In Gaza, unspeakable, unbearable cruelty goes on day after day, while I live my life in the clutches of safety and abundance. My basket is full of the fruits of industrial and post-industrial civilization. If I want light, I need do nothing more than flip a switch. If I’m hungry and my cupboards are bare, I can drive to the store and pick through mounds of produce or load my carriage with dry goods galore. I can walk through the city without fear of being exterminated by a sniper’s blessed bullet from God’s munitions plant somewhere on the Potomac. And when I’m home, snug in my bed, the only sound that may keep me awake is the scrape of darkness on daylight’s shiny fender. No one will break down my door and order me to leave with nothing more than the clothes on my back and whatever memories I have time to pack. Outside, in the morning sun, not matter which way I look, I will see exactly what was there the day before and the day before that. Houses, roads, parked cars, mailboxes on their whitewashed posts, the neighbor’s dog, the roses still beaming in November’s obstinate light. I should rejoice, give thanks, be grateful for all the blessings of my life and the life I share with my wife.
Only a fool would overlook or ignore these momentous gifts and think his life is nothing to write home about. Still, in my vision, however limited and circumscribed it may be, I see the little girl with her silent canary in a wooden cage as she walks alone down the remnants of a street in Gaza. There are tears in her eyes, and what’s left of her life tries in vain to catch up. Rain is falling from ash-gray skies, and all the buildings on either side are hardly more than concrete slabs and twisted rods of steel. If I listen closely, I can almost hear the children — the ones buried alive in heaps of rubble — calling for help as they struggle to find air and light beyond the stones entrapping them. How many are close, heartbreakingly close, almost within reach of the outstretched hand of a parent, a sibling, a desperate rescue worker praying to save at least one life among the ruins of what had once been a neighborhood before it was demolished by enemy bombs. And I see the bodies wrapped in blue tarps and carefully placed side by side in a mass grave somewhere outside of Al-Shifa, the region’s largest hospital. It too was targeted by Israel, which claimed the central command center of Hamas was located in the nether regions below the hospital. You have to hand it to the Israelis. How ingenious of them to find a reason to decimate a major health center in its pursuit of “terrorists” when a more credible explanation, to my mind, is Israel’s determination to send an ultra-strong message to the Palestinian people: No place in Gaza is safe. Your only choice is to get out now before you’ll join the other bodies decomposing in a long, hastily dug ditch.
During the first Gulf War — Operation Desert Storm — Iraqi families sought shelter from U.S. and coalition bombardment in a below-ground shelter in the Amariya neighborhood of western Baghdad. On the morning of February 13, 1991, the U.S. dropped two “smart” bombs on the shelter. Military sources claimed the shelter was being used as a command and control center by Iraqi forces. Sound familiar? I have visited the shelter on several occasions. It became a shrine by which to remember the hundreds of women and children who perished there, either incinerated by the bombs or scalded to death when a large tank of water, hit by one of the bombs, dumped boiling water on many of the families. Here is an excerpt from “The Ovens of Amariya,” a poem I wrote after my initial visit to the shelter:
I saw the handprints on the ceiling,
the burned-in handprints of children
lifted above the rest and pushing, pushing
against the impossible odds of concrete.
And I saw the shadow of a woman shielding her infant
from the beast of the blast,
her love and humanity forever formed
as the supposed sign of Christ on the shroud of Turin.
I saw the hair, the skin, the eyes
still clinging to subterranean walls
where vats of boiling water
The soldiers entered Al-Shifa hospital with their heavy guns, their soldierly pride, and their hardened conviction that they were doing God’s work by pulling patients, even gravely ill patients, from their beds and whatever life-support systems held them. No one was spared, including the wounded as well as Palestinians suffering from diseases for which medicines and medical devices are either in short supply or nonexistent. We can thank the overlords in Jerusalem who, in their wisdom and frugality, have chosen to withhold these things for the sake of a greater purpose — namely, the expulsion of an entire people and the transformation of the “most densely populated place on Earth” into an Israeli-only theme park showcasing the ingenuity and advanced urban planning of the “greatest democracy in the Middle East.”
