Friday, January 2, 2009

Land, Sea, Sky: All Will Kill You - Karma Nabulsi

The Guardian, January 3 - 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."....

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."

Karma Nabulsi is an Oxford academic and a former PLO representative.

Full article available at the link.

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