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This Gaza doctor refused to abandon his patients. Israel tortured him to death

Adnan al-Bursh refused to flee, even when the hospital he worked in came under heavy bombardment. He was arrested by Israeli troops in December
Dr Adnan al-Bursh was the head of the orthopaedic medicine at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City (Social media)
Dr Adnan al-Bursh was the head of orthopaedic medicine at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City (Social media)

Rozan al-Bursh was in shock when she heard the news about her uncle Dr Adnan al-Bursh’s death in Israeli custody.

The prominent Palestinian surgeon had been forcibly disappeared by Israeli forces and not been seen since December. 

And last week, the Palestinian Prisoners' Society said he was killed by torture while in Israeli detention.

“It was the most significant shock of my entire life,” said Rozan, his niece. “It felt as though my very core had been shattered.”

Rozan, a medical student at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said Dr Adnan was more than just an uncle to her. 

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He was a friend and supporter who encouraged her to study medicine, she told Middle East Eye. 

“My uncle was a steadfast pillar of support, resolute as a mountain,” she said. 

'He was very cheerful and cherished life greatly. He loved life very much'

- Rozan al-Bursh, doctor's niece

In addition to being the head of orthopaedic medicine at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Adnan al-Bursh, 50, was a professor of orthopaedic medicine.

He also had interests outside of medicine, including receiving a master’s degree in political science and an aspiration to build a large hospital in Gaza encompassing all specialities. 

But according to Rozan, there was so much more to him on a personal level. 

“We would pray the dawn [Fajr] prayer together then go swimming in the sea,” she recalled. 

“He would teach me how to swim, as he was a skilled swimmer, and he was the one who made me dare to swim at great depths.

“He was very cheerful and cherished life greatly. He loved life very much.”

Helping patients until the last minute

Bursh was arrested in December from the al-Awda hospital in northern Gaza after refusing to leave patients who had been under heavy Israeli bombardment since 7 October.

He spent the last few weeks before his arrest and eventual death travelling between Gaza’s hospitals tending to patients. 

His family, residents of Jabalia in northern Gaza, had sought shelter at al-Shifa hospital where he worked when their area came under heavy bombardment. 

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They later returned to Jabalia ahead of a raid by Israeli troops on the hospital in November, but Bursh refused to leave with them. 

“He loved his wife very much, as well as his six children, and provided them with everything they needed,” Rozan said.  

“Despite this, he decided to keep moving between hospitals to help the sick and wounded.”

After al-Shifa hospital was raided and most medical staff were forced to leave the facility at gunpoint, Bursh again refused to seek relative safety in southern Gaza. 

Instead, he went to the Indonesian hospital in northeastern Gaza to continue his work.  

“He used to say, 'This is my patriotic duty and I cannot give up on helping someone who needs my help,’” Rozan told MEE.

One day, he performed 17 successful surgeries on wounded patients, sparing them from amputation or death, according to Rozan. 

But shortly after he stepped out to take a break, Israeli shelling struck the operations section of the hospital, killing all 17 patients and wounding Bursh. 

As aerial and ground attacks on the Indonesian hospital increased, the surgeon relocated to al-Awda hospital in Jabalia, a small facility that provided basic medical care. 

Israeli forces eventually raided it and detained Bursh with other medical staff. 

Like all Palestinians taken from Gaza, they were forcibly disappeared with Israeli authorities not disclosing their whereabouts.

Guantanamo-like treatment 

According to the government media office in Gaza, Israeli forces have killed 492 medical workers since October, arrested 310 more and all but destroyed Gaza’s healthcare system after repeated attacks against almost all hospitals. 

Released detainees say Palestinian doctors in Israeli jails are treated more harshly than other prisoners, who face widespread torture and abuse

'He endured the most severe forms of insults and abuse during interrogation, akin to those at Guantanamo Bay'

- Dr Khaled Hamouda

At least 10 prisoners were confirmed to have died in Israeli jails since October under these conditions, although the number of fatalities is likely much higher.

Torturing of doctors is in part meant to extract false confessions from them, witnesses say. 

Dr Khaled Hamouda, who was arrested and later released, shared a cell with Bursh and told MEE he endured torture, severe beatings and humiliating interrogations. 

He said the surgeon was held at the Sde Teiman military base detention centre. 

When he arrived there in mid-December, there were clear signs of “deplorable torture and beatings” against him, according to Hamouda. 

"I cannot pinpoint the exact day of Dr Adnan's arrival as we were deprived of any sense of time. However, I believe he was brought to the detention on 17 December, shortly after midnight,” Hamouda told MEE. 

The doctor, who was tasked with coordinating the prisoner’s affairs with the soldiers, then brought the new inmates thin mattresses and light blankets that he said were ill-suited for the cold December weather. 

"I approached Dr Adnan and introduced myself, attempting to offer him some reassurance. He grasped my hand tightly,” Hamouda recalled. 

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After giving him food he hid from the soldiers, Bursh then recounted some of the torture he was subjected to to Hamouda, before being brought to the cell. 

“He endured the most severe forms of insults and abuse during interrogation, akin to those at Guantanamo Bay.” 

Hamouda said he spent two days with Bursh before he and other doctors and medical personnel detained alongside him, including Dr Muhammad al-Ran, Dr Khaled Siam and Dr Saeed Marouf, were transferred to separate prisons. 

But in those two days, Bursh had brought to Hamouda the best news he had been waiting for. 

He told him that he had recently operated on his mother after she was wounded in an Israeli air strike and that she was safe. 

"Tears welled up as I received the update on my mother, the first news I had heard about her since my arrest,” Hamouda said. 

“I leaned in and kissed Dr Adnan's forehead.”

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