Hope from Nothing

Selma Dabbagh

One of the pieces in the recent retrospective of Barbara Kruger’s work at the Serpentine Gallery is an image of a woman’s divided face, with the slogan ‘your body is a battleground’ taped across it in red. Since October, women’s bodies have been blasted across the killing fields of Gaza and trapped under its rubble. In November 2023, Atef Abu Seif witnessed efforts to rescue a teenage girl. ‘She looked like she was asleep,’ he wrote:

Certainly when the attack happened, she was sleeping. She was wearing a red tracksuit. Her body was laid out. Her left hand lay on her chest. She struck me for a moment like a character from a fairy tale; like sleeping beauty. The concrete ceiling had fallen on her and pinned her to the bed. The men kept scraping out rubble from the sides so as to release the body. They performed this act with utmost care, as if they didn’t want to wake her from her deep sleep.

‘Feminists, where the hell have you been?’ Hala Hanina, a Palestinian PhD student in the UK, whose work focuses on activism to combat domestic violence in Gaza, asked in an Instagram reel in February: ‘Can you name one of the eight thousand Palestinian women who have been killed in the last four months in Gaza?’

In May, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that ‘women, girls and children overall are among those most exposed to danger in this conflict’:

as of 29 April 2024, of 34,488 Palestinians killed in Gaza, 14,500 have been children and 9500 women. Another 77,643 have reportedly been injured, of which 75 per cent are estimated to be female. Over eight thousand others are reported missing or under the rubble – and the experts noted that at least half of them can be assumed to be women and children.

Hanina’s Instagram reel shows a series of photographs of women and girls, with mortar boards or certificates, in karate poses, by the sea on balconies, smiling, laughing and very much alive. ‘Women and girls are enduring unimaginable pain,’ Hanina says, ‘having their limbs amputated, having C-sections without any kind of anaesthesia or after-delivery care, being widowed, having their kids killed in front of their eyes. If you know about all of that and you don’t move, how could you be a feminist?’

Femicide is defined as the intentional killing of women and girls because of their gender. Nearly three-quarters of those killed in Israel’s war on Gaza have been women and children, not to mention the thousands of embryos destroyed when Gaza’s fertility clinic was bombed in December. In January, the UN Population Fund reported that 180 women are giving birth each day in Gaza, while reproductive health kits are prevented from entering.

In an interview with Ghada Karmi in March, Hanina decried the lack of response by feminists globally to the UN report that documented the sexual abuse of Palestinian women by Israeli soldiers. She spoke of a friend who was forced to deliver her baby under bombardment, in the rubble. She was unable to cut the umbilical cord as they could find nothing sharp, and had to walk for six hours to get to a health facility to cut the cord.

A few days ago I received a voice message from my friend Marwa in Gaza:

The last evacuation order, around 200,000 people were asked to be evacuated from Khan Younis and the neighbourhood. Can you imagine? You just wake up and all there is: did you find a place, did you find a place, did you find a place? My niece, my brother’s youngest daughter still she was not able to find a place till now since yesterday at 5 p.m. when the order of the evacuation came. Literally, the majority of people are sleeping on the street and this is all of a sudden like Shujayia City [where sixty thousand Palestinians were displaced on 29 June]. It is beyond the imagination. All of a sudden most of the neighbourhood of Khan Yunis received the order after they [Israeli forces] have already entered and done all of what they did and now asking again and most of their people want to take all of their luggage, they think when they come back, they [Israeli forces] will have destroyed everything.

In an earlier voice note from her tent in Deir el Balah, Marwa says that Gaza was once known for its agricultural produce, its fish, its grapes, its wine:

Gaza is 365 square kilometres which is 1 per cent of historic Palestine, 6 per cent of the Occupied Territories and the majority of people are in this district. I gave a brief to one of the international staff, it is one of my duties, and she said 365? Like the number of days of the year, which I had never thought of before. You can imagine all the people in this area. It is unbelievable how much they have suffered while people just listen: one generation, two generations and they know we are not the ones who started this. This is not October 7th.

