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British surgeon targeted in Gaza by guided missile: a firsthand account of survival and injustice

Mr. Amer Shoaib, a decorated British military veteran and consultant orthopaedic surgeon, speaks to Iain Overton of AOAV about being bombed in a deconflicted safe house in Gaza by a plane partly-made in the UK. Despite unambiguous notification to the IDF about the presence of medics, the attack occurred, raising serious concerns about violations of International Humanitarian Law.  This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Iain Overton (IO):
Mr. Shoaib, can you start by telling us a bit about your background?

Mr Shoaib in Gaza, working for MAP

Dr. Amer Shoaib (AS): Sure. I was born and bred in Manchester. I have been a consultant orthopaedic surgeon since 2008. My specialisation is in trauma, foot and ankle surgery, and limb reconstruction. I’ve served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and worked in various conflict zones, including Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya.

IO: You have a long history of volunteering in conflict zones. What motivated you to volunteer for Gaza in October 2023?

AS: I have skills and experience in managing the injuries incurred in war. I treated the victims of the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena in 2017, reconstructing the limbs of victims of this attack as well as several other conflicts. When I was contacted by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), who asked me to volunteer to work in Gaza, I immediately responded because I have this past experience and I know that similar orthopaedic injuries are present in 70% of survivors in conflicts. The process took about six weeks, and we eventually entered Gaza through the Rafah border crossing in January 2024.

IO: What were your first impressions upon arriving in Gaza?

AS: The humanitarian crisis was severe. Refugees filled the hospital grounds and corridors, living in makeshift tents with very limited sanitation. The hospital was essentially a refugee camp. People were living on top of each other in tents, with very limited sanitation facilities. Despite the dire circumstances of Gaza, we were committed to providing surgical care, dealing with complex and contaminated penetrating injuries from shrapnel and bullets.

IO: Can you describe the conditions in the hospitals?

AS: It was shocking. Every corridor was lined with makeshift tents, and every staircase had people living on the landings. There were ovens in the waiting rooms where people were making flatbread. The toilets were overwhelmed, and there was very little clean water. The entire hospital infrastructure was under immense strain. Despite this, the local medical staff were doing everything they could to manage the situation.

IO: What kinds of injuries were you dealing with?

Amer Shoaib in surgery in Gaza

AS: Most of the injuries were from shrapnel and bullets, causing penetrating trauma. These injuries were always contaminated or infected, requiring extensive surgical cleaning and debridement. We dealt with many broken bones, stabilising them with external fixators, and had to perform numerous amputations due to the severity of the injuries. The injuries were severe, with many children among the casualties. 

IO: During your time in Gaza, did you witness any other significant military actions?

AS: Yes, on one particular evening, Israeli tanks moved in around the hospital where we were working. The atmosphere was incredibly tense. We could hear the tanks firing just outside the hospital, and the noise was deafening. The impacts were so powerful that they shook the entire building. The sounds of shelling and gunfire were constant and terrifying.

One of the doctors in the hospital was injured by the shelling, suffering a broken femur. I remember operating on him around 3 AM to stabilise his injury. We had to act quickly because of the chaotic situation outside. The charity security team was extremely concerned for our safety. They decided to move our team to a more central location within the hospital, away from windows and exterior walls.

The tanks were so close that we could see the flashes from their guns and hear the small arms fire. Each time a tank fired, the shockwaves would blow open the window shutters, causing them to bang violently against the walls. The constant banging added to the sense of fear and chaos. The windows themselves rattled with each explosion, and we feared they might shatter at any moment, sending glass flying through the air. It felt like the fighting was right on top of us. The hospital grounds, which were already filled with refugees, became even more chaotic as people fled to escape from the shelling – carrying only their children and a few possessions. 

IO: Can you describe one of the most challenging cases you faced in Gaza?

AS: The most heart-wrenching cases involved young children who were brought in after a drone attack on a UN food convoy. One child had severe shrapnel injuries to the abdomen which my general surgical colleagues were operating upon.  We found that the shrapnel had caused extensive internal damage. His liver was severely lacerated, and one of his kidneys was shattered beyond repair. There was no choice but to remove the kidney. There were also multiple perforations in another child’s bowel, which required delicate and extensive repair. The children were only around seven years old, and the extent of the internal damage was devastating. Seeing a child in such a condition is incredibly difficult. It’s not just the physical injuries; it’s knowing the long-term impact on their life. There are over 30 children every day in Gaza suffering at least one amputated limb from the constant bombing. The ones we saw are the ones who made it to hospital and survived the bombing.

