Gaza: Where nobody lives anymore

Nobody lives here anymore. 

There was a bakery in the north of Gaza and Jameel, who I fondly knew as Jammy Jams, used to go there to get his mother bread rolls, even though she wasn’t really supposed to eat bread due to surgery just after he was born. I had last spoken to him on the phone on his birthday. A Friday. I had just missed him and he called back, excited to hear my voice after a few months, saying he was busy buying rolls for his Ammi at the bakery in Rimal. He said he was excited for an upcoming trip to Mecca for Umrah with his mother and two cousins and his dad would be joining them a week later. He sounded, like always, full of energy and life. 

The death toll in Gaza has just passed the 9 000 mark and despite extensive calls for a ceasefire, the occupier state refuses to back down, with some Zionist leaders calling for the total extermination of the Palestinian people. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called Palestinians a “beastly people”, ordering a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip – “no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed”. According to Human Rights Watch, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is regarded as an “ongoing armed conflict” under international humanitarian law, governed by Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Convention, supplemented by the Additional Protocols of 1977. These laws of war forbid collective punishment of a population. 

At their most basic level, they say warring parties must: 

  • Distinguish between combatants and civilians; 
  • Preserve civilian infrastructure, such as homes, schools and hospitals; 
  • Give prior warning of attacks if civilians are present in targeted locations; 
  • Refrain from harming medical staff and depriving medical facilities of electricity and water;
  • Allow the passage of impartial humanitarian aid; and 
  • Leave civilians and captured combatants unharmed. 
  • Murder, cruel treatment, torture and the taking of hostages are forbidden 
  • Power imbalances between parties are not taken into account, meaning that Hamas and the Israeli government would be judged solely based on their actions.

Jameel was kind and had the voice of an angel. He would sing traditional ataaba songs and everyone would be quiet as he sang. His voice lifted my spirit and he tried to teach me but we would always end up laughing and joking, forgetting that he was supposed to teach me. We would talk into the early hours of the morning and watch the sunrise on the beach. He would tell me about his family and his grandmother, who knew freedom in Palestine until it was taken away from them. He showed me photographs of her in their family home, which is now part of settler land in Haifa. He would tell me stories about what she experienced during the Nakba of 1948 when she was young and the terror she experienced. She had hoped it would never get worse. 

I saw a report a few days ago saying that the bodies of children have been found with their names, as well as their family’s names and numbers written on them in black ink. “What we noticed today is that many parents write the names of their children on their legs so they can get identified after airstrikes and if they get lost. This is a new phenomenon that just started in Gaza,” a supervisor at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital said to CNN. “Many of the children are missing, many get here with their skulls broken … and it’s impossible to identify them, only through writing do they get identified.” Over the past three weeks, hundreds of children have been pulled from the wreckage of buildings hit by airstrikes in what is one of the most densely populated places in the world, many of them made unrecognisable, even by their clothes. 

As has been seen time and again over the decades in situations of mass forced eradication in places like Australia, El Salvador, Spain, Sri Lanka, the indigenous peoples of the Americas and entire peoples from Africa, the world was unaware at the time. The suffering of the people who were just trying to exist was unheard. In South Africa, the truth was obfuscated until freedom fighters spoke on international stages. The Allied Powers during WWII were aware of the scale of the Holocaust two and a half years earlier than is generally assumed and had even prepared war crimes indictments against Adolf Hitler and his top Nazi commanders, according to the United Nations.

Yet, people were and still are allowed to die in the name of leveraged capital. Family members of disappeared people are often condemned to perpetual psychological limbo, unable to commence the necessary human grieving process while remaining in the dark as to what exactly befell the missing person. Bodies are placed in mass graves and are unidentified. Bodies that had names and families, and loves and wants. They become a body in a pile of bodies who become numbers who become headlines until the next news cycle. Their stories disappear into obscurity until they become the people that were. 

One recalls the notorious claim by late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir that there was “no such thing as a Palestinian people”, which has certainly aided Israel’s history of butchery; after all, it is easier to bomb people if they don’t exist. And even more so, perhaps, if they are all offline and in the dark, like what happened in Gaza days ago when Israel cut off all electricity and communications. Homes and lives were shattered in the dark, harking back to times like Kristallnacht. We have seen it all before. Now we’re seeing it in real-time. And there are Zionists online celebrating the deaths of children, saying things like, “Rest in pieces.”

