Razing and erasing Gaza

18 February 2024
Jerome Small

There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one’s native land


Israel’s war aims are clear enough. The course followed by its military over the past four months was laid out on 12 October by Giora Eiland, an influential former military officer and former head of the Israeli National Security Council:

“Israel needs to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, compelling tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Egypt or the Gulf ... The entire population of Gaza will either move to Egypt or move to the Gulf ... Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.”

To drive a whole people out of their land—to turn it into something akin to the Zionist myth of Palestine, supposedly “a land without a people for a people without a land”—requires many things. Most obviously, it requires the killing and terrorising of Palestinian people on a colossal scale.

So a six-year-old girl, Hind Rajab, was left trapped in a car full of corpses, pleading for help over a mobile phone from among the dead bodies of family members killed by Israel’s military in northern Gaza. Yusuf Al-Zeino and Ahmed Al-Madhou were the two paramedics sent to rescue Hind in a Palestine Red Crescent Society ambulance, after clearance from the Israeli army. They were found dead, days later, in the wreckage of their ambulance—killed by Israeli forces.

Israel’s army multiplies these deaths, many thousands of times, over weeks and months. But that’s not enough to destroy a people and drive them from their land. That also requires the smashing of every collective institution that makes up society. Central to this project is smashing the hospitals.

Al Jazeera’s news feed on 9 February carried stories of Israeli snipers shooting dead at least seventeen people at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis and surrounds, and of a raid on the Palestine Red Crescent Society in al-Amal Hospital after a nineteen-day siege; quoted the head of the World Health Organization saying that the Al Awda hospital in northern Gaza had been bombed two times; reported that Israel’s military had detained ambulance crews in Nablus in the West Bank, leading to the death of an injured man, and that Israeli tanks were shelling the al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City.

There’s a method here.

Accounts of the Palestinian resistance to occupation from 1967 often refer to Sumud or “steadfastness”. Under this banner, every institution of Palestinian society, including the health services, became a rallying point for a community sustaining itself as an act of resistance to military occupation.

Degrading the capacity for this steadfastness, by utterly destroying the health system, also destroys places of refuge being used by tens of thousands of Palestinians. And these acts create terror by demonstrating Israel’s impunity. All of this serves the purpose of destroying Palestinian society. So does destroying 378 schools—60 percent of the total in Gaza. So does destroying or substantially damaging all twelve of the universities in the territory.

And the mosques. Estimates of the number of mosques destroyed by Israel in Gaza start at more than 100. One of them is the oldest mosque in Gaza, the Omari Grand Mosque in Gaza’s Old City. Photos from before Israel’s attack show a vast, blue-carpeted building with marble columns. The building is the most historic in all of Gaza. Built as a pagan temple, it was converted into a Christian church 1,600 years ago, then to a mosque, then back to a church, then to a mosque again. It now lies in ruins.

It’s no surprise that Palestine, the birthplace of Christianity, is home to some of the oldest churches on the planet. When Israel’s onslaught started after 7 October, many of these churches became places of refuge and, soon after, places of death.

St Porphyrius Greek Orthodox church is 1,600 years old—perhaps the third oldest church in the world. Many of Gaza’s Christian community gathered there for refuge. On 18 October, Israel bombed the church compound, collapsing a ceiling and killing eighteen people.

Ibrahim Al-Souri was one of the survivors. “We thought we would be protected by the church, but unfortunately the brutal Israeli occupation does not differentiate”, he told Al Jazeera. “They have targeted churches, mosques and hospitals. There is no safe place.”

We should mention the beach. Many accounts of Gaza talk of the beach being a haven, even in a city under siege. But within days of Israel’s attack starting, the ice cream trucks that once lined Gaza’s beach on a summer day were needed to store corpses as the morgues quickly overflowed. A site of humanity, warmth and respite has been turned by Israel into a scene of horror—like Gaza as a whole.

Even the Gaza Zoo has been a target. A short clip on Al Jazeera during the brief, late-November “pause” in Israel’s onslaught shows a zookeeper explaining that anyone who attempted to get through to feed the animals had been shot at by Israeli forces. The celebrated Palestinian poet and academic Refaat Alareer makes a cameo in his capacity as a volunteer for the Gaza municipality, showing us around the starving, starved and desperate animals.

