By Karma Nabulsi
To view original article, published in The Guardian on the 3rd January, click here
Mohammed is burying his family. So is Jamal. Haider doesn’t feel safe in his flat so is sheltering in his car. In a series of phone calls to friends besieged in Gaza, one writer reveals the reality of life under daily attack
Last Saturday, the first day of massive air strikes on Gaza, I finally get through to my old friend Mohammed. We speak for a few moments, he reassures me he is OK, he asks about my now-delayed trip to Gaza, and suddenly I ask: “What is that noise?” It is a sort of distant keening, like the roar of approaching traffic, or a series of waves hitting a rocky shore. “I am at the cemetery, Karma”, he says, “I am burying my family.” He now sounds exhausted. He repeats, over and over again in his steady, tired voice as if it were a prayer: “This is our life. This is our life. This is our life.”
I had just come off the phone with Jamal, who at that moment was in another cemetery in Jabaliya camp, burying three members of his own family. They included two of his nieces, one married to a police cadet. All were at the graduating ceremony in the crowded police station when F16s targeted them that Saturday morning, massacring more than 45 citizens in an instant, mortally wounding dozens more. Police stations across Gaza were similarly struck. Under the laws of war (or international humanitarian law as it is more commonly known), policemen, traffic cops, security guards: all are non-combatants, and classified as civilians under the Geneva conventions. But more to the point, Palestinian non-combatants are not mere civilians, but possess something more real, more alive, more sovereign than a distancing legal classification: the people in Gaza are citizens. Some work in the various civic institutions across the Strip, but most simply use them on a daily basis: their schools, police stations, hospitals, their ministries.
Later on that first day I finally reach Khalil, who runs a prisoners’ human rights association in Gaza. He was trying to organise a press conference. It was chaotic: he was shouting, he couldn’t finish his sentences or form words. When I told him what I had just heard, he told me that he too had just come from the cemetery. His cousin, Sharif Abu Shammala, 26 years old, had recently got a job as a guard at the university. He had been asked to go in that morning to sign his worksheet at the local police station; he had felt lucky to find the work.
For the one and a half million Palestinian citizens living in Gaza, ways to absorb and describe their daily predicament – these collective and individual experiences of extreme violence – had already been used up by the two years of siege that preceded this week’s carnage. Hanging out with Mohammed at his office in Gaza City six months ago, mostly just watching him smoke one cigarette after another, he abruptly leant over his desk and said to me: “Everyone is dead. There is no life in Gaza. Capital has left. Ask someone passing by: where are you going? They will answer: I don’t know. What are you doing? I don’t know. Gaza today is a place of aimless roaming.”
On this New Year’s Day at his home in Sheikh Radwan, his walls tremble from the F16 aerial bombardment under way in his neighbourhood. The intensity of it courses down the line into my ear, his voice a cloud of smoke. His house is just next to the mosque. Earlier this week, his wife’s cousin in Jabaliya refugee camp lost five of her children: they lived next to a mosque the Israeli air force had bombed. “So where can I sleep, my children sleep?” he asks down the phone. “I don’t know how to tell you what this is like, as I have stopped sleeping, myself. We cannot go out, we cannot stay in: nowhere is safe. But I think I would rather die at home.”
I first met international law professor Richard Falk when he was a member of the Seán MacBride commission of inquiry into the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The UN rapporteur of human rights to the Palestinian territories, he has studied massive bombardment of this type many times before. Yet he too struggled to put words on to the singular horror unfolding: “It is macabre … I don’t know of anything that exactly fits this situation. People have been referring to the Warsaw ghetto as the nearest analog in modern times.” He says he cannot think of another occupation that endured for decades and involved this kind of oppressive circumstances: “The magnitude, the deliberateness, the violations of international humanitarian law … warrant the characterisation of a crime against humanity.”
A friend of mine, a brilliant and experienced journalist from Gaza, has been covering these indescribable things in her job for an American newspaper. She tells me: “I don’t know what to do. I feel overwhelmed by what I am seeing, and what they are doing: I simply can’t understand the enormity of what I witness in the hospitals, where they keep bringing in children, or out in the streets – they are killing all of us. I don’t know how to write about it.” She feels utterly weighed down by the fact that the Israeli government have refused to allow international journalists into Gaza to see what she is seeing. Despite her bewilderment she, like all the other citizens of Gaza I speak with this week, seem to know exactly what to do: although filled with fear, they run to volunteer, help pull neighbours from under the rubble, offer to assist at the hospital (where more than half of the staff is now voluntary), write it all down, as best they can, for a newspaper.