Israeli filmmaker, Hadar Morag famously said, “When my grandmother arrived here, after the Holocaust, the Jewish Agency promised her a house. She had nothing, her entire family was exterminated. She waited for a long time in a tent, in an extremely precarious situation. They then took her to Ajami, in Jaffa, in a beautiful beach house. She saw that on the table there were still the dishes of the Arabs who lived there and who had been kicked away. So she went back to the agency and said, take me back to the tent, I will never do to anyone else what was done to me. This is my legacy, but not everyone made that choice. How could we have become what we opposed? That’s the big question.” 

In Israel itself, there exists no ‘Israeli’ nationality shared by all citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Rather, citizens are divided into ‘national’ categories of ‘Jewish’, which affords them a set of rights and privileges above the other categories, or ‘Arab’ with comparatively restricted rights and privileges. This separation was reiterated when Israel passed the Nation-State Law in 2018, essentially codifying decades of discrimination and enshrining two classes of citizens in law. 

Israel carries out various acts that are prohibited by the UN Apartheid Convention including: 

  • Forcible transfer of  Palestinians to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. 
  • Preventing Palestinians from returning to their homes and lands (including millions of refugees living in exile). 
  • Systematic and severe deprivation of fundamental human rights of Palestinians based on their identity. 
  • Denying Palestinians their right to freedom of movement and residence (especially, but not limited to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip). 
  • Murder, torture, unlawful imprisonment and other severe deprivation of physical liberty. 
  • Persecution of Palestinians because of their opposition to apartheid. 

Jameel was just 15 years old at the start of the second intifada, sometimes called the Al-Aqṣā intifada, which began in 2000. The violence is estimated to have resulted in approximately 3 000 Palestinians being killed, 1 000 Israeli deaths, as well as 64 foreigners being caught in the violence. “All we had was fire and stones,” he said to me one day. “They had tanks.” He was easily identified by friends by his blue and beige keffiyeh, which he used to cover his face. He was arrested twice during the violence and his sister was killed. Shot at point-blank range by an Israeli officer. She had come out as lesbian a few months prior and was rejected by most of the religious community but his family was supportive and funded her move from their home in Gaza to the West Bank, where they lived together for a while to let things calm down with the community. 

More than 9 000 Palestinians – the majority of them women and children – have been killed by Israeli forces since they began their offensive on the Gaza Strip at the beginning of October. More than 32 000 more have been wounded, overwhelming hospitals, which are now in a state of collapse due to the total blockade imposed by the settler government. Electricity, water, and fuel have run out, and there are no medical supplies or lifesaving treatments available. 

At least 15 hospitals and medical centres have been forced to stop operating and patients have to be transferred to the remaining hospitals, which are already overcrowded. A convoy of ambulances going from one hospital to another was targeted by the occupational forces. The number of casualties over the past month has resulted in rushed funeral rites and burials. Muslim traditional funeral rites are quite involved and are held within 24 hours after a person dies. The same goes for Hindu and Jewish funerals. After being washed, the body of a loved one is taken to the family home where women are able to bid a final farewell. 

Then the body is taken to the mosque to be prayed over by the men, before being transported either in a vehicle or carried by people in a large congregation to the cemetery. The body is usually wrapped in three different shrouds. Family and friends congregate to mourn together, read from the Q’ran, and tasbih counting is observed. Now there is no time. Because water is scarce, all they can do is wipe off blood from the bodies, and use one shroud because of shortages. Torn body parts, he added, are wrapped first in a plastic covering and then covered with a shroud, in order not to stain the shroud. Finding a body fully intact is a rarity. There is the added anguish of laying family members to rest in mass graves, unidentified, martyred, and forever a number in history.

His sister’s burial was a turning point for Jameel. Her name was Khadija, named after Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, the first wife and the first follower of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (PBUH). After her funeral – a small service with their immediate family and a few of her friends – he stopped praying. He became disillusioned with God and his relationship with his maker. He said to me one day that his faith had become a noose. He was bound by this thing that tied him to his land and people, all of whom he loved, but it held so much hurt. But he felt like it was a grounding with which he kind of lost his footing. He said he felt like God had abandoned Palestine and its people, especially him and his sister. 

