Dr. Ang Swee Chai: A Lifelong Advocate for Palestinian Humanitarian Causes

In the waters of the Mediterranean, approximately 49 miles off the coast of Gaza, Palestine, the Israeli Navy intercepted the Al-Awda ship belonging to the Freedom Flotilla Coalition (FFC) on July 29, 2018. The vessel carried 22 activists and humanitarian aid worth $20,721 destined for the Palestinian people. The activists were taken to a closed military zone in Ashdod for inspection, and their belongings were confiscated. Subsequently, they were detained for three days in the Givron prison in the city of Ramla. Dr. Ang Swee Chai, an orthopedic surgeon with dual British-Singaporean citizenship, was among the 22 activists detained at that time, enduring a three-day period of confinement. Several weeks later, she was deported to the UK, but some of her personal belongings, including credit cards and cash, were never returned by the Israeli forces.

Dr. Ang Swee Chai’s involvement in humanitarian missions for the people of Palestine in 2018 was not her first experience. In August 1982, she volunteered as an orthopedic surgical specialist for Christian Aid UK to assist the people of Lebanon and Palestinian refugees. Originally designated to work at the Gaza Hospital facing the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the destruction of parts of the hospital led to her employment in the emergency facility in the basement of the Near East School of Theology. She treated patients with various war injuries, but the situation became increasingly challenging due to the Israeli blockade, causing shortages of water, electricity, and food supplies for the residents of Beirut. As a result, performing surgeries on the patients became nearly impossible.

The turning point came when the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) left West Beirut on August 19, 1982, as part of an agreement mediated by the United States with Israel. Residents in Palestinian refugee camps began rebuilding structures destroyed by Israeli attacks, and patients started moving to the recovering Gaza Hospital. Dr. Ang Swee Chai engaged with the Palestinian and Lebanese communities, often visiting residents of the Sabra and Shatila camps. Warm receptions awaited her, with Palestinians consistently expressing gratitude and sometimes offering gifts.

However, on the night of September 14, 1982, peace was shattered by the sound of bomb explosions. News broke of an explosion in East Beirut, resulting in the death of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. The subsequent Israeli bombings intensified, affecting the Gaza Hospital. As the bombings drew closer, the hospital had to discharge recovering patients to accommodate new casualties. Despite canceled surgeries, patients understood the circumstances, with one remarking, “It’s okay, doctor; we know it’s not you canceling our operations. It’s Ariel Sharon (then serving as Israel’s Minister of Defense),” recalled Ang Swee Chai.

By 16:30, she heard news that Israel had raided the Akka Hospital, shooting nurses, doctors, and patients. That night, the Sabra and Shatila camps were besieged, and the Phalange, an Israeli ally in Lebanon, unleashed a barrage of bullets on Palestinian residents. On September 18, 1982, following the end of the attack on the refugees, she and several other nurses were evacuated from the Gaza Hospital to the UN building on the camp’s edge. There, she was interrogated about documents and political affiliations before being detained at an Israeli military headquarters.

“Corpses piled up in the camp’s alleys, and bulldozers destroyed camp houses. [...] at least 3,000 people were killed,” she wrote in her memoir “Middle East Minor,” recounting her experiences when taken by Israeli forces. On November 1, 1982, along with Ellen Siegel, an American nurse, she provided testimony about the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps during the Kahan Commission held in Jerusalem. However, her testimony contradicted information from Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) officials who testified earlier. Ultimately, the commission failed to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people.

In the days that followed, she returned to the UK as her volunteer term came to an end. Since then, her perception of Palestinian society as a group of terrorists has vanished. She could no longer tolerate the Israeli military actions that she had previously supported and respected as chosen people of God in her beliefs. Back in the UK, she received a warm welcome from friends and her husband, Francis Khoo. Dr. Ang Swee Chai intended to continue her advocacy for the Palestinian people, but it proved challenging initially. Few newspapers were willing to publish her experiences, and most journalists preferred British-born medical team members to explain the events in Lebanon.

With financial assistance from her husband, she independently organized seminars to share the conditions of the Palestinian population in refugee camps. The response was positive, with the British public beginning to show concern and readiness to provide assistance to the Palestinian people. As a result, at the end of 1982, she, her husband, and newly returned British volunteers from Lebanon founded Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), a medical aid organization. The charity provided medical assistance to victims of the Lebanese Civil War in 1985 and 1987, expanding its reach over time to not only work for Palestinians in Lebanon but also in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

In recognition of her dedication to humanity, on March 18, 2016, Ang Swee Chai became one of 14 Singaporean women honored with the Singapore Woman’s Hall of Fame award by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations. However, as reported by The Straits Times, she was unable to attend the award ceremony due to her dual citizenship status. Singapore immigration authorities claimed to have warned her four times to relinquish her British citizenship, a request she found difficult to fulfill as it would impact her residency rights and job as an orthopedic surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and the Royal London Hospital. On the other hand, she was reluctant to renounce her Singaporean citizenship, having grown up and earned her medical degree at the University of Singapore.

It’s worth noting that her departure from Singapore in 1977 was not of her own volition. At that time, she was sent by the Singapore government to fetch her husband, Francis Khoo, who had fled to the UK. This happened because her husband opposed the abolition of the jury trial system in Singapore and was involved in efforts to “save the Singapore Herald, the liberal English-language daily closed by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s government,” as stated in the “Obituary: Francis Khoo,” quoted from Socialist Lawyer magazine, co-written by Bill Bowring and Ang Swee Chai.