The soldiers — how easy it would be to despise them for what they do in the name of defending their homeland; for the curses and insults they hurl at the long line of evacuees, some crippled, some in wheelchairs, some carrying those unable to walk. The soldiers would have been right at home in first-century Jerusalem. I see them lined up along the Via Dolorosa, mocking, flogging, humiliating Jesus/Esa on his way to Golgotha, Place of the Skull. No, these famished, sick and dying men and women forced to flee the confines of a hospital are nothing like the beaten and bleeding Jesus/Esa or his martyred followers — except in their pain, their suffering, their treatment at the hands of combat-ready Israelis some of whom can be ruthless as Roman soldiers, cruel as Hitler’s elite corps of killers persecuting Jews.
In the Gospel of Luke, it is written that Jesus asked God to forgive the men who tormented him and nailed him to the cross. “Greater love hath no man”. . . than he who can forgive those who commit unspeakable acts of brutality against him. The carnage of October 7 will likely never be forgiven, least of all by those Israeli families whose loved ones, including children, were massacred by Gazan militants. What of the more than 5,000 children in Gaza who have died either as a direct consequence of Israeli aggression, from secondary effects, including hunger and disease, or from critical shortages of medicines due to Israel’s illegal and inhumane blockade of Gaza. Should we expect their parents to tap unplumbed depths of compassion to forgive the ones responsible for their losses? I suspect their unmitigated sorrow and grief will hardly provide fertile ground for some future era of peace and reconciliation.
Surely, among the soldiers in occupied Palestine there must be some, perhaps many whose sense of shared humanity with their Arab neighbors has not been stamped out and left among heaps of discarded items of scant value to a Zionist settler state. During the temporary truce, one such soldier distributed bread and water to a few of the refugees from northern Gaza who thought the hospital compound of Al-Shifa would shelter them. I wonder if this same good-hearted fellow followed this act of mercy by pointing his gun at the head of anyone who refused to join the growing column of displaced and traumatized innocents. Although he may have assisted in the evacuation, I’d like to think his heart was elsewhere as he looked upon these all-too vulnerable fellow human beings.
Which brings me to Martin Buber (1878-1965) and his enduring bestseller I and Thou (Ich und Du in German). Buber, a Jewish philosopher, writer, and political activist, wrote this book a century ago. His ideas have inspired countless individuals, including Martin Luther King Jr. and the poet Alan Ginsberg. Buber was born in Vienna but spent much of his life in Germany and Israel. One of the founders of Zionism, Buber had no illusions about the dangers inherent in a Jewish state in the Middle East. Rather, he advocated for a cultural Zionism that respected the rights of the indigenous people — Palestinians — who lived on the land the Jews were preparing to claim as their own. Aware of the tensions between the Palestinians and Jewish settlers, Buber “advocated a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state and argued for the renewal of society through decentralized, communitarian socialism.”
In his book, referred to above, Buber presented two contrasting types of relationships and the respective types of existences and social interactions they generate: I-It (Ich-Es) and I-Thou (Ich-Du). In the former type, neither party is perceived or experienced in the fullness and immediacy of their actual reality. Transactional relationships are of this sort. Once the transaction is complete, the relationship is over. The “other” is not experienced in their unique individuality. Any relationship in which one person objectifies the other can also be characterized as an I-It relationship. On the other hand, an I-Thou relationship is dynamic, potentially unlimited in its ability to grow and deepen over time. Each party recognizes and honors the totality of the other’s existence; neither party exploits or denigrates the other or perceives them as belonging to a certain category of humans to which a set of unchanging characteristics can be affixed.
It would appear that I-Thou relationships between Palestinians and Israelis are in desperately short supply. Palestinians by definition are “terrorists.” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant went so far as to call them “animals” — less than human creatures whose extermination is to be carried out with a robust sense of pride in Israel’s strength and its sacred, God-given patrimony. (I have no idea how many Israeli citizens think this way or feel otherwise and are calling for an immediate ceasefire. But the government of Israel, currently under the sway of an extreme right-wing coalition, has no reservations about carrying out what responsible international organizations have labeled as genocide or close to genocide.)
