How Israel’s ruthless military campaign against civilians in Gaza fractured the space for reflection
Up until September 2023, I was engaged in a Middle East and North Africa Social Policy Network (MENASP) grant project entitled: Making the Invisible Visible: Slow Violence, Mental Health and Resilience in Gaza.
This project built on a previous preliminary study, supported by the Wellcome Trust (2019 – 2020, conducted during the COVID pandemic), which had focused on the spatial politics of health, death and life in Gaza: a Strip which is 25 miles long by some 7 miles wide, with a population of 2.3 million people.
It has been under an indefinite blockade, imposed by Israel, since 2007, after Hamas seized control of Gaza.
"Dear sister, your tears will not help us. But your pen is mighty: go and write about the inhumane injustice you are witnessing"
In our previous project, we emphasised the necessity of understanding the situation in Gaza within the settler colonial debate which highlights how settler colonial regimes prioritise territorial and demographic control over basic rights, intending to erase the local population, or at least that of containing the population.
We further argued that the case of Gaza also challenges the settler colonial discussion which assumes the existence of a sovereign power (of a state) over a given territory: The reality of Gaza as a space and subject of settler colonial power “without settlers”, illustrates a different case in which settler colonial violence is mediated through the exercise of power from a “safe” distance, through the use of warfare technologies.
Drawing on data collected through semi-structured interviews with Palestinian interlocutors as well as human rights reports, and historical and sociological materials, our final report nuanced how Israel has been committing slow violence against a defenseless population in the Gaza Strip.
We also highlighted the urgency of critically understanding the transformation of everyday life in Gaza into — what we referred to as — “everyday non-life”.
By everyday non-life we referred to the intentional frontierisation of a given territory, the destruction of “the totality” of urban and rural experience, the “not yet arrived” death — as a central part of the lived experience that has been dictating the daily lives of Gazan people, resulting in the economy of life and death which has been, in turn, embedded in the Israeli apartheid regime of control.
In our MENASP project, we thereafter built on this previous work by sustaining a focus on the urgent humanitarian case of Gaza: And we shed light on how Israel’s slow violence affects the Strip’s young generation in terms of their increasing vulnerability to mental health challenges, and how existing resilience networks could serve as a vehicle for better strategic interventions in mental health.
I have been working on Gaza since 2007. Back then, I was based at a university in the UK and had a British Academy-funded project on democratisation in the Arab Mediterranean world.
This project led me to embark on a field trip to Palestine to interview various Palestinian academics, representatives of NGOs, political party activists, parliamentarians (including Islamists), and journalists.
From Hamas, I interviewed officials from its political wing in Gaza and Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) members in Nablus. It was my first visit to Gaza and I was particularly struck by the kindness, warmth and incredible hospitality of the people I met and for which they are famous.
The family is a core and fundamental unit in the lives of Palestinians: and I was welcomed as an extended member, a ‘sister’. These robust and loving connections helped me understand how Gazans have since been able to endure 16 years of a violent and inhuman military blockade and several wars imposed on defenceless people.
These connections provide a stable bedrock upon which Gazans depend. During another field trip to Gaza after the 2014 war, I met 18 members of Al-Saudi’s extended family in Shujaiyya.
Living in the rubble of their home, Hadia, the grandmother of the family, explained to me how this was the third time in six years that they had experienced destruction: First during the 2008-2009 war, then during the 2012 war and then again in 2014 during ‘Operation Protective Edge’.
I broke down in the face of the suffering and fear I witnessed in the eyes of the four young children in this family: Nouddine 11 years old with learning difficulties, 4-year-old Minnah, 2-year-old Rawand and little Odai, who was born during the 2014 war.
Hadia had turned to me and said: “Dear sister, your tears will not help us. But your pen is mighty: go and write about the inhumane injustice you are witnessing.”
Fast forward to the early morning hours of Saturday, October 7 2023, when I was cycling to a local bakery while listening to a local Danish radio channel, Denmark now being my country of residence. News was announced of a surprise attack on Israel. Hamas fighters from Gaza had taken control of the Beit Hanoun crossing.
I stopped and checked my social media feeds: information appeared about the wall that Israel had erected around the Gaza Strip — to keep its 2.3 million people permanently imprisoned — having been breached.
It eventually emerged that the surprise attack included the killing of approximately 1,139 Israeli citizens and over 200 people taken as hostages back to Gaza. In response, Israel waged an unprecedented war of revenge through air and ground operations that have killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, many of them children.
