Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian lawyer and writer of fiction who lives in London. She is the author of the novel Out of It and the editor of We Wrote In Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers.
It is hard to know where to start when atrocities are being carried out that are outside all rules of engagement you have ever known. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza is comparable in scale to the most devastating warfare in modern history. It is also hard to know where it will end and how disastrous the ramifications will be.
The novelist Mohammed Hanif, speaking at a PalFest event in London, had a warning. Why should governments now in, say, Pakistan go through the rigmarole of taking critical journalists to court if they can just shoot them, or bomb their houses, in the way that Israel—the darling of the West—does? What other armies will take cues from the United States' enabling of Israel's carpet bombing of Gaza, not to mention the use of white phosphorous, unguided "dumb" bombs and 2,000-pound "bunker busters" on dense residential neighborhoods? To explain the scale of this in numbers, Israel dropped 29,000 weapons on Gaza in little over two months. This is almost eight times more munitions than the U.S. dropped on Iraq during the entire period of its destructive war from 2004 to 2010.
Palestinian life in Gaza is being destroyed, right back to the past with the aim of confiscating its future, along with its real estate. The origins of Gaza date back to the 15th century BCE. According to Jean-Pierre Filiu in his seminal book on Gaza, the Greek philosopher Plutarch (c. 46-119 CE) is said to have described it as aromatophora, the dispenser of perfumes, in references to its crucial position on the incense trade route from Yemen and the Indian Ocean. Before this war, Gaza City was the largest Palestinian metropolis, with a population of over 600,000 people, complete with schools, universities, hospitals, businesses, restaurants, cultural centers, bookshops, orchards, olive groves and refugee camps. The city has been decimated by the Israeli military. Israeli soldiers wander around what is left of remaining buildings, posting on social media about new beachfront properties for Israelis.
Palestinian life in Gaza is being destroyed, right back to the past with the aim of confiscating its future.
- Selma Dabbagh
The death toll now tops 22,000 Palestinians, with many more missing under the rubble, but one figure cannot convey the multiplicity of agonizing individual tragedies. In this besieged stretch of land, more than 50,000 injured civilians have nowhere to be treated. An estimated 50,000 pregnant women have nowhere for their babies to be delivered; more than 180 births still take place every day in Gaza wherever they can, according to the United Nations. Israel has bombed hospitals—26 out of 35 are now non-functional since the Israeli military assault began—reducing the few left standing to little more than first-aid clinics at best, where doctors use soap as a disinfectant, if they can even find it. At least 300 health care workers and more than 100 U.N aid workers have been killed—mostly in Israeli air strikes on their homes— with at least 100 Palestinian journalists also killed.
The Palestinians of Gaza are not only young—half the population is under 18—but they are also trapped and defenseless, having lived under a debilitating land, sea and air blockade for 17 years. This is not just a humanitarian crisis, but this is a humanitarian crisis on a vast scale. This is a political, man-made disaster. This is mass torture of a people. This is genocide, as Craig Mokhiber, the senior United Nations human rights official, stated in his cogent resignation letter: the erasure of a group of people in whole or in part. At the very least, this is running an extremely high risk of becoming a genocide, which in itself triggers responsibilities on the 153 signatories to the Genocide Convention of 1948 to act to prevent it. In early December, Israeli soldiers paraded tied-up Palestinians in their underwear through Gaza's destroyed streets—a staged "surrender" that included university lecturers, doctors and other civilians. Their flesh pressed against each other as they were made to crouch in lines outside shuttered shop fronts and squeezed into trucks like skinned cattle.
Those who are not taken away by the Israeli army are pushed further south by it. Most of Gaza's population, a staggering 1.9 million people, are now internally displaced, many of them penned into a tiny area close to Rafah, near the border with Egypt. It may be crammed with new refugees, but this pocket of southern Gaza is far from being a refuge. The children and grandchildren of refugees forced out of their homes hustle for flour in hungry, thirsty, crowded streets. And throughout it all, the bombardment continues, with the Israeli government calling for more weapons. More! We need more! "We need three things from the U.S.," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands, "munitions, munitions and munitions." And the U.S. eagerly complies, skipping on occasion, as it did on Dec. 9, Congressional review for emergency sale of 14,000 tank shells to Israel.
According to Israeli commentators, their leader is a dead man walking. Once the war stops, the court cases against Netanyahu for corruption will start to bite, along with the eventual inquiry into the security failures that led to Hamas's attack on his watch. In such circumstances, there is little personal incentive to stop one of the heaviest aerial bombing campaigns in history. Killing Palestinians is a winning political ticket in Israel for now. Since Oct. 7, opinion polls show the Israeli public is more hawkish than ever, with under 25 percent in favor of negotiations with Palestinians
In mid-October, a senior official in the U.S. State Department, Josh Paul, resigned in protest over "expanded and expedited" U.S. arms transfers to Israel, which he called "short-sighted, destructive, unjust and contradictory to the very values we publicly espouse." His concerns were not limited to the lack of justice for Palestinians, but for the broader implications with regards to U.S. foreign policy. International lawyers are dusting off conventions that have—happily—rarely been called upon since they were drafted in the aftermath of World War II, such as the Genocide Convention, which contains obligations not just to punish and prevent the act of genocide, but also complicity in it. Lawyers are also examining provisions, thought to belong to bygone eras, reminiscent of Stalingrad, that define starvation as a war crime.
But there are other lawyers, including those with human rights specializations, such as the leader of Britain's Labour Party and likely future British prime minister, who conveniently forget everything they ever advocated for. Sir Keir Starmer is on the record saying in an interview in October that Israel "has the right" to cut off power and water supplies to Gaza—a position he rightfully argued against at the International Court of Justice when working on international crimes in the former Yugoslavia (he called the Serb siege of Vukovar a case of genocide). Starmer later denied making his statement about Gaza in the first place.
Those who are not taken away by the Israeli army are pushed further south by it. Most of Gaza's population, a staggering 1.9 million people, are now internally displaced.
- Selma Dabbagh
At the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. has vetoed resolutions calling for a cease-fire. It finally abstained from a "compromise resolution" on Gaza that was ultimately too watered-down to demand anything of Israel at all. Josh Paul is not alone in pointing out the damage done with this disastrous U.S. policy. Joe Biden, the "America is back" president, looks increasingly isolated internationally. Countries in the Global South are taking steps to reassert themselves against Western double standards.
It is no accident that it was South Africa, in late December, that filed an application instituting proceeding against Israel before the International Court of Justice for alleged violations of its obligations under the Genocide Convention. South Africa's case accuses Israel of trying "to destroy Palestinians in Gaza" with specific, genocidal intent: "Israel has engaged in, is engaging in and risks further engaging in genocidal acts against the Palestinian people in Gaza." The U.S. dismissed the case as "meritless."
South Africans understand apartheid better than anyone—the system of racial segregation and oppression that ruled South Africa until the early 1990s, and the system of oppression in Israel that privileges Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians today. They also understand that any discrimination based on race, religion or ethnicity has no future and needs to be rooted out at source, if the system of justice so painstakingly assembled in the last century has any hope of survival.