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A Palestinian Perspective on Empathy amid Coronavirus Pandemic

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Palestinian children in the alleys Jabalia Refugee Camp, northern Gaza. Photo credit: Mahmoud Abusalama

This article was originally published on Electronic Intifada on 16 April 2020.

Palestinians like me, living outside our country, fear that the coronavirus pandemic could be the latest nightmare to befall our loved ones back home. As of now there are more than 12,000 confirmed cases in Israel, around 350 in the occupied West Bank and 13 in Gaza, my home.

Having grown up in Jabaliya refugee camp, I know that the types of prevention measures imposed in Europe or the United States cannot be applied in Gaza. “Overcrowding and a lack of living space characterize Jabaliya camp,” as the UN notes. “Shelters are built in close vicinity and there is a general lack of recreational and social space.” Big multi-generational families live under one roof. Houses are separated by shared walls or narrow alleys. Residents are within earshot of their neighbors’ conversations and privy to their daily routines. Social or physical distancing is next to impossible.

There are 114,000 people living in Jabaliya refugee camp, but a similar situation can be found across Gaza, where 70 percent of the population are refugees.

In total, two million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, under a tight Israeli blockade for 13 years. Half the population are children. Living conditions are already dire, after three major Israeli military assaults since 2008, along with the impact of the siege. Basic infrastructure and services, including electricity, education and healthcare are already far from adequate.

In 2018, the UN specifically warned of the risk of an epidemic in Gaza due to the degraded sanitation system, and the fact that 97 percent of the water supply is unfit for human consumption. Health experts and human rights organizations are now sounding the alarm that a major outbreak of COVID-19 would be catastrophic, and have called on Israel to lift its restrictions on bringing vital supplies into the territory.

Never-ending emergency

The current crisis offers states and corporations, driven by the desire to accumulate power at the best of times, a unique opportunity to expand and consolidate their control.

Citing the coronavirus emergency, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized the deployment of surveillance technology normally used for “counterterrorism.”

For Palestinians, the pandemic is not a temporary emergency but represents continuity. The occupying power has imposed a never-ending situation of emergency that dates back to 1948, when the creation of Israel uprooted 800,000 native Palestinians from their homes. During the Nakba, our grandparents assumed they would return in a couple of weeks. Today, we observe the birth of a fourth or fifth generation in refugee camps.

Moreover, the use of electronic surveillance by Israel to spy on and blackmail Palestinians is nothing new. What is new here is the use of technologies tested on Palestinians against the privileged Israeli Jewish population who were previously largely shielded from such intrusion.

And while the pandemic is a boon for companies and states seeking to expand their power, it is in the short term a blessing in disguise for Netanyahu. Until a few weeks ago, he was counting his last days as prime minister and facing imminent trial on corruption charges. But for him, the pandemic could not be more timely: a state of emergency which he can manipulate and use to maintain power.

While all focus is on the pandemic, attention is diverted from Israel’s continued military repression of Palestinians. In March alone, Israel detained more than 350 Palestinians across the occupied West Bank and Gaza, including 48 children and four women. Meanwhile, prisons where Israel holds some 5,000 Palestinian political detainees, are – like prisons around the world – turning into hotspots for coronavirus. Israeli jailers and at least one released Palestinian are among confirmed cases. At least four other Palestinians were potentially exposed to the virus during interrogation by an Israeli prison worker. This has pushed detainees and their advocates to call for urgent international action to save them from Israel’s systematic policy of medical neglect in its prisons.

It is clear that the “emergency response” to the new coronavirus does not mean a suspension of Israel’s systems of oppression.

New normal?

In the midst of the crisis, it is hard to think ahead. There’s no doubt that many measures being applied are necessary to save lives, as perhaps a third of the world’s population is under some form of lockdown. But decisions made in these extraordinary times could permanently shape the post-pandemic reality.

Education has gone virtual. Only essential workers are permitted to go to work, while others work remotely and untold millions have lost their jobs. In addition to expanding surveillance via mobile phone, drones are being used to monitor streets and ordinary people are acting as informants against those they suspect of breaking the rules.

When the health emergency is over, will all this become the new normal?

