Blood and Numbers

Selma Dabbagh

‘I can start with saying it is an unbearable situation in terms of dignity,’ my friend Marwa says in one of the voice notes she leaves me from her tent in Deir al-Balah. ‘Today you caught me on a good day. Today I want to talk. It is not usually easy for me to express this’ – the sound of a drone cuts in – ‘pain.’

Marwa lived through shelling in Gaza City with her daughters. In late November, she walked for ten hours, through bombed-out buildings and dead bodies, to get her daughters to safety with their father in Jordan. She returned to Gaza to resume her work with a humanitarian organisation earlier this year.

You start the day with trying to find drinkable water. You will find all the women from different classes and all the men from different social statuses looking for water. And the ones who will win? The practical ones. You see boys of five, six, seven years old lifting I don’t know how much water. I was thinking they will not grow up in terms of their height or weight. It is a long, long distance they walk.

Before the war in Gaza, more than 75 per cent of the people were unemployed and you can imagine after the war. You want to rent one room with a bathroom, but sometimes without, you can turn a room into a bathroom. This would cost not less than US$700 a month and this is if you can find one. Myself, I have a ‘bedouin queen tent’, as my head of mission calls it. It is plastic, very hot in summer, but it is a private tent. Most people they have tents made of fabric or material that they have stayed in for months. Now they are torn. In the winter it was awful. In the summer, they turn the tents in different directions to avoid the sun. Sometimes you will find them sitting in front of the tents because of the wind. The night is cold.

It’s hard to write, when there has been a massacre almost every day this week. How to make sense of blood and numbers? I am not living it, but even witnessed from afar, it feels like a layer of tar in the gut. The mind gags.

‘I was writing these pieces every day because I wanted others to know what was happening, I wanted there to be a chronicle of events in case I died,’ Atef Abu Seif writes in Don’t Look Left: A Diary of Genocide, which covers the period from 7 October to 30 December. ‘As the war continues, I can only think of survival. I cannot mourn. I cannot recover. My pain has to be postponed. My sorrow delayed.’ On a literary panel in Ferrara in 2018, Abu Seif spoke of his grandmother in Jaffa opening her home to Jewish refugees during the years of the British Mandate. He was born in Jabaliya refugee camp. On 31 May, it was reported that Jabaliya had been reduced to ‘a lifeless pile of rubble’, ‘unrecognisable’ after a twenty-day Israeli siege and bombardment.

‘In the south,’ Marwa says, ‘we are bourgeoise compared to the north.’ She has had bronchitis for weeks now but does not want to accept the tea that people offer her, knowing how much the gas costs to heat the water. Everything must be saved. Even if you have water, it is hard to use it, knowing others have none.

‘People are getting ill,’ Marwa says in another note. ‘You are forced to lose your standards of hygiene. Things you never thought you were capable of losing. You lose your principles, criteria, red lines.’ She sighs:

Anyway, ten days ago or so, I went to sleep with my cousin in Deir al-Balah in a school. I was sitting with a lot of women and a woman of say 35 said: ‘We are adapting for sure we are adapting, but as we are doing so, we are losing something beautiful in our souls.’

She repeats the phrase in Arabic.

There was a day in early May when news of a ceasefire agreed by Hamas was met with rejoicing in the streets of Gaza, only for the celebrations to be followed by more shelling. On 24 May, the International Court of Justice said that Israel ‘must immediately halt its military offensive and any other action in the Rafah Governorate’. On 26 May the Israeli Air Force bombed a displacement camp in Rafah, the small southern town where 1.3 million Gazans (of the former total of 2.3 million) had sought shelter in a ‘humanitarian safe zone’. The attack killed up to fifty people and injured a further two hundred. Fires ripped through the camp. A father held up the headless body of his eighteen-month-old child, Ahmed al-Najar.

On 20 May, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that his office was seeking arrest warrants for Israel’s prime minister and defence minister for potential war crimes. On 28 May, the Guardian reported that Israeli spy chiefs had threatened the previous ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, as part of a ‘nine-year war’ on the institution. This was not news to lawyers working on Palestine-related cases at the ICC. Speaking at an Amnesty International event on apartheid in June 2022, Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, mentioned Bensouda’s refusal to be intimidated by visits from ‘ambassadors’ to her home in the Hague. ‘Brave woman,’ he repeated with emphasis.

Sourani himself showed more than a small amount of bravery when he escaped from the rubble of his bombed home in Tal al-Hawa, Gaza in October 2023. Interviewed shortly afterwards, Sourani, a recipient of several international human rights awards, criticised the ‘colonial, racist West’ for supporting Israel ‘by all ways and means … they are complicit … politically and militarily.’

Last week, the US House of Representatives voted to impose sanctions on the ICC for its pursuit of Israeli officers. Less than a year ago, in August 2023, President Biden directed US agencies to share evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine with the ICC. ‘Colonial, racist West’ is not a term used lightly by someone of Sourani’s stature. It is not a hysterical slogan. International institutions are being contorted out of recognition by the demand for the exceptional treatment of Israel. Last week’s vote in Washington occurred within hours of Israel’s bombing of a UN school in Nuseirat refugee camp, where six thousand Palestinians had sought shelter, killing over forty people.

On Saturday, Nuseirat was attacked again when the Israeli army invaded it. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, the soldiers disguised themselves as humanitarian workers, using aid trucks. The US denied the use of the $320 million ‘humanitarian pier’ in the attack. More than 270 Palestinians, mainly women and children, were killed, with over seven hundred wounded. ‘No one mentions the massacre today, the intestines protruding from the body of a boy in the street, the scalp dangling from the head of a girl in a hospital, the legless old man with his damaged bike next to him,’ the poet Mosab Abu Toha wrote on X of the killings described by the Times as a ‘surgical strike’.

Four Israeli hostages were freed. All were said to be in good health. Barely functioning medical facilities struggled to treat the Palestinian wounded. Two of the World Food Programme’s warehouses were bombed, leading them to pause aid to Gaza through the pier. The UN agency had already, a month previously, on 4 May, announced that the north of Gaza was facing ‘full blown famine’, which was ‘moving its way south’.

‘I think the catastrophe, the nakba here,’ Marwa says in another voice note, ‘is not just that we have an enemy with very advanced weapons. It is also that the people here believe they are alone. They believe that in every other war, people have been able to move to safe places, to secure their kids, but here … it will be the end for the people.’