If “blame the Jews” has been the stock response to nearly every crisis in the history of Western so-called civilisation, “blame the Arabs” is a similarly useful catchall phrase for colonial Israel and its defenders. Wars, acts of terrorism, and craven political decisions made by governments or individuals are attributed to an entire ethnic group. They say the Arabs don’t want peace, want to drive the Jewish people into the sea, won’t uphold their side of the deal, and are a godless people. This impulse of collective blame is perhaps best encapsulated in the famous (disputed) quotation from Meir that Israel will only have peace with the Arabs “when they love their children more than they hate [the Israelis]”.

The tendency to attribute collective responsibility to Palestinians for acts of violence against Israel remains as relevant today as it did in 1948. The colonial state has consistently stated that their conflict is with Hamas, not the Gazan population. The Israel Occupational Forces maintain a policy of not intentionally targeting Palestinian civilians. Yet here we are, almost a month later, and it seems to every Israeli soldier that all of Gaza are members of Hamas, even newborn children. One child who died this past week was issued a death certificate before a birth certificate. Years after enclosing Gaza (and to a lesser extent, the West Bank), the open-air concentration camp is besieged as a form of eradicating the people that occupational prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls “wild beasts”. Earlier this year, the colonial finance minister Bezalel Smotrich said, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language,” and called for the Palestinian town of Hawara in the West Bank to be “erased” in another incident. 

While the US, European Union, and Britain, among many other powerful nations, insist on believing that Israel tries really hard not to kill civilians, occupational forces have been attacking civilians in places Hamas is known not to be, such as refugee camps and residences in the West Bank. A member of the colonial parliament (and the new justice minister) Ayelet Shaked called for the genocide of all Palestinians. The prime minister in early October tweeted “This is a struggle between the children of the light and the children of darkness. Between (sic) humanity and the law of the jungle.” And Palestinians in the West Bank received threatening leaflets on their cars stating “Wait for the Great Nakba.” 

A volunteer for the World Food Programme said, “The war is eating away everything we know: people, buildings, hopes for a better future. The non-stop sound of bombs falling over the city – skipping our heads by luck – drills in my brain, draining me of sleep and the last drop of sanity I am holding on to.” This is not targeting Hamas. This is the systemic eradication of the Palestinian people – whom the West tries to deny ever existing so that their genocide would be more … justifiable. 

He messaged me on 7 October. “I’m scared, Niki Naks. I think they’re going to destroy us.” I tried calling. No answer. “I can’t talk. It’s too loud.” The bakery had been bombed. He ran back home. There was no home to return to. His father was dead. His Ammi was nowhere to be found. A few days later, they were ordered to move south. He started travelling with a group of eight people he knew. One by one, they were killed. He messaged a group of us every day to let us know he was safe, whenever he could. I waited every day for his daily message.

The volunteer for the WFP recorded a daily description of the violence. “One airstrike in the north. Two. Three…ten. They get louder and closer. I lose count. I walk to the other side of the roof to look towards the south of the strip which has been marked as a safe zone. One bomb lands. Two. The sky lights up in red flames. Three…five…flames eat up God’s sky. Eight. My brother calls me downstairs. The airstrikes are now so close that the gunpowder has blocked my sight. After tonight, I know I might count more dead family and friends than my hands could possibly embrace.”

There is resistance, not just in Gaza but all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators rallied in cities all over the world these past few weeks to show support for the Palestinians. In one of the biggest marches, aerial footage showed approximately 500 000 people marching through the centre of London to demand the government call for a ceasefire. Activist Samaher Elkady said in a seminar this week that the colonisers are scared. “They know our strength and that’s why they’re scared and try to silence us.” Others in the seminar run by an association of feminist activists and networks, South Feminist Futures, said the imperialist powers will not stop and we have to fight against misinformation, disinformation, and deliberate muddying of the truth, and that resistance must be in the form of continued pressure from international powers on the occupational state. 

Jameel came to South Africa in the hopes of becoming a better writer. He came with a friend named Mustafa whose stories could only be described as magical. He wove tangible tales out of smoke on a breeze. Mustafa found his brothers dead and refused to leave their bodies as the last rites were performed. He was killed two days later. I still have one of his poems in Arabic in one of my journals. Jameel said seeing his friend’s body drained him of all his strength. His cousin’s business in central Gaza was bombed and none of his family survived. He said to me that despite everything happening, he still loves but knows that grief has made itself at home in his heart.  Just over a month after his 38th birthday, he was killed shortly after the bombing of Al-Ahli Hospital. 

Nobody lives here anymore. They’re all dead.