Traumatic memories

Wartime metaphors are in vogue. President Donald Trump has appointed generals to prominent roles in the US government’s response to what he calls an “invisible enemy.”

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has declared that his country is “at war,” while Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, has asserted that “we must act like any wartime government.”

Maybe this language helps alert people to the severity of the threat, but such comparisons sound horrible to survivors of actual wars – including wars that these very leaders have supported or fueled.

Although many countries and companies make fortunes from the business of war, war is ugly. It destroys life and human relations. The laws and conventions that people are used to in peacetime do not apply in war zones. This pandemic is nothing like a war.

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People on balconies applaud to show respect for health workers at the frontline combating the COVID-19 pandemic in Brussels, Belgium, 14 April. Photo Credit: Zhang Cheng/ Xinhua

During a recent Skype call with dispersed family members in Gaza and Europe, we all joyfully watched as my youngest sister, Tamam, a refugee in Brussels, rushed to her balcony to join her neighbors applauding the efforts of health workers.

This triggered traumatic memories of us huddled together in our home in Gaza, with other families who had escaped neighborhoods under heavy Israeli fire. We sat around a battery powered radio in a blackout, the floor shaking beneath our feet, listening to explosions, houses collapsing and people dying.

Then, we were scared to even look out of the window.

Our family has been shaped by such memories, including my mother giving birth to me during a military curfew on Jabaliya camp. If you broke an Israeli curfew, you risked your life, not just a mere fine.

A chance to reflect

This pandemic is a chance for reflection for people born in safe places, who are used to taking their rights for granted.

Even under lockdown, many still have access to healthcare, housing, education and freedoms that others facing the same pandemic do not.

COVID-19 exploits and exacerbates existing inequalities, globally and within societies.

In the United States, for example, Black and Latino people are getting sick and dying in far higher proportions than white Americans.

The virus provides an opportunity to question and challenge power structures such as capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, which produce this uneven vulnerability. While some commentators have asserted that the coronavirus is a great equalizer, this is clearly not the case.

My family in Palestine hopes that this pandemic reminds people of how connected we all are. We should learn from others who have suffered with life’s uncertainties for as long as they remember because of man-made inequalities that make some people visible as others are rendered invisible.

We should be united for each other’s welfare, not warfare. We should learn from Cuba’s model of solidarity, as it sends doctors to coronavirus-hit countries, while the US tightens sanctions and pressures countries to reject Cuba’s aid.

The virus is teaching us that we can be asymptomatic but deadly to each other, especially the vulnerable. And we are learning that as long as the virus exists anywhere, no part of the world is truly safe.

In short, caring for and helping each other is not just a value to aspire to, but a necessity for our collective survival.

MP Candidate Gordon Gregory: Israel has “no reason to stop occupying.”

A few days ago, I wrote to my MP Louise Haigh and Tory candidate Gordon Gregory, my potential MP representative in the constituency of Sheffield, Heeley, urging them to #VotePalestine and make sure Justice for Palestine is on their agenda.

“I am a Palestinian researcher and educator, born and bred in Jabalia Refugee Camp in northern the Gaza Strip which has turned uninhabitable according to the UN, due to an uninterrupted Israeli cycle of violence against the Palestinians that manifist more extremely in besieged Gaza,” I wrote introducing myself. “After years of feeling alienated by British establishment, for once I see hope with the policies that the latest labour manifesto supported, most importantly the UN-recognised right of return for Palestinian refugees and arms embargo on Israel. Justice for Palestine is an extremely important issue for not only me and my family who remain in Gaza at the receiving end of Israeli violence and British complicity, but many people in our constituency,” I emphasised before I asked them to participate in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s online survey.

The response of Gordon Gregory, the Tory candidate for Heeley, came as a shock (see screenshot below), stating in one way or another that he wouldn’t represent me, but represent Israel’s systems of colonial occupation and apartheid. Using classic Zionist justifications for its collective punishment of a stateless people, systematically dehumanised and stripped of their basic rights, Gregory blatantly argued that Israel has “no reason to stop occupying.”