Much of Gaza now lies in ruins. The United Nations estimates that almost 20 percent of the territory’s prewar structures have been destroyed. More than half of Gazans are experiencing severe hunger, unemployment has risen to 85 percent, and disease is spreading.
"I have been struggling with these polarized camps, but in particular, I have been struggling to find ways of bridging the divide within our core Gaza project team"
As events unfolded my MENASP co-principal Investigator (PI) and I got together and arranged for an online public webinar to be held on October 31, to take stock of the implications of ensuing actions.
The tension between my co-PI and my Gaza-based colleagues was evident. While the latter were trying to keep connected via their mobile phones under heavy Israeli bombardment, I could hear the shaken voice of my co-PI based in London. I listened carefully while they each analysed the Hamas attacks and the Israeli response, noting how their compassionate asymmetry and postcolonial reading grid of events (that have been tearing apart the Middle East and reverberating across the globe), were fracturing the communication and collaboration efforts we had worked so hard on building over the past years of working together intensely on Gaza.
What followed after that webinar took me completely by surprise. While my co-PI impressed upon me that he did not “think it is genocide what we are witnessing … yet”, our main field researcher insisted he did not want to have anything to do with the former and that he felt utterly ashamed of having even contemplated, let alone actively worked with the other. I found myself completely paralysed, unable to unleash a minimum form of human decorum in my partners.
I have since been contemplating how war, conflict, death and destruction ravage everything in its path. I cannot even imagine the state of the mental health of our Gaza interlocutors. I do not even know whether they are still surviving, under rubble or whether they have passed away.
Just before the publication of this article, I received the news that one of our interlocutors, Muhammed, who had lost all his family members in the 2014 war, was killed in front of his home in Khan Younis, the location where our field researcher had interviewed him.
As I write, one of our Gaza partners is still trapped – together with his own family and staff – in Rafah, not being able to reach any safe passage. The other Gazan is safely in Europe but living with the guilt of having left behind his extended family and a nation in mourning. He has lost a number of his family members to this war.
This tragedy, which has been mobilising global solidarities with Palestine, has already done damage beyond repair, not least in terms of the mental health of children in Gaza which has been pushed beyond breaking point after more than three months of bombardment.
It has also fractured a large part of university life in general, perhaps irreversibly. Indeed, since October 7, beyond our Gaza project, camps have been quickly formed.
On the one hand, those being vocal, writing about or protesting in the streets of major cities for a ceasefire are accused of "anti-Semitism": On the other hand, "fascism" the supporters of Israel's war.
Yoav Litvin, an Israeli-American doctor of psychology/neuroscience, writer and photographer, makes a poignant remark about how: "Fear in Israel is sustained through militarisation, anti-Palestinian narratives, reframing resistance as “terrorism,” remembering past atrocities, focusing on perceived threats and promoting segregation, i.e, apartheid. Chronic fear induces symptoms akin to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), making the Israeli population prone to aggression masked as “self-defence”.
He concludes that for Israelis to break their addiction to aggression, there is an urgent need for “the oppressive structure, Zionism, (to be) disassembled, … paving the way for a process of re-humanisation and reconciliation through the use of empathy”.
Regarding what she calls “left-wing campism”, political scientist Catherine Hass argues that there is a danger that its underlying logic, according to which "the enemies of my enemies are my friends", transforms abuses against civilians into acts of resistance, war crimes into liberation struggles, and Hamas into a progressive movement.
I have been struggling with these polarized camps, but in particular, I have been struggling to find ways of bridging the divide within our core Gaza project team.
I believe that we have now come to a stage where my colleagues are no longer able to listen to perspectives that can challenge them, sometimes even to the core of their identity.
It seems to be no longer possible for a Palestinian to hear an Israeli-Jewish colleague share their sadness and fear in light of the October 7 attacks. It is equally and seemingly impossible to expect an Israeli to appreciate the pain and suffering of a nation under extreme duress and to empathise with the fact that there is a long history of demeaning Palestinian rights.
All is fractured at its core. There is now a new disease: a disease of thought. A polarization that prevents us from moving from reflex to reflection. The time of thought is crushed by the storm of war and its atrocities, reflection is no longer relevant.
Michelle Pace is a Professor in Global Studies at the Department of Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University, Denmark. She is also an Associate Fellow of the Europe Programme, Chatham House, London and an Associate Member of the Middle East Studies Forum, Deakin University, Australia