Bearing Witness To Gaza’s Grief Shouldn’t Feel Like A Radical Act
11:21 AM EDT on October 30, 2023
A man in a press helmet and vest holds two bloody and dazed babies in a car as it travels to the hospital. An Al Jazeera correspondent weeps over his son’s body while also grieving the deaths of his wife, daughter, and grandson. Children write their names on their arms so they can be identified in the event that they are killed in an Israeli airstrike.
A man walks past an ambulance into a humanitarian aid tent. Clearly in shock, he’s holding a bag in each hand and doesn’t seem to know where to go. Within seconds it becomes evident that one bag contains a dismembered arm. As someone nearby speaks with him, the man says that the contents of the bags are all that’s left of his son.
Endless footage from Gaza shows people being rushed from ambulances to hospitals, bodies wrapped in cloth, weeping parents, children covered in dust and blood, civilians for whom medical assistance is meaningless. There are moments when a doctor realizes that their family member is among the injured or dead. Journalists in Gaza post these videos every day on social media, as the Israeli government continues its retaliation for the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, by indiscriminately bombing 2 million people who have nowhere to go, penned inside the only place they have ever known.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched too many of these videos to count. Unseen through the lens of most of western media, the reporters and photographers on the ground in Gaza provide an unvarnished account of the daily bloodshed: Mohmmed Awad, Samar Abu Elouf, Majdi Fathi, Motaz Azaiza, Ali Jadallah, and Plestia Alaqad, to name a few. The disorganized nature of Elon Musk’s Twitter makes it nearly impossible to get useful information, especially during a rapidly developing event, but there is some level of legible consistency on Instagram, though it is as flawed as any big tech company. The pipeline of information was compromised this past Friday, when Israeli bombing knocked out nearly all internet and cellular service in Gaza, although service was partially restored over the weekend.
When I share a video of a shell-shocked Palestinian child in a mask of blood or a street turned to rubble, I do not do so in the belief that it will be the one irrefutable example of Gazan horror that prompts a ceasefire and ends Israel’s occupation. The limitations of posting online are quite obvious; there is nothing to win. “The unreality of the dream that factual clarity will bring all these war crimes to an end is demonstrated every day,” Erik Baker wrote at The Drift. But still, there is a purpose: to carry a share of the grief. Sharing these videos feels like the only way to acknowledge these killings in a moment where many perceive them only as numbers in a news article.
The inconsolable parent holds up their dead child in front of a camera; others share the video to show that they—the parent, the dead child, the other Palestinians off-screen—are worthy of being seen. The lengths they must go to to push back against their dehumanization is an exercise that erodes dignity. As Hala Alyan wrote in The New York Times, “There is something humiliating in trying to earn solidarity.” And still, that proof is insufficient: These casualties do not alter the United States’ rhetorical and financial support of Israel and its “right to defend itself.” Those in power consider it the cost of doing business. When asked by a reporter in a press conference last week whether Israel’s response was disproportionate, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said the deaths of innocent civilians were to be expected.
“This is war. It is combat. It is bloody,” Kirby said. “It is ugly, and it’s going to be messy. And innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward. I wish I could tell you something different. I wish that that wasn’t going to happen. But it is going to happen."
Kirby might think this statement presents him as a sober realist, but it reveals him as a sadist. What’s happening in Gaza isn’t war. Any facade of military precision has been cast aside in favor of mass retribution. Israel has caged the people of Gaza and is picking them off with missiles, disease, and deprivation of humanitarian aid. To displace 1.4 million Palestinians, cut off fuel and electricity, attack a church or ambulances—these are not just war crimes, but crimes against humanity. What is the tactical objective of bombing a United Nations school in a refugee camp? How do you win a war by killing 2,600 children?
The Israeli government’s goal, supported by the U.S., is to not just kill Palestinians but to deny their deaths and pretend they never existed. This past Wednesday, President Joe Biden said he doubted the death tolls coming from the Gaza Health Ministry because of its connection to Hamas, even though those numbers had previously been accurate enough to cite for his own State Department. The ministry responded by releasing a full list of the dead. Even if the “actual” count were half of the reported 8,000 casualties, would that make it any less horrific?
That’s the cycle now: Scroll through slaughter, feel chest tightness, listen to world leaders insist that the slaughter is justified. When I pass along these horrors, it is ultimately self-centered. I am not in Gaza, and this is not everyday life for me. But the response by some to Palestinian solidarity in the past few weeks has made small gestures of humanity feel like radical acts when they shouldn't have to be.
Across industries there has been a widespread suppression of pro-Palestinian voices, with threats of expulsion or unemployment. Jews have been labeled as traitorous for not unreservedly backing Israel. A science journal editor-in-chief who retweeted an Onion article—the headline was “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas”—was forced to resign. Samira Nasr, the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, was browbeaten into issuing an apology for an Instagram post in which she said that Israel’s shutdown of essential services to Gaza was “the most inhuman thing I’ve seen in my life.” CAA agent Maha Dakhil was removed from her agency’s internal board and stepped aside from other leadership roles when she shared a post on Instagram remarking that Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks was a genocide. The magazine Artforum fired top editor David Velasco after the publication released an open letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza; several editors resigned in response to Velasco's firing.
While these semantic battles and statements over statements play out in other spaces, a number of Israeli politicians have agitated for further collective punishment of Palestinian civilians and the complete destruction of Gaza. As the U.S. issues meek statements of discomfort with the loss of civilian life, the West Bank experiences a rise in violence by settlers. The scale of the atrocity is escalating faster than partisans can justify it. “This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech on Oct. 16.
All that remains is to try not to dwell in the helplessness for too long. Watching these videos day after day is a fraction of the pain experienced by the people who live in Gaza. They scramble for shelter as their world crumbles, the overworked doctors treat a never-ending queue, the reporters chronicle it all and try not to be targeted. Those who are killed find a peace that those who live cannot receive. The man with two bags holds up his son because there is nothing else he can do at that moment, no other way to be realized.