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Below is my response to Gregory’s email, which should also be in his inbox. I’m publishing it in fear of my words going unnoticed, following his outrageous response which basically declares that I’d penalised from his representation before government if he gets elected!


Dear Gordon,

Thanks for your response. However, although you started by a empathetic statement, the rest is really disappointing and contradictory. You exhibited a classical tactic of blaming the victim and normalising the unacceptable actions of an occupying power against a stateless population who are dispossessed, demeaned, dehumanised and incarcerated since 1948 Israel’s establishment on our ethnic cleansing, facilitated by the British. Your argument feeds into the normalisation of our unprecedented oppression, rationalised by Israel’s right to massacre and dispossess the Palestinians in the name of self-defence. This logic rather supports Israel’s right to oppression.

International law recognises the fundamental rights to self-determination, freedom and independence for the occupied, as well as the right to resist occupation, even through armed struggle if necessary. This applies to the Palestinians who are undergoing the longest standing colonial occupation of our modern history. Even if Palestinians were to “stop the violence” as you suggested and submitted to their enslavement and dehumanisation, Israel will never stop its uninterrupted violence which was devoted to break the Palestinians’ will for freedom and depress their aspirations for self-determination since its pre-state era, and Israel showed consistently and systematically ever since how it is willing to invest everything in its mighty power to do so.  It doesn’t take a genius to see who the underdog is, and that such an oppressive system, like South Africa Apartheid, is not sustainable.

How would you justify the illegal military occupation, constant harassment of Palestinians at military checkpoints and the Israeli consistent campaigns of house-demolitions and arbitrary detention? The brutal siege on Gaza, the systematic indiscriminate acts of “mowing the loan” in Israeli parlance as well as the brutal repression of Gaza’s Great March of Return peaceful protests? The ever expanding settlement project and the associated theft of land and ethnic cleansing campaigns (a flagrant violation of International Law and the 4th article of Geneva Conventions)? The systematic racist denial of Palestinian refugees to return to their dispossessed homes according to UN resolution 194 of 1949? Your response unfortunately jumped over too many details to conclude that Palestinians deserve Israeli occupation’s brutality for not passively taking it, which is a typical imperial and short-sighted analysis.

We’re on the verge of witnessing a humanitarian explosion in the besieged Gaza Strip, caused by 7 decades of colonial oppression and acts of collective punishments which is banned under International Law, and you loosely use Hamas’ Zionist card, Israel’s necessary bogyman, to justify Israeli crimes? I expect my MP representative to be more responsible than that. To your knowledge, Hamas was only founded in the late 1980s. Before that, Israel has always needed to demonise the Palestinian natives and manufacture justifications for its illegal and criminal practices dedicated to maintain its apartheid and settler-colonial structures at the expense of our erasure. If you ever humble yourself enough to put yourself in the place of a Palestinian child, punished from their cradle for their identity, you would realise that resistance to oppression is not only a natural response but also a duty.

Living under military occupation is something you will never understand as you were never at the receiving end of this uninterrupted aggression. In fact, Britain was historically the perpetrator of such colonial occupations. The aggression we endure now is Britain’s responsibility which started with 1917 Balfour Declaration which ignored Palestine’s indigenous population and continues to do so in other means whether by welcoming war criminals for official visits or continuing to license arms sales for Israel so they ‘battle-test’ them on us. It would only be logical that you correct what your country committed against us since 1917 but I understand how entrenched imperial and colonial thinking is, and it takes active unlearning and searching within one’s soul to be liberated from such attitudes.

As a refugee and a survivor of many Israeli systematic campaigns of mass murder and destruction, I don’t expect you to understand the colonised perspective but I appeal to your conscience to do the right thing when it comes to Palestine given its urgency! Stop Arming Israel. We want to live in a world where all lives matter and justice and equality prevails.

Best,

Shahd

The Visa Process and The Hierarchy of Human Rights

67640413_10157561318474312_2923892964931403776_nAfter 5 years of taking time off the anxieties that come with visa applications, I just applied for one to Tunisia, taking a heavy toll on me. We need to speak more those anxieties and the microaggression that underlines the whole process, which is not only underestimated but normalised. My travel partner Vilius found all the information he needs online in a matter of a quick search, reassuring him of the visa-free privilege he gets for being from Lithuania. But as a Palestinian holder of a UK travel document, it wasn’t straight forward for me. It consumed me.

