‘Man Number 4’

Selma Dabbagh

Last November, I wrote of waiting for the grey ticks to double up and go blue when sending WhatsApp messages to my friend Ghassan Abu Sittah, who in October had narrowly missed being killed in the bombing of al-Ahli Arab and al-Shifa Hospitals in Gaza, where he had travelled from London to work as a surgeon. He survived and was inaugurated as the rector of Glasgow University, with 80 per cent of the student vote, on 11 April. He has set up a fund for Palestinian children, planning ‘for the day after’, and is speaking tirelessly to the media and audiences across the world.

In the past, his work on child injuries has led to his collaborating with Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written on the ‘unchilding’ of Palestinian children, a process she describes as ‘the authorised eviction of children from childhood’. On 18 April, Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s home in the Old City of Jerusalem was raided without warning, her documents confiscated. According to her family,

During her interrogation and detention, the officers subjected the 64-year-old to ill-treatment and practices that amount to forms of torture: she was strip-searched, yelled and cursed at, and thrown in a cold, isolated and urine-smelling cell infested with cockroaches; the cell was kept illuminated throughout the night with bright, buzzing lights to prevent her from sleeping; and for some of the time her hands and feet were shackled.

Last Friday, Ghassan addressed the encampment of students at University College London who are demanding scholarships for students from Gaza and that UCL cut its ties with arms companies and Tel Aviv University.

On Saturday morning, I was facing another single grey tick. My messages were not being received by Ghassan, who was not back in Gaza but at an airport in Paris. He was due to speak to the French Senate but was denied entry to France. He is a British citizen. He was told that the German government had prohibited him from entering any Schengen country for a year. ‘It was the real deal, with a holding cell and armed escort,’ Ghassan messaged me from Paris. The French authorities made him wait for the last flight back to London.

On 12 April, I had been part of a protest outside the German embassy in Belgravia. The crowd had chanted and cheered for three hours, to multiple beeps of support, passers-by who stopped to ask why the German embassy, and one ‘fuck you’ gesture from a lady in a limousine. Andrew Feinstein, the South African writer and politician, was among the speakers:

My mother survived the Holocaust in occupied Vienna. She survived by being hidden in a coal cellar for three and a half years. When the Gestapo SS were in the area that she lived in, she was rolled up into a carpet and the carpet was pushed up against the wall of the cellar and coal was packed around it in case they managed to shoot through the steel door. Dozens of her extended family died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

We were waiting for Ghassan to return from Berlin, where he had been due to speak at the Palästina-Kongress but instead was detained at the airport for three and a half hours before being deported back to the UK. The conference was shut down by the police. ‘There is a name for countries that allow the police to storm a conference in support of the victims of genocide, to stop that conference taking place,’ Feinstein said. ‘We call those countries fascist.’

‘They’re losing it and the world has changed,’ Ghassan told the patient crowd with its ‘Hands Off Ghassan Abu Sittah’ banner outside the embassy. ‘That’s why they’re behaving like this.’

From Charles de Gaulle airport this weekend, Ghassan wrote on X: ‘Fortress Europe silencing the witnesses to the genocide while Israel kills them in prison.’ The International Criminal Court interviewed Ghassan for days to take his witness testimony. He also gave testimony to the British police. Reports that the ICC may issue arrest warrants for Israeli war crimes suspects has given rise to a torrent of outrage and threats from the Israeli government, some of whom, as Feinstein pointed out, ‘proudly describe themselves as fascist’.

The killings in Israeli prisons that Ghassan referred to include the torturing to death of Adnan al-Bursh, the head of orthopaedic surgery at al-Shifa Hospital (and a Kings College London graduate) in Ofer Prison on 19 April. ‘We die standing, and we will not kneel,’ al-Bursh wrote in his last Facebook post.

In Man Number 4, a short film by Miranda Pennell, released last Monday as part of the Open City Documentary Festival, a crosshair cursor hovers over the pixelated blocks of colour of an enlarged photograph. ‘You have trouble understanding what it is you’re looking at,’ says the deadpan narrator, John Smith. As the image zooms out, a sand berm – a ridged embankment – is revealed, behind which hundreds of men are forced to crouch, surrounded by soldiers pointing guns at them. In the foreground stand four men, one with a red exclamation mark superimposed above his head. The man is bare chested, his legs set apart, a blanket thrown around his neck. Man Number 4 is identified as the surgeon Khalid Hamouda whose family, including his wife and daughter, had been killed a few days earlier. The photograph, taken in Beit Lahia, Gaza, was posted online at 21:33 on 12 December 2023. The captions state that hundreds of civilians were taken away to camps where they were subjected to degrading treatment, beatings and torture. Dr Hamouda survived the torture but his current whereabouts are unknown.

On 3 May, The Arnolfini Theatre in Bristol issued a full apology for the cancellation of the Bristol Palestine Film Festival events I spoke at in December. ‘It was a decision based on the information and understanding we had at the time,’ they wrote, ‘but now believe it was wrong.’

A few days earlier, as part of the Open City Documentary Festival, I chaired a panel and workshop for cultural workers at Rich Mix in Shoreditch. Film-makers discussed the main forms of non-violent resistance to Israeli apartheid available to them: boycotting Israeli film festivals and not allowing the distribution of their films in the territory. Asif Kapadia, one of the film-makers who spoke up in support of Jonathan Glazer’s Oscars acceptance speech, described the inspiration he had drawn from Ken Loach. Elhum Shakerifar referred to Gareth Peirce’s assertion of the need for permanent vigilance. Leah Borromeo emphasised the connection to a broader anti-colonial struggle. Charlie Shackleton, who pulled his film Lateral from the IDFA festival in Amsterdam last year, reflected on ‘how much more power my film had by its absence, than by its presence’.