Just a week later, Refaat Alareer was dead—the victim of a targeted bombing that also killed his sister, brother and four children. Destroying a people, it seems, means murdering a people’s most beloved poets.

Then there’s the food. Laila El-Haddad is a Palestinian author, activist and culinary figure living in the United States. Her book The Gaza Kitchen was published in 2012, documenting and celebrating the distinctive food of Gazastrong on dill, chillies, red tahini and lots of roasting and pan searing, it seemsas well as that food’s political economy, from the restrictions on fishing to Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s strawberry and tomato industries.

In 2013, El-Haddad showed celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain around Gaza for an episode of his Parts Unknown series. At one point, Bourdain and El-Haddad ate an extraordinary looking, elaborate meal of roast green watermelon salad. “Here we are about 35 minutes away from Gaza City”, explained El-Haddad. “Ask anyone in Gaza City if they’ve ever heard of this dish—and it’s no. So even in an area as small as Gaza, you see this really wide variation.”

To serve Israel’s war aims, the means to produce the elaborate, distinctive dishes of the different parts of Gaza face destruction—along with the means of sustaining life itself as deliberately created starvation is used to create the humanitarian catastrophe that is central to Israel’s war aims.

A recent report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says 488 agricultural wells have been damaged in Gaza since October, along with a third of all irrigated cropland, more than a quarter of the orchards and 262 hectares of the greenhouses that are often used to grow watermelons.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, El-Haddad discusses Israel’s ever-growing squeeze on Gaza’s food supply and quotes Henry Kissinger: “Control oil, and you control nations; control food, and you control people”.

And yet, so far Israel hasn’t attained its objective. Despite an extraordinary level of destruction and death, the United Nations estimates that 300,000 Palestinians are still living the northern Gaza Strip.

On 8 February, Israel’s army withdrew from the as-Salam neighbourhood in eastern Jabalia, near Gaza City. It left absolute devastation. A resident of the area told Al Jazeera that there’s “not a single habitable house” left. “Nothing was spared. Land, houses and trees were all destroyed. Nothing is habitable, but we will remain steadfast and unwavering with our strong determination.”

Faced with steadfastness of this order, Israel has only one approach: more death, more destruction and (if it’s possible) mass expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine. The future is unwritten. But so far, Israel shows no sign of relenting from the destruction of Palestinian society. Israel’s allies, including Australia and the US, while murmuring shallow nothings about human rights, show no sign of acting to stop it.

To erase a people, their past must be erased. Of the 325 significant archaeological sites in Gaza, 200 are reported to have been damaged or destroyed by Israel’s military. The fate of one of these, the site of the ancient port of Anthedon just a few kilometres north of Gaza City, has been documented in a detailed report published by the organisation Forensic Architecture.

Anthedon was an important city of the ancient Hellenistic world. Roman temples, mosaic floors, Byzantine graves and Iron Age earthen walls dot the area. The site was submitted by the Palestinian Authority for consideration for World Heritage listing in 2012.

It “has now been mostly destroyed in the Israeli invasion of Gaza” according to Forensic Architecture’s report—through a combination of bombardment, surface-level demolition and military earthworks.

In 2019, journalists from National Public Radio in the US visited Gaza and compiled a story on some of the extraordinary buildings still in daily use. NPR’s mini-tourist guide included a functioning public bathhouse originally run by members of the ancient Samaritan religion, restored in the year 1320 and still a popular facility in 2019. It is now a pile of rubble.

In fact, all but one of the significant sites visited by NPR in 2019 have been destroyed. The 800-year-old Pasha’s Palace, once the seat of local power for the Ottoman and Mamluk rulers of Palestine. The Old Town Antique Store. The Al Salam fish restaurant on the waterfront. The Al-Mathaf Hotel in Gaza City, formerly packed with antiquities, is now a burnt-out wreck scattered with shattered stones and tiles.

NPR sent photos of the damage to Jawdat Khoudary, the owner of the hotel, who is now in Egypt. “I am crying blood from a broken heart”, he replied via text. “A house can be rebuilt, a son can be born, but when history is erased, it is difficult to restore.”

A great crime is under way. Israel continues its project of destroying an entire people—their present and their past, as well as their future.

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