In a nutshell, the visa process is an unequal system based on the hierarchy of human rights. This hierarchy is rooted in an imperial structure that classifies some as more superior than others. Indeed, it gets more complicated when you put the intersections of race, gender, class, religion and sexual orientation in consideration. But you can safely say that it all depends on the documents one acquires by birth, and somehow these documents dictate your life, you’re either lucky or doomed. In historic Palestine, for instance, those documents decide at which side of Israeli apartheid you stand. While the Israeli apartheid regime systematically violates Palestinians’ human rights, it creates a parallel, privileged life for Israeli citizens and settlers, from which Palestinian citizens of Israel remain excluded in many ways. Similarly, these apartheid policies are reproduced by western and some non-western border agencies based on the imperial premise of ‘shared values’ between Israel and the EU.

When I think of visa, my body becomes overburdened with countless traumas. For most Palestinians, visas represent uncertainty. You’re held in limbo until a further notice. If you’re from Gaza, there are other uncertainties as visa could be obtained, but it could expire while you’re still trying cross to the other side of Rafah Border like what happened to my dad in 2017. And then when you’re out, you’re reminded of your inferiority, both explicitly and implicitly, as you present your document at any border control. You stand on the queue and watch people showing their passports and passing and everything is going smoothly until your turn comes. Then this smooth process is suddenly interrupted because the border police needs to ask you a few ‘casual’ questions that leaves you wondering: Why are you so curious about my life?!

Tunisia wasn’t the first holiday destination I had in mind. I contemplated Bali and invested a lot of effort to get an answer on how to proceed with a visa application- all in vain. The Indonesian embassy has nothing online on the process holders of refugee travel documents needs to undergo to obtain a visa. I called countless times and no one picks the phone, as if no one works there. Then finally someone replied only to tell us that they cannot advise on this issue. I gave up the idea and started contemplating Tunisia as an alternative. That’s when I realised this treatment is not limited to Indonesian embassy. I spent many hours trying to get hold of someone for advice. On the VisaHQ’s online chat, I asked for advice. “We don’t deal with travel documents,” a person replied. “This behaviour is discriminatory,” I replied with frustration, and that was the end of the chat. But I left them the worst review that was available in protest. Meanwhile, I was still spamming the London-based Tunisian embassy’s phone since Friday and literally no one picked the phone. This is probably due to the Eid season but this thought didn’t make it less frustrating. They did eventually reply on Facebook, and explained the documents I need to include with my application and the fees. But really the issues that a holder of a refugee travel document goes though are beyond unacceptable, and those examples are just few amongst many.

At the post office today, I spent nearly two hours trying to make sure that my application is complete. The postman revised the documents for me- I needed him to double check because I cannot afford any mistake. Between every interaction I had with the postman, a sigh would come out of me unintentionally. “Don’t forget to smile,” he said. “It will be fine and you will get the visa.” I smiled to him and said, visas take your smile away. He asked, “where are you from?” I said joking, “I’m a doomed Palestinian, and you?” He replied, “I’m from India but I feel for you. It took me a while to become British but I only needed to become British as my original documents have no value compared with an EU passport.” But the problem is documents of ‘higher value’ doesn’t suddenly turn your skin colour white nor does it protect you from racist policies or negative presumptions.

When I get the visa, I know I’ll be excited about travelling and exploring new places. However, it’s upsetting to be living in a world order that is inherently racist and treats people according to the documents they hold by birth, their skin colour, religion or sexual orientation. This shouldn’t be normalised. And those who are privileged enough to be born free of those anxieties and movement restrictions must not take their privileges for granted and fight with us for equality for all. The hierarchy of human rights should be abolished.

