Eyes on Gaza

Selma Dabbagh

A photograph by Kegham Djeghalian of his children walking along the beach in Gaza

There were two types of graffiti in Gaza that I identified when I was there in 2012 with the Palestinian Festival of Literature. The siege of Gaza was in its sixth year, and it already felt like an eternity. There was little fuel and the power station had been bombed, making electricity supplies erratic at best. As expected, one type of graffiti consisted of political slogans but the other type – also exuberant and colourful, if not more so – was all about love. Khaled and Mona are to marry! Hearts, hearts, hearts. I am reminded of it as I look at the wedding photographs of dead Gazans put online by their families, and as I watch social media clips of Israeli soldiers rifling through the colourful lingerie left behind in the homes of Gazans who had been killed or forcibly expelled.

More than a million Palestinians have been pushed into Rafah, on the Egyptian border, with the Israeli army hot on their worn-out heels. A sea of tents stretches out in every direction, reminiscent of photographs after the Nakba in 1948, but more chaotic and shabbier. Those who have survived the Israeli bombings – estimated at over 28 kilogrammes of explosives per capita (and these are young heads, with 40 per cent of the population under the age of 14) – are left with nothing but one another and their blankets.

It is an ongoing campaign where the evidence of genocidal intentions could not be clearer, yet it is fading from sight. Why are we not seeing more of it? There is one answer in the complaints by CNN staffers that the broadcaster’s coverage ‘has been skewed by a systemic and institutional bias within the network toward Israel’. Yet despite these allegations, the network has managed to report that some Gazans have been reduced to eating grass and drinking polluted water.

In 2012 I was shown round the Islamic University of Gaza by a man who I have since realised must have been Refaat Alareer, the poet and professor of English who was killed with members of his family two months ago by an Israeli air strike. I have seen the videos of him speaking hours before his death, his face wet with fear. I have heard one of his poems – ‘If I must die/let it bring hope/let it be a story’ – read by the actor Brian Cox after his death. I have been part of theatre events reading his work. I lie awake at night wishing I could go back in time to apologise for not knowing more of who he was, and for what was to become of him and those he loved that we did not avert.

Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur, has called the assault on Gaza ‘the monstrosity of our century’. There is no safe place. The British Army had provided the Israeli military with the co-ordinates of a facility in al-Mawasi, the home of staff from Medical Aid for Palestinians (a British charity) and the International Rescue Committee. It was, as the Conservative MP Alicia Kearns told the House of Commons, a ‘protected, sensitive and humanitarian site’. It was bombed by an Israeli F-16 on 18 January. Four British doctors were injured in the attack.

On 5 February, a food convoy truck waiting to move into northern Gaza was hit by Israeli naval fire. UNRWA funds, never more needed, were cut by the US and UK governments immediately after the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the risk of acts of genocide. Trucks trickle into Gaza in single or double digits, when thousands a day are needed. Many are turned back. Hundreds queue to enter. When people starve, the babies die before the adults. Their mothers are too malnourished to feed them. The numbers of the dead are, in Albanese’s words, ‘unparalleled, unmatched in any other of the current conflicts’.

Another reason we are not seeing more reports in the Western media of atrocities in Gaza is that it is so dangerous for journalists to operate there and hard for international reporters to access, unless embedded with the Israeli army. If you can’t get there, how do you verify the account of, say, thirty blindfolded, handcuffed and tortured bodies that were apparently found in a school in Beit Lahia in the last week of January? There is evidence of Israeli war crimes on the social media accounts of Israeli soldiers themselves, such as the video of a handcuffed Palestinian man stripped to his underwear, blood pouring from what appears to be a bullet wound in his thigh.

The reality in Gaza is outstripping dystopian fiction. Paul Lynch’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Prophet Song, is set in the near future, with Ireland ‘in the grip of a government turning towards tyranny’, according to its publisher’s description. ‘They are lifting people from everywhere now,’ a character says at one point, ‘did you hear the journalist Philip Brophy was taken, a fucking journalist, the NAP have some nerve.’

Since 2021, Forensic Architecture and other groups have been showing how the Pegasus technology developed by NSO, an Israeli company, has been used to track journalists’ phones around the globe, sometimes leading to their assassination. Efforts are being made by Israeli intelligence agencies to increase their legal powers to pry into the lives of journalists with spyware. The veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by a sniper in May 2022. Since last October, the Israeli army has targeted journalists with Spike anti-tank missiles in the sovereign territory of a neighbouring country, showered white phosphorous on a civilian area and killed a young journalist shortly after she uploaded her last video.

The Israeli army has also bombed the home of al-Jazeera correspondent Wael Dahdouh, killing most of his sleeping family. When Dahdouh returned to work, they injured his long-term Palestinian-Belgian colleague, Samer Abudaqa, in a drone strike. Rescue workers were prevented from reaching him for five hours until he bled to death. Dahdouh, wounded in his arm, managed to get to a hospital. Less than a month later they killed Dahdouh’s son, Hamza. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 85 have been killed since 7 October, making this ‘the deadliest period for journalists since CPJ began gathering data in 1992’.

At a vigil in London in late December, the editor-in-chief of the New Arab, Lamis Andoni, decried the disappearance – not arrests, she insisted, they just are taken – of many colleagues at the hands of the Israeli army. Many of these Palestinian journalists, she says, supported and helped Western journalists as their fixers when they were in Gaza. Yet not one op-ed, Andoni said, had appeared in the mainstream British or American press. Arrest? Lynch’s fictional NAP is starting to sound rather quaint.

At the end of last month I went to an event at the Photographers’ Gallery, where the grandson (and namesake) of the Armenian Gazan photographer Kegham Djeghalian (1915-1981) took us through what is left of the archive of Studio Kegham. For many years the studio photographed the lives of the people of Gaza: girls laughing at the beach in 1950s dresses, dances, picnics, Sadat on an official visit, children holding hands beside the sea, group photos of builders, nurses, demonstrators and students on the Mediterranean over the years. Djeghalian’s work also includes the iconic photographs of tents after the Nakba of 1948. The lion’s share of the archive was inherited by Marwan Tarazi, a colleague of Djeghalian’s. Digital records remained in Gaza, in homes understood to have been destroyed. Tarazi was killed together with his wife in the bombing of the Saint Porphyrius Church on 20 October. It is believed that most of the archive and memory of Studio Kegham went with him.