Selma Dabbagh

Last December, the Israeli actress and TV presenter Tzufit Grant described Palestinians in Gaza as ‘disgusting, stinky losers, walking with flip-flops. Repulsive people.’ Flip-flops and other cheap footwear undoubtedly exist in Gaza – a friend of mine who travelled there with a team of volunteer doctors from the UK told me he had met men in Rafah who were out looking for food supplies and ‘wearing slippers’; many of them spoke excellent English; some had worked as university professors until last October – but as with previous genocides, Grant’s language is part of a dehumanising discourse that helps to make killing at such a scale, and in such a visible way, possible.

The political economy of the Gazan flip-flop is calculated in its root causes. Sara Roy’s work has demonstrated how Gaza’s economy has been stifled since the time of the British Mandate, a process exacerbated by first Egypt’s and then Israel’s occupation. The nail in the coffin was the land, sea and air blockade that Israel imposed in 2007, placing Gaza under siege, severing its economic links with Israel and strong ties to the West Bank, turning it into an isolated enclave where the free movement of labour, material or expertise was impossible. The process of debilitation was deliberate, Roy argues. Even before the destruction of the last six months, the water was undrinkable, the sewage was becoming untreatable and the building materials almost impossible to replace.

Prior to the current onslaught, 70 per cent of Gaza’s population were refugees or the descendants of refugees. Approximately half of all Palestinian refugees are stateless. Sixteen years ago, Atif Kubursi, an economist at McMaster University, estimated that the total Palestinian property losses from the 1948 Nakba amounted to nearly $300 billion at 2008 values.

As I’ve heard Avi Shlaim point out on numerous panels, citing Sara Roy, the reason Gaza is poor is not that Palestinians are lazy. According to Unicef, ‘a full 86 per cent of Palestinian children – and an impressive 94 per cent of Palestinian young women – complete basic education by age twenty,’ although no children in Gaza have been able to attend school since November. (Last week, an Israeli officer mocked the destruction of one of the two hundred schools that has suffered a direct hit in Gaza: ‘Everything is destroyed. There’s no school this week in Al-Amal, Khan Younis … there’s no school!’)

There’s no shortage of innovation among Palestinians in Gaza either. The demand to rebuild following the 2008-9 bombardment was immense but the supply of cement was cut, so a Gazan engineer developed an alternative and built his own factory. ‘We examined various types of soil in Gaza and found a suitable type rich in natural welding materials,’ he told the New Civil Engineer. ‘The strong cohesion begins after it is used and continues to solidify for hundreds of years.’

Problems with sanitation and organic waste, as well as shortages of electricity and cooking fuel after the bombing of Gaza’s power plant in 2009, led to the development of partial solutions based on biogas. Innovation in the West Bank, where geothermal technologies are being developed to reduce the cost of energy (among the highest in the Middle East and North Africa), is being stifled by Israel’s refusing entry to Palestinian expertise from the diaspora.

There was also innovation in forms of non-violent resistance. In 2011, twelve thousand kites were flown in one day in Gaza, setting a world record. In 2018, the Great March of Return began, with unarmed Palestinians walking towards their ancestral homes, demanding an end to the blockade, only to be cut down by heavy Israeli sniper fire from the border fences.

‘From the kind of ammunition used and the body areas that were targeted,’ according to Ghassan Abu Sitta, a surgeon who treated some of the wounded, ‘the aim was to maim, to produce the kinds of injuries that would both incapacitate the health system and turn the able bodies of these young men into burdens on their families.’ Despite the tens of thousands of injuries and more than two hundred deaths, at least ten thousand people continued to march to the border every Friday for nearly two years.

Since last October, at least 33,000 people have been killed in Gaza, including more than 13,800 children. The boy who was filmed lying on his parents’ grave, which he returns to daily, stroking the mounds of sand that cover their remains, is one of at least 17,000 unaccompanied Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip.

According to ReliefWeb, more than 1500 Palestinians have been killed, injured or are reported missing as a result of the massacre at al-Shifa Hospital last month: ‘Euro-Med Monitor is able to confirm from its initial investigation and testimonies that hundreds of dead bodies, including some burned, and others with their heads and limbs severed, have been discovered.’ Among the dead may be the people who wrote on the walls of the hospital: ‘By God, mother, I am exhausted. But praise be to Allah anyway, by God’s will, we will get out’; ‘Oh mother, I long for you to wipe away the tears gathering on my cheeks’; ‘If the pain I am feeling befell a mountain, by God, it would crumble.’

‘For the sake of humanity,’ the UN secretary general, António Guterres, has pleaded since the beginning of the onslaught, an appeal which the US and the UK only now appear to be hearing at all. Though many of the killers are not human at all, but artificial intelligence mechanisms: according to an investigation by +972 magazine, programmes with names such as ‘Lavender’ and ‘Where’s Daddy?’ have been used to produce kill lists and track targets. ‘The IDF bombed them in homes without hesitation, as a first option,’ an Israeli intelligence officer told the reporters. ‘It’s much easier to bomb a family’s home. The system is built to look for them in these situations.’

‘You don’t want to waste expensive bombs on unimportant people,’ another intelligence officer said. You can save money by dropping cheaper bombs that obliterate entire buildings and kill families and neighbours as ‘collateral damage’: ‘unimportant people’; ‘stinky losers’ in flip-flops.

No matter how sophisticated an army may be, it’s a stinky business killing people. The smell of decomposing bodies was commented on by World Health Organisation staff entering al-Shifa, which they described as ‘an empty shell with human graves’. Two American surgeons who arrived in Gaza on 25 March wrote that they were ‘immediately overwhelmed by the overflown sewage and the distinct smell of gunpowder in the air’. Speaking of treating children with no surviving family members, they write:

we have not had the heart to tell these children how their families died: burnt until they resembled blistered hotdogs more than human beings, shredded to pieces such that they can only be buried in mass graves, or simply entombed in their former apartment buildings to die slowly of asphyxia and sepsis.

‘During this time of year, I was supposed to be finishing up my third year of college. Instead, I just lived through six months of genocide,’ the young journalist Hossam Shabat wrote on 7 April.

What skills did I learn during those six months? I learned how to cook and bake over fire and wood, I learned to make meals with just tomato sauce and water, I learned the smell of decomposed bodies, how to maximise space to bury too many bodies.

Last November, I mentioned a friend who was trapped in Gaza City with her daughters. They managed to leave in mid-November, walking for ten hours to get to the Rafah crossing, past burnt out buildings and dead bodies. She returned to Gaza last month as a humanitarian aid worker. (According to the Aid Worker Security Database, Israel has killed over two hundred aid workers in Gaza in the past six months, more than the total killed worldwide in any year since the AWSD started counting in 1997.) She has left her daughters with their father in a neighbouring Arab country where they struggle with bureaucracy to find school places.