PS: I took the picture of my visa pictures in a hurry. Later I noticed the Arabic article headline of a recently-released Palestinian prisoner Bilal Odeh included in the picture, reading “Memories from prison.” Not to compare but it could be argued that such mechanisms are forms of imprisonments. Most of the traumatic memories I carry with me are attached to Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, where life was another synonym for uncertainty, not only when it comes to a travel visa but pretty much any serious or minimal issue you may encounter in your daily life. And even those of us who managed to break free of that prison, elements of that prison chases them wherever in one way or another. I cannot wait to be able to travel with my Palestinian passport wherever with dignity, free of all forms of violence. Until then I will continue to expose it, individually and collectively!

Protesting Israel’s Dehumanization and Demonization of the Palestinians

I recently came under attack by Zionist groups and publications, including the Jewish Chronicle and UK Zionist Federation. Those attacks were routed through my university, Sheffield Hallam, as part of an organized attack on the Palestinian-led movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel, especially in England and Germany. Its purpose is to silence the rights-based movement that has succeeded in threatening Israel’s culture of impunity. It aims to undermine BDS activists’ credibility and in my case, smear my academic reputation.

These attacks came after starring in a couple of videos, Cultural Boycott and Madonna Don’t Go, which London Palestine Action made to advocate for the Palestinian call to boycott Eurovision on the basis of its “art-washing” of Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.

I wrote about this in length on Jadaliyya. Please read and share wide in solidarity with Palestinian and solidarity activists whose are facing an increasing hostility from Zionist lobbies for daring to protest Israeli longstanding and systematic dehumanisation of Palestinians.

Enjoy the videos below, and support BDS in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

 

My Speech for London Rally in Support of Palestinians’ Rights to Exist, Resist and Return

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During a #StopArmingIsrael protest during a week of action against DSEI arms fair in September 2017. Photo by David Dinis Photography

My name is Shahd Abusalama and I’m a 3rdgeneration Palestinian refugee, born and raised in Jabalia Refugee Camp, northern Gaza. I’m standing here with so many Palestinians, born in Palestine and exile, to tell the founding Zionists of Israel who assumed that the old will die and the young will forget, that we will not forget Palestine, and we will never surrender our fundamental rights to exist, resist and return. We stand representative of many indigenous communities who faced various forms of oppression across the history of European colonialism and imperialism, to remind the world that settler colonialism is not a culture of the past, but a current reality that we have lived and defied from America, Australia and Ireland to Palestine.

My grandmother described a peaceful childhood in green fields of citrus and olive trees in our village Beit-Jirja. This life, the tastes, the sounds and the smells remained fixated only in her memories as Beit Jirja was dismantled alongside other 530 villages and towns that were depopulated and destroyed by Zionist thugs in 1948. For Palestinians, the Nakba was never a one-off event that happened in 1948. Israeli colonial oppression has never stopped and many Palestinian communities within Israel, including the people of Khan Al-Ahmar, are still fighting against their ethnic cleansing as we stand here.

My grandparents are present today more than ever as we mark the 71stanniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, for what happened then is why I was born in Jabalia with a gun pointed at my head. During my mother’s labour, Israeli soldiers disrupted her way to Jabalia UNRWA Clinic as they forced a curfew that indoctrinated to shoot any moving being. Shooting to kill was common in the 1st Intifada when I came to life, and is a common practice now.

We saw it in the shooting and maiming of Gaza’s Great Return March protestors who stood with their bare chests against Israeli snipers to claim their humanity and to bring their right of return, an issue that Israel firmly rejected across the past 7 decades on racist grounds, to the centre of political debate.  Their cries for justice come amidst US-Israeli attempts to push the right of return and Jerusalem “off the table”. It is time that we call those world leaders what they are: racist trolls. It is time to stand firm in our support of the Palestinian right of return, as without justice, there will be no meaningful peace.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip just survived another a 3-day deadly Israeli attack last weekend, which claimed 25 lives, including two pregnant women, two toddlers and a 12 year old child. While world news was quick to move on after the truce was announced, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip returned to a daily struggle for survival while more deadly violence is expected at any moment. That’s how my family welcomed Ramadan. Following the truce, I heard my parents calling relatives and friends and saying, “glad you survived” before continuing “Ramadan Kareem”.

