This Sunday’s Bookshelf on Divali, which Hindus believe marks the triumph of good over evil, is dedicated to the people of Gaza.
I visited Jerusalem several decades back when I was still a student during one of the Palestinian intifadas.
It was an electric visit, charged with what felt like the religious fervour of centuries. Just outside Jerusalem, in The Chapel of Golgotha within the Church of Holy Sepulchre, Christians believe Jesus was crucified and rose from his tomb.
Walk into the Old City of Jerusalem, and you are greeted with the exquisite Dome of the Rock, the Islamic Shrine at the centre of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound on the Temple Mount, which Muslims believe was constructed on the spot from which the Prophet Muhammed was taken up into heaven for an encounter with God ( Mi'rāj). Walk some more, and you can see the moving sight of Jews lamenting the destruction of the great Herodian temple of 40 BC at the Wailing Wall, the remnants surrounding the Temple Mount, the site of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, holy to the Jews.
You felt in this ancient city of Byzantine churches, Crusader castles, Islamic madrasas, Templer houses, Arab arches and minarets, Russian Orthodox onion domes, a place where human faith has mingled for centuries that people would feel softness, and empathy for one another. But boys threw stones, soldiers, rifles, and tanks were evident, and women walked with their baskets bowed as if in some ancient biblical scent.
I saw a soldier standing on top of a mosque, standing by a minaret, pointing a gun down at the street. The soldier’s eyes narrowed as he saw me looking at him, and I knew one group here meant business and was in charge, not out of faith but force. The West Bank has been under military occupation by Israel since 1967 when Israeli forces captured the territory.
For half a century, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, has resulted in systemic human rights violations, with Israeli settlers pushing Palestinians off their land systemically. At the time, I met my friend Rana there, and she couldn’t say much, but enough to know that military rule disrupts every minute of her life and reminds her every day that she does not have citizen rights, and is not allowed to belong in her own home.
The protests against the Palestinians took the form of stone-throwing, graffiti, barricading, Molotov cocktails at the IDF, general strikes and economic boycotts. Israel’s initial response then (before the world noticed) was to deploy 80,000 soldiers who were sanctioned to use live rounds at crowds of protesting Palestinians. Hamas’s Oct 7 attack, which left 1400 dead, was an act of terror designed to fuel extremism to benefit the power-hungry on both sides.
But even the Palestinian people who have come to expect the brute disproportionate armed force to opposition to Israeli occupation could not have anticipated a state response so ugly, bloated, so amoral, so blinded, so crazed by fury, that its leader would be allowed to order its army (supported by the United States with some $3.3 billion annual funding and 500 million for defence technology making it among the best-armed nations in the middle east ( ABC News)) to pound Gaza killing over 4000 children, some 7000 adults with more than 25,0000 tons of explosives, equivalent to two nuclear bombs ( source- Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor). I am still agape at the politics played by world leaders, with the US providing millions of dollars of weapons to Israel to bomb Gaza by night while making announcements of sending aid with the Biden administration delivering the weapons to kill thousands, turning a blind eye to a blockade of food and water to Gaza and promising a few trucks of aid.
If the world was disgusted at the complicity over the holocaust, the world should be as disgusted at the complicity of most world leaders today who remain mealy-mouthed with Isreal, who want to speak from both sides of their mouths. As someone said to me yesterday. If you want to know what’s happening in Palestine, follow the oil, follow the arms, follow the money. The following are quotes from Palestinian writers on Gaza.
Palestinian writer, Karim Khattan:
“We do know one thing, though: The dead stay dead, and the wounded don’t always heal. A dead man is ten people, a family, a village, mourning and shattered. A wounded person is often a mutilated body. When international attention, that cruel and fickle goddess, turns to something else, the mutilated will remain mutilated, and the dead will remain dead. The tolls of the violence that keep us on our toes conceal the deep time of our reality, which will continue when the world has had its fill of our shared agonies and no longer wants to look us in the face. I could, it is true, count the numbers on either side–to demonstrate, for example, that after an escalation of violence, the number of Palestinian victims is always disproportionate to the number of Israeli victims, not by accident but because the balance of power is essentially asymmetrical. To do so would be to enter into a game from which I would like, at least for a while, to distance myself because it disgusts me.”
Palestinian poet, short story writer, and essayist from Gaza Mosab Abu Toha:
“On May 13, 2021, in the middle of the night, Israel heavily bombarded the Sheikh Zayed neighbourhood in North Gaza, just three kilometres away from where I live. In my and other people’s experience, it was the most intensive and horrific bombing by Israel. Among the dead was an entire family, the Al-Tananis: the two parents and their four children, all under ten years old.
“I was standing at the window when it happened. The sky was lit, and our ears got clogged with the deafening sound of bombs. The next day, I went to see the area. The houses were unrecognisable. I couldn’t distinguish a balcony, a children’s room or a kitchen. I could see a bathtub sandwiched between a destroyed ceiling and floor. I took a photo that I later included in my debut poetry book.
“I cannot but share my sadness as I watched the reconstruction of the destroyed buildings a few months later. It’s perplexing. I felt like the houses should have remained on the ground, in a heap of rubble, as a testament to all people, even to the criminals who ordered the killing and those who pressed the button.
“I have a poem titled “Shrapnel Looking for Laughter” in my poetry book Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear.
“I wrote this poem during the horrendous 11-day Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2021. It was 1:10 am on May 13, and the Israeli warplanes struck different parts of Gaza with new kinds of bombs. We could hear them being dropped from the planes. Everyone looked into the eyes of those around them as if to say goodbye take care.
It was the same day the Al-Tanani family was massacred.
Here is part of the poem:
“The house has been bombed. Everyone dead:
The kids, the parents, the toys, the actors on TV,
characters in novels, personas in poetry collections,
the I, the he and the she. No pronouns left. Not even
for the kids when they learn parts of speech
next year. Shrapnel flies in the dark
looks for the family’s peals of
laughter hiding behind piles of disfigured
walls and bleeding picture frames.”
Gaza has lost its light but not its heart.
Ira Mathur is a Guardian columnist and the winner of the non-fiction OCM Bocas Prize for Literature 2023. (www.irasroom.org)