A FEW months into a stint at a Gaza hospital, a Scottish doctor had seen seven patients before 8am after fighting broke out in the strip while peace talks got underway in Madrid.

By the afternoon, things had calmed down and Dr Philippa Whitford and her husband Dr Hans Pieper stood on the balcony of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital and saw young Palestinians giving Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers olive branches.

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“That day, the first day of the Madrid Conference, we had seven people in with chest injuries first thing in the morning, absolute chaos in our little resuscitation room,” she said.

“But by around 4.30pm, everybody was stabilised, they were in intensive care, things had calmed down and Hans and I were out on the balcony of intensive care, overlooking Palestine Square.

“We were watching the shabaab – the youths – climbing onto armoured IDF cars with olive branches that they were giving to IDF soldiers.

“To me, that was such a powerful image and the kind of hope that was symbolising, that they thought their lives were going to change, they thought they had a new future.”

Things, in her view, have only gotten worse.

On October 17 a rocket hit the hospital, killing 471 Palestinians and wounding 314 others, according to Hamas.

Whitford, now the SNP MP for Central Ayrshire, worked at the hospital from the summer of 1991 to December 1992 with the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians.

She has returned frequently to Palestine to promote better standards in breast cancer treatment and carry out surgery while establishing strong links between Gaza and the Scottish NHS.

She found out her old hospital had been bombed as she was about to begin a webinar with her colleagues at the facility in Gaza City on the day of the bombing.

“I was down to do a live webinar with Al-Ahli when the bomb hit. I wasn’t even aware until I went in ahead of the event to get organised with the panel and they said the hospital’s been hit, we won’t actually have anybody from Al-Ahli,” said Whitford.

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“And I was just gobsmacked. We did the webinar, we did the event, hundreds of people attended but it was a real struggle to keep myself together during that because it was about three days before I discovered that the people I knew were safe, were ok.”

Whitford said she “loved” her time at the hospital and beams at the memory of Palestinian hospitality as she tells of her time at Al-Ahli over video call.

“Obviously when you had big clashes, yes it was chaos, it would be in any place where you have things on that scale,” she said.

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“But obviously it wasn’t like that every day. You would have maybe small incidents, which the team was used to, could deal with. But other times, there might be some huge event and then the hospital would be under a huge amount of pressure. But it wasn’t like that every day.”

Whitford added: “It was very busy, it was very hard work but actually I loved it.

"The Palestinians are really warm, friendly people. They’re very much a Mediterranean people, very hospitable, very much family-focused, feeding-you focused.

“If you visited somebody, you were lucky if you got out without rupturing your diaphragm, they’d give you so much food. I really loved it – but of course, you were tense all the time.

“Hamas at that time was tiny, really tiny and not really influential but they didn’t want foreigners in the strip.

“Even if you were there as a medical volunteer, so you couldn’t just wander about. You’re not even conscious of it but if you came home or if you came out of Gaza or Israel for a break, that’s when you realised, ‘Gosh, I’ve been living under tension all that time.’

“Whereas it becomes normal, it becomes a normal part of you.”

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War broke out between Israel and Hamas on October 7 and one of the most shocking moments of the conflict came when the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital was bombed. Both sides have accused the other of bombing the hospital but UK intelligence is yet to identify a culprit, saying only that the missile came from within Gaza, not Israel.

It has meant devastation for the Israelis with family killed or kidnapped by Hamas and for the Palestinians living in Gaza who are suffering from a military bombardment of epic proportions and a siege which has seen the flow of essentials like food and water slow to a dribble.

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But Whitford pointed out the long-term health effects of the conflict will also be catastrophic for many.

Preventative care was a major problem while she was in Gaza. “Every appendix was burst, every bleeding stomach ulcer, they had lost a lot of blood, everything always presented late,” said Whitford.

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“I never lost a [patient’s] leg from shooting or trauma but I had to amputate a significant number because of neglected diabetes.”

Things had improved before war broke out but now hospitals will be struggling to cope with the influx of people injured under bombardment, said Whitford.

Recalling the difficulties presented by the toughest moments of her time there, Whitford added: “If there were clashes and people were injured then that’s what you dealt with.

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"If they only had minor flesh wounds or whatever that would just be dealt with under anaesthetic and they would go home because often the IDF would raid the hospital and arrest anyone who had gunshot wounds on the basis that if they’d shot them then clearly they had been part of a clash and they would be arrested. People didn’t want to stay in hospital.”

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If they did stay in hospital, doctors struggled to give them antibiotics, she said.

People who had suffered injuries to their gut cannot be fed and they cannot be fed, so must be fed intravenously, said Whitford, something incredibly difficult to achieve when the kit was often lacking.

Whitford worked hard to promote breast cancer awareness and improve its treatment in Palestine – work the assault on Gaza has set back for years, she said.

“The six years of improving that, I mean it’s hard to see what can come back from the state that things are in,” she said.

“All the work that people have put in in the last six years, including our colleagues in Gaza, to really transform breast cancer surgery, all of that’s in the bin at the moment.

“It will be a very long time before we can see that recovered – that will not be a priority any time soon.”

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Whitford is pessimistic about the chances of peace in the region without a ceasefire. Her party are calling for one but so far this has been rejected by the US and UK.

She added: “Nothing justifies what Hamas did on October 7. Nobody in their right mind wouldn’t be shocked by what happened to Israeli citizens and civilians on October 7 but countering one atrocity with another is wrong and, frankly, what’s happening in Gaza at the moment – there’s no possibility of that bringing greater peace and security, either to Israel or to the region because the more you harm people in this mass attack on civilians, the more you will engender people, who in their terms, want revenge.

“And so it goes on, that cycle of repression, violence and revenge. It’s just disastrous.”