Imagine living in an open-air prison where there is constant presence of death, and fear of walls falling inwards. This fear of being uncertain about anything, including your own life, even while in your home, is terrifying. This is what 2 million people faced last weekend as they are besieged by Israeli weaponry from air, land and sea, turning Gaza into a laboratory for its lethal arms, which Israel markets as ‘battle-tested’ in notorious arms fairs around the world, such as DSEI which London is hosting again this year.

It is not a coincidence that Gaza comes under attack during Israeli elections over and over again. Those elections are led by criminals using Palestinian children’s blood to win popular support. Meanwhile, the world is about to celebrate Eurovision in Israeli Apartheid on top of an ethnically-cleansed Palestinian land, a show whose whole purpose is to expose Israel’s ‘prettier face’ while deflecting global attention from its daily crimes against the Palestinians. Shame on all contestant countries, all the participants and audiences if they still support Eurovision in Israel while our victims’ blood haven’t dried.

This is nothing new. This is our decades-long lived experience that is normalised by a dominant media discourse that finds it comfortable to avoid addressing the power imbalance between the occupier and the occupied, to remove the context of settler colonialism and reduce it to conflict, effectively demonizing Palestinians and their legitimate struggle against their systematic dehumanization. Our injustice is also normalized by tax payers whose money is paid as military ‘aid’ for Israel, by politicians who suddenly fall short on words of condemnation once the perpetrator is Israel, by international institutions doing buisness with Israel or corporations that enable Israeli crimes, by Muslims of the world who normalise relations with Israel and buy Israeli dates merged with our pains of loss and dispossession, by Zionist Jews and Christians who support the uninterrupted process of ethnic cleansing against the native people of the ‘promised land’ in the name of God.

The best response to such brutality and normalisation is active solidarity!

We have a beautiful demonstration of solidarity today with thousands uniting from different races, religions, genders, professions and cities, to say: we’re not turning our back to the Palestinian people. We know too well that whether Palestine on news headlines or not, Israel is perpetrating violence uninterruptedly.

Every minute, innocent souls are buried, and building that took a lifetime to build are flattened. It is urgent that people of conscience all over the world join in solidarity and resist the collusion of their governments and institutions in this long-standing crime against humanity.

Why bomb Gaza’s Said al-Mishal Cultural Centre?

Why bomb Said al-Mishal Cultural Centre? Like many in Gaza, I remain in shock. My tongue cannot find the right words to mourn this erasure of our memories and culture, and my tears cannot take away the heaviness of my heart. It is a living nightmare I share with lots of Palestinian youth in Gaza for whom this centre was not merely a building.

Al-Mishal was one of the very few places in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, which provided us with an escape from the suffocation we endure. Some of my most vivid memories are attached to this place. I recall my frequent gatherings with my friends and family there for a performance or a play and other cultural activities. I recall the times when I performed Dabke at its stage and jumped happily like a free bird as I saw the audience so engaged; smiling, singing along, clapping and struggling to remain seated. I remember the walks we had from there to the beach for a bite or a drink as we watched the sunset.

It was flattened to the ground. The horrific sound of this airstrike still echoes in my head and the pictures of its destruction keep me up at night.

It seized to be in a matter of pressing a button by Israeli Occupation Forces, and with this button, they took our precious memories. They stripped us of one of the very few windows of happiness and relief, which filled our hearts as we met to make culture, to celebrate our culture, to sing, dance Dabke, and laugh. Against all odds, this space existed, but apparently posed a ‘threat’ to Israel that had to be eliminated. The only reason for the destruction of such a building is to make our lives more unliveable.

Gaza’s Said al-Mishal was more than a venue to produce and celebrate Palestinian culture. It was a necessary means of survival for 75% of  Gaza’s population who are children and youth; they are isolated in their enclave, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, under a miserable reality, lacking spaces for fun, for creativity, for resistance though art.

Said al-Mishal Cultural Centre is perhaps a very good representation of the Palestinian struggle; produced under extraordinary circumstances, desperate for expression, visibility and recognition but ultimately silenced.

Gaza’s familiar landscape has been undergoing a process of distortion and erasure. In 2014 attack on Gaza, whole neighbourhoods were erased. Buildings that were like landmarks for us, where we used to pass by and meet with friends, were turned to rubble in the phase of a few years.

