This story has been corrected to reflect the title of one of the healthcare professionals quoted, and note the letters to Congress and healthcare executives are still being circulated and signed.

As the death toll in Gaza surpasses 22,000 and Palestinian hospitals are crumbling, healthcare workers across Portland are urging their employers to call for a cease-fire.

Letters drafted to administrators of Providence Health, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Legacy Health, and Kaiser urge the healthcare organizations to “make a public statement supporting an immediate and permanent ceasefire, as well as uninhibited delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.”

Organizers are currently collecting signatures on the letters to send to each organization.

Nurses and other healthcare workers gathered Thursday evening for a rally near OHSU’s Center For Health & Healing, showing solidarity and reading the names of the 374 healthcare workers killed in Gaza. 

Maxine Fookson is a retired pediatric nurse practitioner with the Multnomah County Health Department who has worked in Gaza on three separate occasions, including after Israel’s 2014 invasion of Gaza. She is also Jewish, which she said compels her to take a stand. 

“I believe that the oath we take as healthcare workers to do no harm doesn’t just mean one-on-one with our patients, but it’s how we approach who we are in the world,” Fookson said. “I think that fits very well with my Jewish values as well, that every life is so precious and we’re here. We’re not doing our job as human beings on this earth unless we’re working to save lives.”

Alex Ibrahim works in the pediatric emergency room at OHSU. She said as a nurse, watching the destruction and genocide unfold in Gaza is particularly painful. 

“There’s something so unique about being a healthcare worker, watching this,” Ibrahim told the Mercury. “When I show up to my hospital, with [staff], state-of-the-art technology, and equipment, I think, ‘What if I were in Gaza?’”

Ibrahim and other hospital staff say local healthcare institutions have been silent on the crisis in Gaza, even as other health organizations across the country have spoken out and called for an end to Israel’s bombing of the region.

“When we look at the values of these institutions, we just feel like, how can you have these purported values, but not have them extend to all people?” Ibrahim said. “How can they not be grieving in the same way we are, and at least say something?”

Anti-war messages are projected on buildings near Portland's South Waterfront during
a rally of healthcare workers calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. marie tyvoll

Thursday’s rally was meant as a peaceful demonstration, but also a call to action.

Around 150 healthcare staff, local Palestinian leaders, and allies gathered with signs calling for a cease-fire and a free Palestine. The crowd sang songs and heard speeches denouncing the complicity and silence of Portland’s healthcare institutions. Many voiced concerns for the 180 pregnant women having to give birth each day as the crisis continues, as well as the extreme risk of disease killing many more in Gaza.

The latest conflict between Israel and Palestine was triggered by a series of terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, 2023, carried out by Palestinian militant group, Hamas. The assaults included a series of rocket attacks and a massacre at the Re'im music festival in Israel. In all, an estimated 1,200 Israelis were killed, with an estimated 236 hostages taken by Hamas.

Since then, Israel has responded with aggressive rocket attacks on Gaza, decimating homes, schools, refugee camps, and hospitals, while cutting the region off from water, food and basic medical necessities. Israeli officials have faced criticism for their calls for the “voluntary emigration” of Gazans to other countries. 

While the rally was largely peaceful, a moment of silence observed by the crowd was interrupted by a person shouting about Hamas, asking whether the crowd would mourn the Israeli healthcare workers killed on Oct. 7. The scuffle eventually dissipated. 

Lana Alhashim, a Palestinian pharmacy student, speaks during a rally of healthcare 
workers near OHSU's hospital at the South Waterfront January 4.  kevin foster

“If it was any country that is in danger I would go and I’m going to protest for that because it’s basic human rights,” Lana Alhashim, a Palestinian pharmacy student in Portland said. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what religion, it’s basic human rights. We’re fighting for people, for people to get the aid that they need.”

Ahead of the rally, healthcare workers also circulated a letter being sent to Oregon’s congressional delegates, highlighting the death toll of Palestinian civilians, which has now surpassed 21,000, most of which have been children and women.

“As healthcare workers, we write to you with a deep sense of urgency, grief and anger about the ongoing assault by Israeli forces on the people of Gaza,” the letter reads. “Over 90% of the people of Gaza have been forcibly displaced, leaving them homeless and living in crowded, unsanitary conditions. The Israeli military has systematically and deliberately made human life untenable in the region; the people of Gaza have no food, no water, no toilets, no showers, no healthcare and no medications.

“Our professional oaths require us to ‘do no harm,’ a commitment that compels us to stand up in this moment, in firm opposition to the genocide of the Palestinian people. We believe that you also have a moral duty to represent your constituents and stand on the side of humanity.”

While other Oregon lawmakers initially called for a "humanitarian pause" to temporarily halt Israeli rocket attacks on Gaza, and allow basic aid to flow in, Sen. Jeff Merkley is the only Oregon member of Congress who has endorsed a permanent cease-fire.

Thursday’s rally by healthcare workers is the latest in a slew of local demonstrations centered on the Israel/Hamas war.

In December, activists gathered outside the headquarters of the Oregonian in downtown Portland to call attention to the deaths of nearly 80 journalists in Gaza. 

More recently, demonstrators have taken to blocking traffic around Portland International Airport during the busy holiday travel season, to draw attention to the crisis in Gaza.

In the months since the October 7 attacks by Hamas and unrelenting bombing of Palestinians in Gaza, activists have urged action from local lawmakers, demonstrating at the offices of Rep. Earl Blumenauer in November and picketing outside a Boeing facility in Gresham, to name a few.

“What is happening in Gaza right now is a public health catastrophe,” Ibrahim, the pediatric nurse, said. “We can't look at the people in Gaza as others, or people who have no connection to us. As healthcare workers we are often the keeper of people’s stories, and we’re there for them in their most vulnerable moments. That is something that is shared by us around the globe.”

Courtney Vaughn contributed reporting to this story.