Black Outs

Selma Dabbagh

When a building under construction collapsed in George, South Africa, last week, dozens of workers were buried beneath the rubble. Delvin Safers, an electrician, was trapped next to a colleague who was ‘already deceased’. His girlfriend sent him photographs of their two-year-old son to keep his spirits up. Without the light from his phone, everything was dark. That was the hardest part of it, Safers said. ‘When you close your eyes, it is dark, then you open them, it is the same thing.’ He was freed after a couple of days, with the use of his legs. ‘That was the main thing,’ his father said, ‘when I saw my son walk.’ His life was saved thanks to the large teams of rescue workers with hard hats, sniffer dogs, cranes, bulldozers and trucks who came to his rescue.

In Gaza more than ten thousand people are trapped under the rubble, according to the United Nations. I search online for personal stories of escape. There are remarkably few. What you can find are images of cement-caked bodies lined up outside bombed buildings, men in slippers walking over piles of debris, digging at it with their bare hands. In one video, a Civil Defence worker asks his bareheaded colleague if the child he is carrying under one arm is alive. ‘Praise God,’ he says, as a pair of stunned young eyes peer out of the dusty face. The children are unnamed. Other bodies are lined up outside the building, also unnamed. ‘We do not know,’ the report on al-Jazeera says, ‘if the mother who made the call survived.’

During lockdown, in 2021, Columbia University’s Centre for Palestine Studies commissioned four radio plays by Palestinian playwrights. In A Kid Who Asks Too Much by Bashar Murkus, a father and son are trapped under rubble by aerial bombardment. The father makes one futile attempt to lift the concrete, then focuses on trying to answer his son’s calm, incessant questioning as to what will happen next. ‘We’re here. We stuck here. I feel I am dead,’ the son says, coughing slightly as he calls out once for help. ‘It will take a while,’ the father says, ‘for them to come back to help us, until the area is safe, when there is no bombing for a long time.’

According to the UN, it could take up to three years to remove the bodies from the 37 million tonnes of rubble in Gaza, which is also contaminated by unexploded ordnance, up to ten per cent of which, they estimate, ‘doesn’t function as designed’.

On 6 May, Sam Rose of UNRWA, speaking from Rafah, was interviewed by Sky News, as Israeli forces moved in on what had been a small town. ‘Around 1.4 million people are living here now,’ he said. ‘People are fearing the worst.’ The Israeli army had issued orders ‘just falling from the sky’ telling a hundred thousand people to leave, but there is nowhere safe for them to go. There is no food, no electricity, no space. ‘We’ve been obsessed for far too long in this conflict with the rudimentary arithmetic of trucks coming in,’ Rose said, ‘but it’s far more than that. It’s water, it’s healthcare, it’s sanitation.’

On 15 May I went to the protest at University College London. Staff, students and alumni gathered on the steps of the neoclassical Main Building. Journalists had not been allowed in but were trying to capture the event by sticking their telephoto lenses through the locked gates. Professor Izzat Darwazeh, the director of the Institute of Communications and Connected Systems, spoke of the need for boycott and divestment, having seen them work in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He also recognised that the student movement could upset people: ‘One of the good things about working at a university is that it is possible to look at things from different directions and different angles. I would say to all the students, be mindful, be careful, be kind and thank you for your support.’

It was a sunny day, with students milling past, chatting, asking others to pray with them in the encampment area. All of this continued as the speeches were delivered, until three women – a technician, a lecturer and an alumna – came forward. They talked of the women of Gaza who have been forced to shave off their hair, as water is in such short supply. One by one the three women took electric razors to their heads and shaved them bare, feeling the wisps of hair between their fingers before letting it loose into the summer air. Women in the audience touched their heads. Other than that, nobody moved. The picnicking stopped. There was complete silence.

‘It has been impossible,’ Alex Crawford of Sky News told a room at the House of Commons on 21 May, speaking via an intermittent remote link from Cuba, of her difficulties in gaining access, as an international correspondent, to Gaza since October. ‘I’ve managed to get into some of the most oppressive and autocratic regimes in the world,’ but this was beyond her, beyond anyone. ‘No one has got in,’ she said, and ‘not for lack of trying’, itemising the difficulties she’d had trying to enter Gaza both from Egypt and Israel. ‘There’s a slick gaslighting attempt going on,’ she also said, ‘that Palestinian journalists are not journalists.’

‘Just to exist as a Palestinian is seen as a political act,’ the Iraqi-British journalist Hind Hassan said. She pointed out that the Pulitzer Prize made no reference to ‘Palestinian journalists’, only to ‘journalists and media workers covering the war in Gaza’.

‘We never felt our press vests were a protection for us,’ al-Jazeera’s Youmna al-Sayed said. She worked in Gaza with Safwat Kahlout. They have now both left. ‘We worked without an office, without equipment, resources, we worked with the bare minimum to keep going,’ al-Sayed said. ‘Every day when I left my colleagues we would say goodbye as though we may never see them again.’ She finds the lack of credibility given to Palestinian journalists offensive: ‘If I am able to report, write a script, create a story – what makes you as a foreign journalist more credible than me, as a Palestinian one?’

They could not understand the lack of pressure from the press industry and governments to allow the foreign media access to Gaza. ‘You can hear it now,’ Alex Crawford said. ‘The Palestinian journalists want us in. They’re exhausted.’ The British public, she added, were being denied access to information about the ‘worst war zone in the world’. ‘Go there please,’ Kahlout, who has lost 50 per cent of his hearing because of the bombing, urged the MPs, ‘do something practical.’

We had arrived in Parliament as the news was coming in that Israel had seized Associated Press equipment. The denial of access to a war zone is ‘unprecedented’, according to Fiona O’Brien, the director of Reporters without Borders (RSF). ‘We’ve never seen anything like it,’ she said.

According to RSF, more than a hundred Palestinian journalists have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, including at least 22 killed in the course of their work. ‘We’ve never been in a situation like this before,’ a representative from the National Union of Journalists said from the floor. They complained to the government when eighty journalists had been killed and raised the issue again when the number reached 96, but ‘we’re facing absolute intransigence.’

On 13 May, Medical Aid for Palestinians reported that there are only sixteen hospital beds left in Rafah for a population of over a million. ‘What we are seeing,’ Dr Rebecca Inglis, an intensive care physician, said on 21 May, ‘is the purposeful wanton destruction of medical equipment in ways for which there is no possible justification … this is an intentional act whose only justification can be stopping healthcare being carried out.’ Dr Tanya Haj-Hassan agreed: ‘The only way I can start to understand why are you attacking the food supply? Why are you attacking the water supply? Why are you attacking the healthcare infrastructure? The only justification is very clear destruction of anything needed to sustain human life.’

The journalist Bisan Owda is 24 years old. Since October, her home in Beit Hanoun and her office in Rimal have both been destroyed. Her family first sought shelter in al-Shifa Hospital, where she witnessed the airstrike and massacre of 3 November. She is now in the south of Gaza. She has had to cut off much of her thick, curly hair. On 22 May, she posted that it had taken her four hours to get an internet connection, yet she implored her 4.5 million followers on Instagram to look north, to Jenin in the West Bank, where 1500 Israeli soldiers were approaching the city, having already killed seven civilians, including a doctor, a teacher and a schoolboy.