I cannot imagine going back to the place where I spent my childhood ad early adulthood after five years of forced absence, and being unable to recognise it, thanks to the terror of mass destruction that Israel inflected on it. Can you imagine not being able to relate any more to your familiar landscapes due to a machine of destruction?

It’s traumatic. What’s more traumatic is that we know that Said al-Mishal Theatre was not the first cultural institution to be targeted and will not be the last. That said, this crime cannot be seen outside the systematic erasure and elimination of Palestinian existence, history and culture that is happening since 1948 Nakba. Since Israel’s inception, alongside the destruction of Historic Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, Zionist militias stole thousands of books, paintings, musical recordings, and other artefacts from Palestinian homes, libraries, and government offices. This was a deliberate Israeli colonial policy that seeks to erase Palestine from historical memory and erase all traces to the indigenous people, their history and cultural identity. It becomes easier to claim a make-believe reality where “Palestinians do not exist,” as Israeli PM Golda Meire once bluntly said in 1969, or that they are a punch of primitive tribes with no culture.

Even if they erase all our traces to Palestine, our bodies will continue to carry the traumatic evidence of these constant Zionist crimes. If they erase our physical cultural heritage, they will not manage to erase our memory. We will remain the living evidence that challenges Israel’s historical myths and angelic self-image, which Israel tries to paint of itself.

Living through Gaza’s horror from afar

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Palestinian kids playing on the rubble of Al-Mishal Culture and Arts Theatre following an Israeli air strike on Gaza City, on 9 August. Photo by Ahmad Abu Awad

From the emergency room in Lewisham Hospital in London on Wednesday evening, I called my parents to inform them of a sudden allergic reaction I had to something that remains unknown.

I wanted to hear their voices which never fail to comfort me in exile whenever I experience moments of uncertainty – even though I know that they experience an extreme level of uncertainty at their end, in Gaza.

At that moment, around 11pm Palestine time, my parents would usually be asleep, but I called anyway, and to my surprise, my mom Halima answered quickly. She sounded troubled as she offered a list of instructions to avoid such allergic reactions.

The radio was playing in the background and my dad would interrupt the conversation, and both sounded distracted. Something was wrong.

“Bombings are everywhere. May God protect us and have mercy upon us. If you were here, you would have thought it was the beginning of another full-scale attack,” my mom said.

“The sky lights up and then a massive bombardment is heard, and within seconds another one, and another one, shaking the ground underneath us. The walls feel like they’re falling down.”

Parallel realities

My parents just celebrated the arrival of their first grandchild. They called her Eliya, one of Jerusalem’s ancient names. Ever since, she’s been the focus of our conversations.

“Eliya, bless her, is crying non-stop as if she senses the danger. We can hear her screams from here as your brother Muhammad and Asma [his wife] are trying to comfort her,” my mom said in distressed tones. “We are panicking ourselves. Imagine how kids are feeling this terror.”

The anti-allergy injection given to me in the ambulance was making me drowsy, but the impact of her words made me switch back on.

This experience seemed to sum up the parallel realities I’ve lived since since I left Gaza.

Growing up in Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, uncertainty defined everyday life. Death is always present, even as you do your most mundane activity in your most secure place.

And yet we learned to face our worst fears and continue to live without internalizing this horror as if it were normal.

That is why resistance was a necessity in the face of this life of uncertainty and dehumanization.

Gaza is only a part of a much larger system of violence, displacement and confinement designed by Israel, and funded and normalized by the so-called international community.

The reality in Gaza is the product of settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, sadistic militarism, supremacist ideologies and moral hypocrisy. It is a showcase of not only Israel’s inhumanity, but that of the world as a whole.

Ever since I was old enough to understand the injustices that surrounded me as a child, I woke up every day questioning how despite its enchantment with human rights slogans, the world allowed this situation to continue.

Troubled silence

Thursday morning, I called my family as soon as I woke up. My brother and his wife had a sleepless night with their 2-week old daughter.