Only a gifted few have found for us the words we keep seeking, and indeed Palestinian poetry of siege has a tradition going back generations. Mahmoud Darwish wrote some for an earlier Israeli siege, 26 years ago in Beirut:
The Earth is closing on us
pushing us through the last passage
and we tear off our limbs to pass through
The Earth is squeezing us
I wish we were its wheat
so we could die and live again
I wish the Earth was our mother
so she’d be kind to us
During that siege, in the daily bombardment from F16 fighter planes, entire buildings would come down around you – six, seven stories high, hundreds of neighbours, colleagues, and friends disappearing forever under a tonne of rubble and plumes of smoke. We stopped racing down to the cellar: better to sleep up on the roof. This week the citizens of Gaza find themselves seized with the same dread choices. On Wednesday night one colleague, Fawwaz, a professor of economics, was trapped under the rubble of his house near the ministry of foreign affairs. He managed to text a friend to send emergency workers to rescue him. Haider, another university colleague, tells me about it in wonder. He hasn’t known where to place himself inside his flat: all parts of it have been struck with building debris and huge flying shards of glass. He is sitting outside in his car while we speak, although I can’t see that this is the right move. Many now sleep on the roofs, he says, as if their visible presence may deter the Apache helicopters, earsplitting drones, and fighter planes that are demolishing everything in their path – more than 400 buildings in six days.
The recently completed building of the ministry of education (paid for by European donors) is damaged; the ministry of justice, the foreign ministry utterly destroyed: all national institutions of the Palestinian Authority, none military. On New Year’s Day, Khalil tells me in a voice gone hard with a combination of anger and despair: “When we heard the news last night that the British government are giving something like €9m [£8.65m] for humanitarian assistance, all of us understood immediately that this Israeli war against our citizens will not stop but will continue, and that the donation is the invoice. We understood the Europeans will pay the price – with us”. He is roaming around his office as we are chatting, assessing the damage to it: he works just across from the Palestinian Legislative Council, where the democratically elected parliament sat; now flattened by Israeli aircraft. Every neighbourhood in Gaza is a mixture of homes, shops, police stations, mosques, ministries, local associations, hospitals, and clinics. Everyone is connected and fastened down right where they are, and no citizen is safe in today’s occupied Gaza from the Israeli military, whose reach is everywhere.
As a way to share time on the phone, while my friend Houda’s neighbourhood was under aerial assault for more than 40 minutes, she and I discussed at length comparisons between previous Israeli military sieges we had been under. The carefully planned and premeditated strategy of terrorising an entire population by intensive and heavy bombardment of both military and civic institutions – destroying the entire civic infrastructure of a people – was identical. What is unprecedented here is that in Gaza there is nowhere to evacuate people to safety: they are imprisoned on all sides, with an acute awareness of the impossibility of escape. Land, sea, sky: all will kill you.
My friend As’ad is a professor of phonetics at one of the universities in Gaza. He had been giving the students poetry to read these last months, and this summer told me about a class where they had worked on a piece by the late Palestinian poet Abu Salma. “It spoke to our situation so powerfully that all at once they began to sing it: ‘Everyone has a home, dreams, and an appearance. And I, carrying the history of my homeland, trip … wretched and dusty in every path.'” He told me yesterday on the phone, when I finally reached him after days of trying: “They bombed the chemistry lab at the university. I have a phonetics lab. Will they bomb that too?”
Before this week’s war on the citizens of Gaza, the government of Israel and its war machine had been attempting to fragment the soul and break the spirit of one and a half million Palestinians through an all-encompassing military siege of epic proportions. The theory behind besieging a population is to annihilate temporal and spatial domains, and by so doing slowly strangulate a people’s will. Siege puts extreme pressure on time, both external and internal, and on space: everything halts. Nothing comes in, nothing comes out. No batteries, no writing paper, no gauze for the hospitals, no medicines, no surgical gloves even – for these things, say the Israeli military, cannot be classified as humanitarian. Under siege no one can find space to think lucidly, for the aim is to take away the very horizon where thoughts form their reasoning, a plan, a direction to move in. Things become misshapen, ill-formed, turn in on themselves. Freedom, as we know, is the space inside the person that the siege wishes to obliterate, so that it becomes hard to breathe, to organise, above all to hope. Not achieving its aim, and even now with no international action to put a stop to it, the siege this week reached its natural zenith. Western governments, having overtly supported the blockade for two years, now fasten their shocked gaze upon the tormented and devastated Gaza they have created, as if they were mere spectators.
I wish we were pictures on the rocks
for our dreams to carry as mirrors.
We saw the faces of those who will throw
our children out of the window of this last space.
Our star will hang up mirrors.
Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?
We will write our names with scarlet steam.
We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh.
We will die here, here in the last passage.
Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.
This week Palestinians have created an astonishing history with their stamina, their resilience, their unwillingness to surrender, their luminous humanity. Gaza was always a place representing cosmopolitan hybridity at its best. And the weight of its dense and beautiful history over thousands of years has, by its nature, revealed to those watching the uncivilised and cruel character of this high-tech bombardment against them. I tell each of my friends, in the hours of conversation, how the quality of their capacity as citizens inspires a response that honours this common humanity. From the start of the attack, Palestinians living in the cities and refugee camps across the West Bank and the Arab world took to the streets in their tens of thousands in a fierce demand for national unity. More than 100,000 people erupted on to the streets of Cairo; the same in Amman. Earlier this week I regaled my friend Ziad, who lives in Rafah refugee camp, with an account of how, at the demonstration in London on Sunday, a young man threw his shoe over the gates of the Israeli embassy. Rushed by police (who perhaps thought it was a bomb), the mass of British protesters poured off the pavement to envelop him. Ziad laughed for ages and then said quietly, “God only knows, he must be from Gaza.”