Can you see the avocado?

Sara Roy · A letter to President Biden

Dear Mr President,

When does the death of a Palestinian child become unacceptable? Or perhaps I should ask the question this way: when will you assign a Palestinian life the same sanctity you assign an Israeli one?

Yesterday Israel bombarded the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza. Part of the camp was destroyed and at least a hundred people were killed or injured. My friend the poet Mosab Abu Toha, his wife and children moved to Jabaliya recently after Israel warned them to leave their home in Beit Lahiya, a city north of the camp, because Beit Lahiya would be shelled. It was, and Mosab’s home was destroyed. I have just heard from him after two days of frantic worry. ‘The bombing in Jabaliya camp was just seventy metres away from us,’ he said. ‘A whole neighbourhood was wiped out.’

Jabaliya is a familiar place to me although I haven’t been there in several years. It is the largest of Gaza’s eight refugee camps, with 26 schools, two health centres and a public library. More than 116,000 men, women and children live in an area of 1.4 square kilometres. Do you have any idea what it means to crowd over 100,000 people into half a square mile? Yet, despite the extreme population density, the camp is a vibrant community. What I remember most about my visits to Jabaliya are the children: they were everywhere, laughing and playing. I also loved the bustling markets, which I would visit with my women friends.

I must also tell you that, as a Jew and child of Holocaust survivors, I was welcomed into every home I visited in the camp. In fact, I was embraced. I still have a drawing done for me by the 12-year-old son of a friend of mine who wanted to go to art school in America.

I don’t know if my friends and their families are among those murdered or injured by Israel. But I do know that this is not the first atrocity and it won’t be the last if the barbarity continues to be justified by you and others with the power to stop it. You call for a ‘humanitarian pause’, which I do not understand. What does a pause mean in the middle of such carnage? Does it mean feeding people so they can survive to be killed the next day? How is that humanitarian? How is that humane?

How much more evidence do you need to call the murder of more than eight thousand people, including 3500 children, the destruction of generations of families and the levelling of most of Gaza’s infrastructure – hospitals, schools, homes – a war crime rather than an act of self-defence? Clearly, Israel has killed more civilians in Gaza than Hamas fighters.

And please answer this: how can an occupier claim the right of self-defence against the people it is oppressing, dispossessing, impoverishing and, now, on the verge of starving? It is not self-defence that is being exercised but the desire to expel Palestinians from their homes and annex their land in Gaza and the West Bank. Surely you understand that. But how can you condone it?

The deaths of the 1400 Israeli innocents savagely murdered by Hamas will not be consecrated if Israel and the US abandon all sense of morality and mercy in an effort to avenge them, banishing any lingering notion of a common humanity with Palestinians who are defenceless and unprotected. Is this how Israel intends to ensure the security of its people? Is this how you intend to do so?

Early in this horrific war, Mosab told me about an Israeli air attack on the Jabaliya refugee camp while people were out shopping. Dozens, he said, were killed. He sent me a photograph of the aftermath – bodies lying on the ground with avocados strewn nearby. ‘Can you see the avocado?’ he asked. I can. Can you, President Biden?