For the past half-dozen years, the Guardian has gone out of its way to protect Israel from criticism. Along with the BBC it led the way in discrediting Jeremy Corbyn, the only national party leader who has ever spoken up for Palestine, by tarring him with the brush of antisemitism. But every now and then it has published thoughtful Opinion pieces exposing the reality of Israel’s ambitions to expel or eliminate the Palestinians remaining on Palestinian land. The following Opinion piece by staff writer Nesrine Malik is one of them. The original can be found here.

What does it mean to erase a people – a nation, culture, identity? In Gaza, we are beginning to find out

Nesrine Malik

Artists killed, journalists silenced, libraries and mosques destroyed. What will be left to bind the survivors together?

I will start this column with a question for you, dear reader. What connects you with your country, and makes you feel it is yours? What gives you a sense of identity and belonging? It’s the physical things, of course – where you live, where you were born, where your family and friends reside. But underlying those practical aspects, I suspect, are all the other things that you don’t think about, that you take for granted. The music, the literature, the humour, the art and cinema and TV – all the abstract touchstones of an identity that form a connective tissue between you and your country.

I ask because the corollary of the question “what makes a people?” is “what erases one?” And what is unfolding in Gaza has made that question an urgent one. Because alongside the horrors of death and displacement, something else is happening – something existential, rarely acknowledged and potentially irreversible.

It looks like this. Earlier this month, Gaza’s oldest mosque was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. The Omari mosque was originally a fifth century Byzantine church, and was an iconic landmark of Gaza: 44,000 sq ft of history, architecture and cultural heritage. But it was also a live site of contemporary practice and worship. A 45-year-old Gazan told Reuters that he had been “praying there and playing around it all through my childhood”. Israel, he said, is “trying to wipe out our memories”.

St Porphyrius church, the oldest in Gaza, also dating back to the fifth century and believed to be the third oldest church in the world, was damaged in another strike in October. It was sheltering displaced people, among them members of the oldest Christian community in the world, one that dates back to the first century. So far, more than 100 heritage sites in Gaza have been damaged or levelled. Among them are a 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery and the Rafah Museum, which was dedicated to the region’s long and mixed religious and architectural heritage.

As the past is being uprooted, the future is also being curtailed. The Islamic University of Gaza, the first higher education institution established in the Gaza Strip in 1978, and which trains, among others, Gaza’s doctors and engineers, has been destroyed, along with more than 200 schoolsSufian Tayeh, the rector of the university, was killed along with his family in an airstrike. He was the Unesco chair of physical, astrophysical and space sciences in Palestine. Other high-profile academics who have been killed include the microbiologist Dr Muhammad Eid Shabir, and the prominent poet and writer Dr Refaat Alareer, whose poem, If I must die, was widely shared after his death.

“If I must die,” he wrote, “let it be a tale.” But even that tale, a tale bearing witness to truth, to be weaved into Gazan and Palestinian national consciousness and history, will struggle to be told accurately. Because the journalists are being killed too. As of last week, more than 60 of them. Some of those who survive, like Wael al-Dahdouh of Al Jazeera, have had to keep working through the death of their families. Last week, Dahdouh was himself injured in an airstrike on a school. His cameraman did not survive. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an American non-profit, has said that those reporting on the war risk not only death or injury but “multiple assaults, threats, cyber-attacks, censorship, and killings of family members”.

Omari mosque, Gaza
The Omari mosque, Gaza’s oldest, was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As the ability to tell these stories publicly comes under attack, so do the private rituals of mourning and memorialisation. According to a New York Times investigation, Israel ground forces are bulldozing cemeteries in their advance on the Gaza Strip, destroying at least six. Ahmed Masoud, a British Palestinian writer from Gaza, posted a picture of him visiting his father’s grave, alongside a video of its ruins. “This is the graveyard in Jabalia camp,” he wrote, where his father was buried. “I went to visit him in May. The Israeli tanks have now destroyed it, and my dad’s grave has gone. I won’t be able to visit or talk to him again.”

A memory gap is forming. Libraries and museums are being levelled, and what is lost in the documents that have burned joins a larger toll of recordkeeping. Meanwhile, the scale of the killings is so large that entire extended families are disappearing. The result is like tearing pages out of a book. Dina Matar, a professor at Soas University of London, told the Financial Times that “such loss results in the erasure of shared memories and identities for those who survive. Remembering matters. These are important elements when you want to put together histories and stories of ordinary lives.”

Funeral of Palestinian journalist Samer Abu Daqqa.
Al Jazeera to refer killing of cameraman in Gaza to war crimes court

Remembering matters, and it’s easy to forget, among the scenes of death and destruction since October, that the Gaza Strip is a real place that, even though it existed behind a fence and under severe restrictions, was not only just an “open-air prison”. It has Mediterranean cities of tree-lined boulevards and bougainvillaea, and a coastline that provided respite from heat and blackouts. Much of that is now destroyed or bulldozed.

It is also a place where artists, musicians, poets and novelists thrived, as is only natural among any people given the chance to express themselves, no matter how difficult the circumstances. They, too, are vanishing now. Heba Zagout, a painter of holy sites and Palestinian women in their traditional embroidered clothing, was killed in October, only a few days after posting a video online saying: “I consider art a message that I deliver to the outside world through my expression of the Palestinian cause and Palestinian identity.”

Mohammed Sami Qariqa, another artist, was sheltering inside a hospital and posted on Facebook that he was documenting the experience, “to convey the news and events that happen inside the hospital, capturing a set of painful details with my phone camera, including photo, video, voice, writing and drawing, etc … I am collecting many of these stories with different techniques.” Three days later he was killed when the hospital was struck by a missile.

This is what it would look like, to erase a people. In short, to void the architecture of belonging that we all take so much for granted so that, no matter how many Gazans survive, there is, over time, less and less to bind them together into a valid whole. This is what it would look like, when you deprive them of telling their story, of producing their art, of sharing in music, song and poetry, and of a foundational history that lives in their landmarks, mosques, churches, and even in their graves.

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist