As Israel seeks to squirm its way out of accusations of genocide by enforcing its fabricated security narrative at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), harrowing accounts of life in Gaza under Israel’s genocidal bombardment are accessible for everyone to see and digest. Don’t Look Left: A Diary of Genocide (Fasila, 2023) by Atef Abu Seif is a day by day account of the first 60 days of Israel’s latest military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza.
The author is the minister of culture in the Palestinian Authority. He was visiting Gaza with his son for three days when the Israeli air strikes commenced after Hamas’s incursion on 7 October. An idyllic chance to swim in the Mediterranean morphed quickly into chaos when the normalised sounds of explosions were heard on the beach. By midday, joining journalists in the Press House in Rimal, Gaza, the first news of Israel’s air strikes was made known and trepidation set in, because at that point, as Abu Seif writes, “The only thing we can agree on is that we have no idea where this is going.”
Abu Seif’s diary entries are permeated by loss as a result of Israel’s genocidal actions. Relatives, friends and colleagues are murdered by Israeli air strikes; families and neighbourhoods are completely wiped out. The onset of a famine in all but name, the absence of medical supplies to treat the wounded and operations carried out without anaesthetic in attempts to save lives of people maimed for life. What is survival, ultimately? Abu Seif recalls a question posed to him by a journalist in 2014 after Operation Protective Edge, noting that, jokingly, the journalist asked him who won. Abu Seif responded that he had, since he survived. “I’m not sure if my reply will be the same when this war ends,” he tells us. “My loss is too big.”
As the bombing intensifies, so does the struggle to find a safe place to shelter. Israel is forcing Palestinians to flee from the north to the south of Gaza, and international organisations are following suit. However, the occupation state is also bombing the supposed “safe” routes and areas which the Palestinians are told to use. “I place various essentials onto a kufiyah which I then wrap up into a bundle,” writes Abu Seif. “Was this what the Nakba was like, I wonder.”
The reality of forced displacement is a perpetual image in the book, echoing the 1948 Nakba which is when Gaza became host to Palestinian refugees from all over Palestine following the creation of the Zionist state of Israel in their homeland. Now, with people moving from location to location, asking for directions is no longer an easy feat, as encountering people who moved from other areas becomes more common than finding the locals who decided to remain.
Those who remain, like the author, know that nowhere is safe in Gaza. As Abu Seif notes, friends who obeyed Israel’s orders to evacuate were killed en route to the south of Gaza. And in face of complete annihilation, the author ponders, what is left to accomplish? “Through writing, we can keep places alive, we can put down our memories of the streets that are now rubble, the homes that have been flattened. We can not only stop them from being forgotten, we can create a map for how they should be rebuilt. Just as they were, wherever we end up.”
Israel’s genocide has forced Palestinians into identifying with death. What happens if they are killed? Abu Seif writes of children marking their arms and legs with their personal details, should they be murdered, to facilitate the possibility of being identified and mourned by their families: “[T]he idea of dying and not being mourned by anyone is unbearable,” he notes. Further on in the book, he remarks that the identification method of writing details on arms and legs “may sound macabre, but now makes perfect sense: the logical way of thinking about death is to think like a dead person.”
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As the air strikes become more horrifying, so does the normalisation, to the point that while the main goal for Israel is “Gaza dies”, for Palestinians the important thing is that the house struck by a missile is not yours or the neighbouring one.
Survival is the main objective, and those who remain try to assist others in digging out their relatives buried under the rubble.
Interspersed with the daily imparting of Israel’s genocidal bombing of Gaza is the author’s narration of how life in the enclave was, of how culture and traditions influenced the way houses were constructed and what home means for Palestinians in Gaza. The sense of community is clearly evoked, and even in the face of Israel’s destruction, community in Gaza remains a strong tradition that defines Palestinians: helping with rescue efforts, sharing food, concocting ways to provide electricity, moving into safer areas. News of a truce reaches the author, who states, “If there is a truce, the Israelis always pile on everything they’ve got in the run-up to it. It’s not the quiet before the storm, it’s the storm before the quiet.”
Gaza, meanwhile has been rendered completely unrecognisable, and simple feats such as driving a car have become impossible as a result of the destroyed infrastructure. Prices for basic necessities have become exorbitant and queuing is the order of the day. “The whole of the Strip feels like one long queue.”
Reading Abu Seif’s diary entries poses several reflections, not least the importance of Palestinians themselves sharing their own narratives. Genocide is occurring in real time on our screens, a macabre spectacle unfolding, and the little details are overlooked. The atrocities which Israel denies despite visual proof, have shocked the world. But what about the people who are living this push to extinction? Abu Seif’s narrative offers an insightful perspective on the first 60 days, and there is no end in sight to Israel’s genocidal actions, having created the conditions for famine and starvation, and bombing people waiting for meagre humanitarian aid. As the author concludes, “The cycle of destruction continues: on repeat, faster and faster with the places we are allowed to shelter in growing smaller and smaller.”