One Tick, Two Ticks

Selma Dabbagh

My first action on waking is to look at my phone. Press the green WhatsApp icon and hope for two blue ticks. One grey tick is a precursor of death. Two grey ticks are arguably worse. They mean that communications have been live, but your friend may not be.

‘Essentially, Gaza is being subjected to a feudal siege,’ Sam Rose of the UNRWA told the House of Commons International Development Committee on Tuesday. ‘We have never seen anything like it.’ Electricity and fuel supplies were cut immediately. The energy system has collapsed. ‘Fuel is needed absolutely critically, because without that nothing can happen, without that the desalination plants cannot work, without that the bakeries cannot bake bread. The communications run out.’ There are people walking around with jerry cans looking for water. There isn’t cooking oil, there isn’t rice. The amount of assistance getting in isn’t enough to get to those communities anyway. Communicable diseases are spreading.

‘We are seeing people slowly start to starve,’ said Shaina Low of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Fifty per cent of the housing has been damaged or destroyed. ‘The numbers have become so large and fluid,’ Rose said, ‘on a scale that we have never seen before.’ Even in 2021, according to a Save the Children report, 80 per cent of children were living with depression, fear and grief. And this is Gaza, where half the population are under the age of 18.

‘This is a manmade humanitarian catastrophe,’ said Yasmine Ahmed, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, ‘a direct result of the Israeli government imposing an absolute siege.’ She continued:

As Human Rights Watch, we say that, certainly, what Hamas did were war crimes … but international humanitarian law is very clear. The act or commission of a violation or a war crime does not give the other party permissibility to commit war crimes and violations themselves. We are very clear in saying that what we have seen so far is collective punishment of the entire Palestinian population in Gaza for the unlawful acts of Hamas, and that collective punishment is a war crime.

Last Sunday I went to a Gaza solidarity event. All 550 seats were sold to a young, diverse crowd. We watched the film 200 Metres, which tells the story of a man who cannot be with his wife and children because he has a West Bank identity card and they have Jerusalem IDs. They communicate over the eight-metre-high separation wall by flashing lights from their balconies. Every day, permits allowing, he passes through checkpoints for work. I have been turned back from the Israeli border twice in my life and interrogated three times. Once for seven hours. The Israeli officer on that last occasion said: ‘If you ever act against an Israeli soldier, we will get you wherever you live.’ It was a fairly clear threat. But, relatively, it was nothing. I am a Privileged Palestinian with a capital P.

My friends in Gaza are not close in terms of the amount of contact I have with them, but they are important in terms of the influence they had on me. I found them exceptional. They had, as I saw it, the ability to make things happen that they were told were impossible. Some of the men had learned how to cook in prison, lying on their bunks, stringing out for days each stage in the flavouring and treatment of, for example, Sultan Ibrahim (red mullet). ‘Sometimes we burned toilet rolls in prison,’ the former cell mate of a friend told me, ‘to warm our food. It was fun.’ He grinned. His teeth were not good, but I liked the sentiment.

There is a TikTok trend in Israel at the moment to dress up as an Arab (keffiyeh, head scarf, shapeless stuff), black out a couple of teeth with eyeliner, cover your face with grey powder, carry a fake baby and wail. ‘We need something to laugh about. Can’t believe I got my mother to dress up for this one!’ Crying with laughter emoji.

In recent weeks, I have been receiving requests to speak about international humanitarian law. There is a particular interest in hospitals and the question of when do they lose their protected status. When can Israel attack or bomb a hospital in an acceptable way? ‘God it’s awful how much is lawful,’ an affable international humanitarian law professor said at the start of a webinar. The chat soon filled with questions about hospitals. But there’s a bunker. When can they get at that?

Forget the documented expulsion of 1.7 million people, the dropping of six thousand bombs a week on an area of 350 km2, the evidence of the use of white phosphorous, of the killing of journalists, healthworkers, UN staff, children, the elderly, those with disabilities. Disregard the reports of the targeting of people fleeing, as ordered, to the south of Gaza. Ignore also the evidence of the bombing of schools, churches, mosques and residential apartment blocks. Ignore the declarations by IDF spokesmen that the emphasis is on damage not accuracy. Forget the angry suggestion by the former prime minister Naftali Bennett that there is something wrong with anyone who asks about Palestinian civilians. Forget the promise by the Israeli heritage minister to ‘distribute plots to all those who fought for Gaza over the years’. Who cares, when there is said to be a labyrinth of evil down an elevator shaft under a crumbling health facility?

I have a friend, Ghassan Abu Sitta, who left London to work as a doctor at Shifa Hospital. He is the closest thing I have to a brother. We went to school together in Kuwait. He is godfather to my children, was a witness at my wedding. We lived together once in Dalston. When the communications go down, my WhatsApp messages to him are sometimes no more than a red beating heart, as I know he has no time to respond to anything longer. And I have no words after reading the accounts I’ve been sent from doctors describing operating on children whose bodies have been pulled from the rubble filled with maggots.

On 8 November I woke to a forwarded WhatsApp message from Dr Tayser Hanan, a surgeon at the Indonesian hospital in Gaza. ‘The type of injuries we are seeing is not something the human mind can accept or tolerate,’ he wrote. ‘Honestly, patients are not receiving the minimum care, we have no team capacity, no room capacity, no fuel, no water and no medications and no hygiene.’ My pulsating emojis hang in the ether, held back by an ashen grey tick, indicating a refusal to let them land.

I move around London with unease in my gut. Every time I turn a tap on, I wonder what it’s like in those flats without water for cooking or washing, unable to flush toilets. How bad does it smell? How does it feel not to sleep because of forty days and forty nights of bombing, to eat dried lentils and know your neighbours are dead, to huddle under a stairwell waiting for your turn? ‘If only death could come a bit more slowly,’ a friend’s 17-year-old daughter wrote in a poem that her mother sent me from Gaza City. ‘Then I could prepare.’

I start to understand how it may have felt eighty or ninety years ago, for those who escaped Germany to wait in flats like the one I live in in North-West London, having left others behind. I imagine being that survivor, watching others in cafés and pubs, walking their children to school. Since the 1930s onwards these mansion blocks have contained residents terrified to let go of hope, or guilt. The families of the hostages must be feeling this too.

If you are given a number to describe the dead (and here we should, out of respect for common humanity, include everyone from the river to the sea), 13,000 or 15,000 say, I find it helps to be particular. To visualise the births that were given, the bottoms that were wiped, the teeth that were brushed, the school bags that were packed, the stomachs that were filled, the buttons that were fastened, the certificates that were achieved, the nails that were clipped, the skins that were cleansed, the cheeks that were shaved, the calls that were received, the hands that were held, the jokes that were shared, the necks that were kissed, the love that was made, the shoulders that were slept on, the dreams that were dreamed and the hearts that were heard.