My last visit to Al-Shati refugee camp was early 2013. Located on the Mediterranean coast in the north of Gaza, Al-Shati was otherwise known as “Beach Camp”. Vendors sold fruit under multi-coloured parasols. Cats slept in the middle of narrow alleys. Children jostled over skipping rope in the shade.
Beach Camp was established in 1948 after 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced in the Nakba. Initially, the camp accommodated around 23,000 refugees. In the following seven decades, that number grew to 90,000, cramped inside 0.5 square kilometres (0.2 square miles) of land – 70 times more populated than London’s city centre.
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People in Gaza have been living under a blockade for the past 16 years and the Israeli occupation controls most of what goes in and out of Gaza. Beach Camp was no different – and people there largely relied on aid and services from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to survive, including a health centre, a food distribution centre and several school buildings.
Beach Camp Primary School was beautifully maintained. I was allowed up onto the roof, where I could see the fence with Israel on one side. Out to sea were several Israeli patrol boats keeping Palestinian fishermen from sailing more than six nautical miles out.
The school was run by inspiring and hard-working teachers, whose philosophy was to create a calm atmosphere for discovery, music, theatre and art. Some of the students showed me their work. Many were drawings of planes, fences and bombs. But there were other drawings too: of their parents, their brothers, their sisters and their friends. All of the children, obviously, had underlying trauma, but they also had a desire to learn, share and play.
On October 9, two days after the deplorable attack by Hamas in southern Israel, there were reports of an Israeli air strike on Beach Camp. This wasn’t the first strike on the camp. In May 2021, at least 10 Palestinians, eight of whom were children, were killed in an air strike. Nor was it the last. Beach Camp has been repeatedly targeted in the past three weeks.
When I hear news of bombardment in Gaza, I think about that school at Beach Camp. I don’t know if it is still there. I don’t know if those children and teachers are still alive. I don’t know.
The Israeli army has dropped 25,000 tonnes of bombs onto a tiny strip of land, populated by 2.3 million people. There is no meaningful sense whatsoever that they are trying to avoid civilian deaths. More than 9,900 people in Gaza have been killed, including more than 4,800 children.
Survivors still under siege are running out of the basic means of survival: water, fuel, food and medical supplies. Doctors are performing surgery without anaesthesia. Mothers are watching their babies fight for survival in incubators running out of electricity. People are being forced to drink seawater. More than 1 million people have been displaced from their homes.
The attack by Hamas, which killed 1,400 Israelis and took 200 hostages, was utterly appalling and must be condemned. The victims and hostages are young people who wanted to listen to music. They are nieces and nephews. They are jewellery designers. They are factory workers. They are peace campaigners. The pain and anguish that their families feel will last forever.
This cannot justify the indiscriminate bombing and starvation of the Palestinian people, who are being punished for a heinous crime they did not commit. In the aftermath of horror, we need voices for de-escalation and peace. Instead, politicians around the world continue to give the Israeli government the green light to starve and slaughter the Palestinian people in the name of self-defence.
Every person in Gaza has a name and a face; we grieve for babies in incubators just as deeply as we grieve for middle-aged men killed crossing the road. In any case, we are mourning the theft of beautiful, creative lives. Artists whose paintings we will never see. Singers whose songs we will never sing. Authors whose books we will never read. Chefs whose kunafa we will never eat. Teachers whose lessons we will never learn.
For as long as I can remember, Gaza has been reduced on our TV screens to a site of debris and despair, but underneath the rubble are the quiet, unremarkable foundations of our shared humanity. Morning coffee rounds, hot showers, shopping trips, card games and bedtime stories. Friendship, heartbreak, love, disappointment, boredom and suspense. Schools, mosques, theatres, universities, libraries, playgrounds and hospitals. Hopes, dreams, fears, cares and joys. We are not just witnessing mass death. We are witnessing the erasure of an entire culture, an identity and a people.
The International Criminal Court defines genocide according to several criteria. Genocide can be committed by killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures intended to prevent births, or by forcibly transferring children. In each case, there must be an intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
On November 2, seven UN Special Rapporteurs said they “remain convinced that the Palestinian people are at grave risk of genocide”. This followed the resignation of Craig Mokhiber, the Director of the UN’s office in New York, who characterised the horrors in Gaza as a “textbook case of genocide” aimed toward “the expedited destruction of the last remnants of indigenous life in Palestine”.
In his resignation letter, he referenced the “wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people…based entirely upon their status as Arabs”, as well as the continuing seizure of homes in the West Bank. He highlighted the “explicit statements of intent by leaders in the Israeli government and military”.
He did not cite a specific statement, perhaps because there are too many to fit in one letter. He could have been referring to Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir who posted that “as long as Hamas does not release the hostages in its hands – the only thing that needs to enter Gaza are hundreds of tons of explosives from the Air Force, not an ounce of humanitarian aid”. Or perhaps he was referring to Galit Distel Atbaryan, an MP from Israel’s ruling Likud party, who called for Gaza to be “erased from the face of the earth”.
Genocide is a term that should be used carefully. There are many horrors in history that are hideous enough on their own terms without warranting that label. The term has a legal definition, a legal basis and legal implications. That is why, when international experts in this field warn us about genocide, we should sit up and listen. And that is why we need an immediate ceasefire, followed by an urgent investigation by the International Criminal Court.
The ICC should not just investigate the crime of genocide, but every single war crime committed by all parties over the past month. The UK government has the authority and responsibility to call for this investigation. So far, it has refused to call out the atrocities unfolding before our very eyes. Blackouts in Gaza may be temporary, but impunity is permanent and our government continues to give the Israeli army the cover it needs to commit its crimes in darkness.
We will carry on demonstrating as long as it takes to bring about a ceasefire. To secure the release of hostages. To stop the siege of Gaza. And to end the occupation. We make these demands because we know what is at stake: the curiosity, creativity and kindness of the Palestinian people.
I remember, on our way home from the school, we passed a food-growing project. The project had purchased 50 hectares of a former Israeli settlement. All the buildings had been destroyed by those who had since departed – and Palestinians had turned the debris into a cooperative farm. Soon, I was told, olives and fruits would grow.
I will never give up hope that these olives and fruits will grow. The people of Gaza have lent me their joy, empathy and humanity. One day, I hope I can give it back to them – in a free and independent Palestine.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated after publication to clarify the author’s reference to genocide as a “term”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.