A Palestinian from Jerusalem, she was only 26 when she took charge of Gaza Hospital during the Israeli invasion of June-August 1982, and ran the hospital during the war and throughout the period of the massacre and its aftermath. She is the one who reminded me of the Hippocratic principle when I initially refused to treat Lebanese soldiers. Principles are principles and you cannot let your personal anger and bitterness come in the way of treating wounded people. Principles do bind us, but it is necessary to remain human when you have to be human….
Q: How have you seen the role of Hamas in the past? How do you view the roles of the Hamas and the Palestinian authority today?
ASC: As for Hamas, it has been democratically elected by the Palestinians. In the West, we have always advocated the cause of democratic elections, yet the moment the Palestinians elected a government which Bush or Blair didn’t like, we vilify them. Do we really respect the Palestinians’ right to self-determination?
We have been unable to give them a state, we have been unable to protect them during the massacre, we have been unable to stop the bombs from destroying half of Gaza killing hundreds, and we have been unable to lift the blockade in Gaza. At least since we demanded that they vote – and they have voted in a democratic fashion well-attended by international observers – we must respect their wishes. That’s the lowest common denominator. There are allegations that the Hamas is responsible for all the problems of the Palestinians, but I don’t think that it is as simple as that. Consider, for instance, the Israeli invasion in 2009 which began on 27 December 2008 and went up to 19 January 2009: of the 1340 odd civilian casualties on the Palestinian side, at least 50% were children who died in the bombing and the phosphorous shell attacks. On the Israeli side, there were thirteen dead with three killed either by Palestinian rockets or whatever. The other ten are Israeli soldiers who were all killed by friendly fire. So if we look at the statistics, it is 1340 Palestinians to 13 Israelis dead, the ratio being 100: 1. More precisely, it is 1340 Palestinians against three Israelis, since those killed by friendly fire do not really count. Many practicing Jews, therefore, have been against these violations by their government. For instance, there have been demonstrations by this organization called ‘Jews for Justice for Palestinians,’ and they had this large poster announcing a verse from Leviticus: ‘The stranger who lives in your country you will treat well as though he is one of your own, for you were strangers in Egypt and I brought you out.’ Firstly, the Palestinians were not even strangers; they were the people who resided in the land, and yet you treat them this way… The good thing about being a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew is that we all believe that one day God will judge, and so a sense of accountability is still possible.
Q: What do you foresee as the lasting solution to the question of Palestine? Is it the much talked about two-state solution with Jerusalem shared between the communities or is it at all possible to have a state in which the existing Jews and Christians along with all Muslims including those Palestinians in the diaspora coexist under a commonly elected government?
ASC: I think with God all things are possible… Yes, at the political level, statesmen have come and gone, peace treaties too have come and gone, and they have all failed. If we are talking about the two-state solution, such a prospect is all the more difficult with Gaza and West Bank being all walled-up and whatever you can call a Palestinian state has been separated and behind those walls what the Palestinians have is about 7% of the original Palestine. How do you make that a state..? If that is the de facto Palestine, then we are talking not about a two-state solution but a three-state solution: West Bank, Israel and Gaza, because Gaza and West Bank cannot communicate unless there is a secure, independent, road or shuttle-service between the two. So the two-state solution is not possible especially when Israel will not return land, and will not enforce UN resolution 242, 181 etc.
On the other hand, Palestinians have had just about enough of suffering and exile. What are they expected to do? I have spoken to several of their leaders on a one-to-one basis in private, but they can’t see the way forward… And Israel would not accept any solution. Why should they? But the Israelis wouldn’t go for the ‘Samson option’ as supposed by Seymour Hersh either, for that would mean destroying themselves in the process of bringing down everything around them. Their policy is quite clear, but they do not quite know what is to be done with the Palestinians either. Actually they are unconcerned about the Palestinians, they only wish to retain Palestinian land which they had occupied. So if they can rid the land of the Palestinians by forcefully expelling them, the refugees would become the problem of neighbouring Muslim states like Jordan or Egypt, with the UN council paying for the repatriation. The Palestinians, of course, are not going to fall for that, and in 62 years Israel has not succeeded – and I do not think that it is going to succeed in future either. After all, the Palestinians have proved that they cannot be bullied around; that they are not the Red Indians or the aborigines to disappear over a few decades; that they belong to a richer civilization and culture; that above everything else they belong to a wider, global nation (Ummah) of Muslims who are at one with them in their faith and suffering… I don’t think the Palestinians can ever be annihilated for, in order to do that, you need to kill not just the people, but also their memories and memories about them in the Muslim world as well. That is an impossible thing to do.
Moreover, the more you persecute them more does the Muslim world remember them and their plight. For example, before 1982, I didn’t even know that Palestinians existed as a people. If Sabra and Shatilla had not happened, I wouldn’t have know about them; I wouldn’t be writing a book on them nor would I be here talking to you on the subject. But the Israelis have now made me aware of this problem. If the Israelis had not attacked the peace flotilla, it would not have made headline news. Even the BBC, which has a policy of not covering news from Gaza, was forced to cover the Israeli attack on the peace flotilla. Now people have set about thinking why Israel had to mobilize attack helicopters and gunboats to attack a peace ship of 600 people bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza. We talk of civilization today, but where is that civilization here?
The best way out of this conflict is simply for both sides to agree to a common state which retains its existing Jewish, Christian and Muslim population in addition to giving the exiled Palestinians the right to return and participate as natural citizens in the life of this state. The state – whatever they may ultimately call it – may have an administration and government democratically elected among such a composite citizenry with any citizen irrespective of his religion given the chance to stand for elections and being elected head of the state. The Palestinians, I am, sure will jump at this option as being the most acceptable to them. In fact, that is the only just and proper solution: a solution that is based on respect for each other’s rights; on treating each other as brothers and sisters. Only then can peace and harmony reign. Actually, this was the situation in Palestine prior to the creation of Israel in 1948. Jews lived in harmony with Muslims and Christians in Palestine for centuries. In fact, it has been European Christianity which has been intolerant with its inquisitions and its witch-hunts for the Jews. The first crusades of the 11-12th centuries were the worst examples of this anti-semitic hostility. Forever an indelible blot on Western civilization, the Crusades allowed for the Jews – along with Muslims – to be massacred wholesale in the holy land. Later, the persecuted Jews had to flee to Muslim countries like Morocco, Iraq, Iran and Turkey where they were warmly welcomed into the tolerant Muslim culture and civilization thriving there. With George Bush’s new crusade the wheel has come full circle with the Muslims on the receiving end today.
Actually, the land of Palestine was given away to the Zionists by the British under their mandate period in 1947 when the other alternative places in Uganda and Argentina were opposed by the population of these countries. A gross injustice was committed on the Palestinians. However, I simply thought it amazing that each time after the bombs fell and destroyed their building, and the Muazzin announced the call to prayer, the Palestinians would simply clear the rubble, lay out their mats and stand up for prayer facing God. How do you like that? I wish I could be like that… They have taught me so many things already…
Q: Are you working on any other book on this subject?
ASC: No, From Beirut to Jerusalem is the only book I have written on the subject of the Palestine crisis. However, I have been constantly updating the events with each new edition of the book. The latest edition has a new chapter called The Wounds of Gaza which updates events in the occupied territories till last year. The coverage includes the Israeli invasion of Gaza from late December 2008 to mid January 2009.