My mom, who just got home from work, was eager to have a nap after a restless night. She works as a nurse in Beach refugee camp, at a children’s clinic run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

But instead she sat on the tiles by the garden door to let her body soak in the coolness, as the lack of electricity in Gaza, except for a few hours per day, means that the air conditioners my family had installed cannot be used.

As she sat there, she told me stories of the mothers who came to the clinic.

“Several women told me that they had a sleepless night with their children crying out of fear,” my mom recalled. “They were clinging to them.”

Others said their children, including older ones, wet their beds.

“May God help them,” my mom said shaking her head. “I raised you all in extraordinary situations, and I worry Eliya is going to grow up in similar conditions, if not worse.”

I was looking at my mom on the phone with one eye, the other glancing at London’s modern skyline from the 11th floor apartment of a friend that looked out on a city and world that seemed entirely undisturbed by what is happening in Palestine.

Our conversation was interrupted by a troubled silence that indicated there was more to be said.

I perfectly understood her without a word being spoken, however. I remember how we barely expressed our emotions as individuals when we were all in the same boat, experiencing the same violence.

We had no choice but to be strong for each other, and support one another to keep moving forward.

Then my mother spoke about how most families in Gaza had lost a loved one, or had someone suffer a permanent disability due to successive Israeli attacks. Amid the catastrophic humanitarian and economic situation caused by Israel’s siege, people are exhausted.

“Our situation is heaven in comparison to other families who are completely dependent on UN aid and do not have even one member with a regular income,” my mom observed.

In addition, cuts to UNRWA funding by the US and the Palestinian Authority’s withholding of salaries from civil servants, are making people’s lives even more precarious.

“We did not stand idle”

My mother sounded agonized as she spoke about the overwhelming situation and reflected that the challenges of wartime seem almost bearable compared with the grinding aftermath.

“Precisely!” I said, in an effort to bring some hope into the conversation. “What makes people go to protest near the fence with Israel is that they have nothing to lose but a life of misery.”

“Confronting and throwing stones at Israeli snipers lined up behind the fence is a means of survival to escape this cycle of powerlessness,” I said. I told my mother I thought it was an act of defiance and dignity.

At least 120 Palestinians have been killed during the Great March of Return protests that began on 30 March, more than 20 of them children.

“If only the world outside knew how we experience life. If only they put themselves in our shoes for a second,” I added.

“The times when we lived under physical military occupation were much better,” my mom said, interrupting me. She was referring to the years from 1967 until 2005, when Israel maintained soldiers and settlers deep inside the Gaza Strip, instead of besieging it from the perimeter.

I was confused and asked her to explain.

“We had confrontations then, similar to what we have experienced at the Great March of Return, but from even closer,” she said. “They would use their military power on us but we would have a brief window to express resistance, which was somehow consoling.”

“We would stand in their faces without any fear, despite our knowledge that they would eventually do what they are indoctrinated to do – imposing roadblocks, curfews, house raids and detention campaigns,” my mother explained. “We would stand tall in front of them as they attempted to kidnap your father, or one of your uncles, scream at them and curse them, eye to eye.”

“The Tamimis were every family in Gaza, during the first intifada,” she said, referring to the West Bank family of the teenager Ahed Tamimi, renowned for its role in the village of Nabi Saleh’s unarmed resistanceto Israeli occupation and colonization.

“I remember when the army broke into our house in the middle of the night, soon after your birth, looking for your father. They turned everything upside down and stole your father’s pictures and notebooks,” my mom said. “We did not stand still as they ruined everything. We resisted. We pushed them and threw our belongings which they had broken back at them.”

“But now they just drop missiles at us from their warplanes, gunboats or tanks as we sit in our homes unable to confront them.”

My mother mentioned the pregnant mother and her young daughter killed in their home in an Israeli airstrike Wednesday night.

“They could have been any of us,” she said.

Whenever I talk anyone in my family, they say nothing much has changed, as if time has forgotten about their corner of world.

But time did not forget them completely. They experience time differently: through an innovative form of military occupation which has turned Gaza into a caged laboratory for lethal technologies to be sold later to other countries as “battle tested.”

They experience the progress of time as a regression, with resistance – not accepting their abnormal situation as normal – the only way to break free.


This article was first published on the Electronic Intifada

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