The temporary truce in Gaza has ended; the killing goes on. An old friend, who has given over three decades of his life to working on behalf of the human rights of both Palestinians and Iraqis, wrote to me recently after a long silence. My heart is breaking, he said. He has never felt so sad despite all the misery he has witnessed in Palestine and Iraq. What is taking place in Gaza is unbearable, he added. Yes, unbearable for him and for so many others around the world. For people in Gaza, that word is hardly sufficient to cover what they are going through under Israel’s relentless bombardment. The prime minister — Benjamin Netanyahu — tells the world the chief goal of the war is to eliminate Hamas, whose armed wing crossed into southern Israel on October 7, 2023 and summarily executed hundreds of innocent civilians, including women and children. Here in the West, our leaders, including President Biden, like to remind us that war is brutal. People die. That’s just how it is. And we have to accept Israel’s right of self-defense, its unquestionable right to scourge the perpetrators of the killing that took place on October 7. In North Carolina’s 4th district, where I live, our Congressional representative, Valerie Foushee, a democrat, stands with fellow democrats Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, and others in her unqualified support of Israel. In her emailed response to my wife’s letter urging her to call for a permanent ceasefire, Rep. Foushee wrote: “The United States must unequivocally condemn Hamas and continue to support Israel as she defends herself and upholds our shared democratic values.” Furthermore, the “terrorist attacks on Israel … must not be ignored or go unpunished.” [Italics are mine.]
Apparently, Rep. Foushee believes 15,200 Palestinians killed in the war to date, 70% of whom were women and children, along with over 40,000 wounded, is not enough punishment. While she continues to support Israel “as she defends herself,” the congresswoman is “absolutely devastated and heartbroken by the countless number of innocent civilian lives that have been lost on both sides of the conflict.” By her logic, the most reasonable way to protect “innocent civilian lives” is to give Israel carte blanche to go on killing them.
Italian human rights lawyer and UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese presented her views on the war and the subject of self-defense at the National Press Club of Australia in mid-November. Her address clearly did not endear her to the Jewish community in Australia. As an expert in international law, Albanese argued that Israel cannot claim the right of self-defense in relation to the horrendous attacks launched by Hamas in October. In the laws of war, she said, the claim of self-defense can only be invoked when one state is under attack or is under an actual threat of attack by another state:
Self-defence doesn’t mean what it means in the common parlance … Israel has the right to protect itself, to protect its citizens. But the right to self-defence that Israel has invoked under Article 451 of the UN Charter means the right to wage a war – which Israel doesn’t have … It’s a long-established principle in international law that … self-defence cannot be invoked against the population under occupation.
In other words,
Israel cannot claim the right of self-defence against a threat that emanates from a territory it occupies, from a territory that is under belligerent occupation … What Israel was allowed to do was to act to establish law and order, to repel the attack, neutralise whomever was carrying out the attacks and then proceed with law and order measures… Not waging a war.
Despite the cogency of the UN Special Rapporteur’s legal argument, Israel’s murderous rampage and its heartless blockade of food, water, and medicine have no end in sight. Truly, what is happening in Gaza (and to a lesser extent in the West Bank) is unbearable even for those of us far from the killing fields and the terrorist state for which no life is too small to take. I’ll close this essay with an excerpt from “Silence for Gaza,” a poem by the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:
Enemies might triumph over Gaza (the storming sea might triumph over an island… they might chop down all its trees).
They might break its bones.
They might implant tanks on the insides of its children and women. They might throw it into the sea, sand, or blood.
But it will not repeat lies and say “Yes” to invaders.
It will continue to explode.
It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it deserves to live. It will continue to explode.
It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it deserves to live.
[Translated by Sinan Antoon from Hayrat al-`A’id (The Returnee’s Perplexity), publisher Riyad al-Rayyis, 2007.]
George Capaccio is a writer, poet, and performer now living in Durham, North Carolina since migrating from the Boston area. Beginning in the 90s, his concern for the people of Iraq under U.S.-imposed sanctions led him to make numerous trips to Iraq as a witness to the effects of these sanctions. At home, he advocated for their lifting through writing and public speaking while raising funds for families in Baghdad known to him.