On 27 May, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territories including East Jerusalem and Israel published its report into ‘possible international crimes committed by all parties between 7 October and 31 December 2023’. The introduction stressed the need for context:

These events were preceded by decades of violence, unlawful occupation and Israel’s denial of the Palestinians right to self-determination, manifested in continuous forced displacement, dispossession, exploitation of natural resources, blockade, settlement construction and expansion and systematic discrimination and oppression of the Palestinian people.

Despite the high levels of ‘complex continuous trauma’ that Palestinian children in Gaza lived with even before October 2023, and the repeated destruction of educational facilities (after the 2014 bombardment, school was delayed for 475,000 children and 180 of Gaza’s 690 schools needed ‘extensive reconstruction’), the adult literacy rate among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is close to 98 per cent, and the number of postgraduate degrees higher than most other countries in the region. By April, all of Gaza’s universities had been destroyed.

In May, staff at Birkbeck, University of London published an open letter in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement:

From October 2023 up until the time of writing, at least 95 university professors, and hundreds of school teachers and educators have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza; all twelve universities in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed, along with well over three hundred schools and colleges, as well as cultural centres, archives, libraries, and museums. Universities in the West Bank have also been targets of violence and disruption, operating entirely online since October, with students and staff subject to settler violence and arrest or detention by Israeli forces. We write in response to calls for solidarity by those who have experienced this violence.

A vocabulary of educide and scholasticide has emerged to describe these crimes committed by Israel in Palestine. This is a key part of what the International Court of Justice has described as a ‘plausible case’ of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. As legal observers have pointed out, this ruling creates an obligation on institutions, including universities, to avoid institutional complicity.

On 1 July, after months of protest, the UCL Academic Board voted to establish a working group to examine the university’s investments in and ties to arms companies, in line with international law. A presentation to the board before the vote argued that ‘these links run contrary to UCL’s mission, are incompatible with its ethical values and place the university at risk of legal action.’ The board also voted to establish scholarships for Palestinians.

Marwa described to me the living conditions of those seeking refuge in tents in a school in Deir el Balah: ‘There are three ladies in the school who gave birth recently and you can imagine how bad their situation is in terms of food, in terms of taking care of the baby, hygiene, milk.’ One woman’s grandmother was asking after her. ‘You don’t need to hear,’ the woman replied, ‘each detail, the bathroom, the water, the sleeping place, the mosquitos, the flying things [drones], they are not able to sleep from that flying and flying. It’s impossible.’

In another voice note Marwa said:

Being in the tents without walls makes your approach to your life different. Of course, as a woman, you are overwhelmed with the details of living. But the men they feel oppressed because they can’t do anything now, neither for themselves, nor for the women, or children. A lot of details are killing the soul. The resistance people are doing something, and the other people are taking all of the consequences and they [the Israeli forces] know this and they are targeting a population that still stands and still they don’t collapse. They are not breaking down. Broken down. I don’t know if they are broken or not yet, but what I know is that they try to create hope from nothing, because they don’t have another option.


  • 11 July 2024 at 11:23am
    Rory Allen says:
    A recent Lancet article estimated the number of deaths in Gaza since October at around 8% of the total population. That is in seven months. It is hard to see much room for hope in that situation.

  • 18 July 2024 at 1:19pm
    Ian Tully says:
    The Israeli intent seems to be to make Gaza uninhabitable for the Palestinian population forcing yet another exodus in a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing. The execution of Hamas members together with their entire extended families, and anyone else in the vicinity, cannot be seen as an accident but deliberate policy. The simultaneous expansion of Settlement in the West Bank under cover of security necessity continues
    Perhaps if we were to turn the Israeli propaganda around we might see it more clearly for what it is. The IDF is just as much embedded in the civilian population as Hamas. "From the river to the sea" is explicitly the demand of those Zionists supporting Greater Israel from within the Israeli Cabinet, and an unspoken aim of others like Likud.
    Hamas is a product of desperation and it's hold over the Gazan people is scarcely dented when there is no viable alternative on offer. The siege of Gaza was in place for years before this escalation.