IO: And then you almost became a victim yourself. Can you describe the events of January 23, 2024?

AS: That morning, around 6 AM, a missile struck the safe house where we were staying. This safe house was specifically designated for medics to sleep in, and its GPS coordinates had been repeatedly shared with the IDF. Despite this, a JDAM guided missile was dropped by an F-16, a plane partially manufactured by the UK Defence Company BAE Systems. Everything went completely white. The windows and ceilings were blown out. We were lucky. It was a miracle that we survived, perhaps because of where the bomb landed. The explosion caused significant damage, leaving us covered in debris but miraculously only suffering cuts and bruises.

An inspector examines the crater left by the IDF missiles

IO: How did you react to the attack?

AS: We were terrified. Our immediate concern was whether there would be a second strike as this is a well known tactic – to attack a place they have just bombed even as first responders head to the site. We decided to leave the building and move to another safe house. For the next 48 hours, until we were extracted, every time we heard a plane, we feared another attack. It gave us a taste of what it was like for the people who actually live there, constantly under threat.

IO: The building was deconflicted. How do you explain this targeted attack?

AS: We trusted the deconfliction process and believed that carrying a British passport and being a doctor would afford us some protection. It turns out that this was a naive belief. The IDF had our GPS coordinates. The UN investigation advised us that this was a GPS guided weapon. This means that it was a deliberate attack. The house was isolated, and there were no tunnels or military targets nearby. This attack was clearly targeted and a violation of International Humanitarian Law.

IO: You have returned and tried to highlight this violation to British politicians. What has been the response from the UK government?

AS: My colleague wrote to his MP, who contacted Lord Ahmed of Wimbledon in the Foreign Office. The response was full of platitudes about how terrible the conflict was but didn’t commit to any action. I approached my own MP, but amdisappointed that he hasn’t raised the issue in parliament. It’s frustrating because we need substantive responses and accountability. We’ve been given several excuses by the IDF, such as it being a Hamas missile gone astray or a misfire, but none of these seem plausible.

IO: What impact did the attack have on your mission?

AS: We were supposed to stay for another week, providing crucial medical support. Instead, we had to leave, depriving the hospital of much-needed help. It wasn’t just about our safety; the attack was also meant to disincentivize other medical professionals from coming to Gaza. The hospital itself has lost a significant amount of medical personnel because of such targeted attacks as many Gazan medics live in the hospital with their families hoping that the hospital will be respected under international humanitarian law, and when the families are threatened, everyone is forced to leave.

IO: How has this experience affected your view of the British government’s role?

AS: I’m deeply cynical. Hearing politicians like Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer justify the ongoing conflict is infuriating. Their lack of empathy and action is at odds with the majority of the British public. The use of British-manufactured weapons against British citizens is clearly unacceptable, and the government’s inaction in holding anyone accountable is disgraceful. I hear a lot of MPs saying they don’t have the power to do anything, but I believe they have a duty to represent our views and act with integrity. This issue overrides everything. Integrity in a politician means having the strength of character to refuse to tow the party line if this means the slaughter of so many civilians is going to be overlooked. If they don’t believe that the ongoing killing of so many tens of thousands of children, and such flagrant breaches of international law are not enough reason to vote for a ceasefire, then what integrity do they have?

IO: You mentioned feeling a sense of survivor’s guilt. Can you elaborate on that?

AS: Yes, we had the opportunity to leave, but we left behind people who had become close to us. They knew they weren’t going to be allowed to leave. It’s a heavy burden, knowing we escaped while they remained in danger. The people of Gaza live under constant threat, and we got a taste of that. As I said, after the attack, every time we heard a plane, we feared for our lives.

IO: What do you hope will come from sharing your story?

AS: I hope it brings attention to the urgent need for accountability and enforcement of international humanitarian law. As well as the targeting of civilians and infrastructure, the targeting of medical professionals and the use of British-made weapons in such attacks must be scrutinised. We need stronger protections for those in conflict zones and real consequences for those who violate international laws. If the British government is aware that its citizens are being directly targeted and does nothing, what message does that send to the rest of the world?