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Shahd at the meeting with Katy Colley

The horrors of life under occupation

Dr Shahd Abusalama from Gaza gave a powerful talk at The White Rock Hotel on Saturday 11 June following the screening of the 1985 documentary film Gaza Ghetto: Portrait of a Palestinian Family (1948-1984), exposing the horrors of life under Israeli occupation, writes Katy Colley.

“I was close to death so many times, I vowed that if I lived I would tell the world what is happening.” 

Dr Shahd Abusalama

The packed meeting, hosted by the Hastings & Rye Palestine Solidarity Campaign [HRPSC], was an attempt to understand the situation in besieged Gaza today where 2 million Palestinians live in the world’s ‘largest open air prison’.

This tiny enclave on the Mediterranean coast, cut off from the rest of Palestine in the West Bank, has been under an illegal Israeli blockade for 15 years, subjected to frequent bombing campaigns, the last of which in 2021 claimed over 260 lives, including 66 children.

The film, by American filmmaker and researcher, Joan Mandell and Swedish filmmakers, Pea Holmquist and Pierre Bjorklund, set the historical context by following one particular family of three refugee generations who had been uprooted from their ancient homelands during the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’) in 1948. While never allowed to return, they continued to suffer collective punishment through curfews, home demolitions, imprisonment and death as a result of the occupation.

A packed room at the White Rock Hotel

For Shahd, born in Jabaliya refugee camp where the filming took place six years later, these familiar stories served to demonstrate the ongoing Nakba that Palestinians continue to endure to this day.

‘These stories are not exceptional,’ she insisted. ‘They are a shared pain.’

In particular, Shahd was deeply affected by a story told by the mother in the film, Itidhal, whose own mother died in childbirth because she went into labour during a night curfew and couldn’t access health services.

This was painful for Shahd to watch since her own birth story was equally traumatic.

‘My mum had her labour during the middle of the night,’ she said. ‘There was a curfew and during curfew Israeli soldiers are indoctrinated to shoot any human being so there were deadly consequences.’

Shahd’s terrified mother had to attempt the one kilometre journey to the clinic on foot, in the dark while in labour.

‘I see there are many women here who are probably mothers and can relate to the experience of my mum having to give birth during curfew, amid blackout all over the refugee camp, no telephones, no ambulances allowed and she had to go out, taking that decision to bring me to life. She was assisted by my grandmother carrying a lantern in one hand and a white cloth in another.

‘And still, despite my mother being visibly in labour and in pain, with a white cloth, the Israeli soldiers still disrupted her way, pointed a gun at my mum’s belly.’

Shahd dances dabble

A month after her birth, the family were subjected to a brutal dawn raid where her father was kidnapped and imprisoned for six months under administrative detention.

Administrative detention, first practiced under British mandate in Palestine (1920-1948), is imprisonment without trial or charge – and Israel uses it systematically to imprison Palestinians, including children, for months and years at a time.

As Shahd explained, Gaza’s isolation began long before the official siege in 2007 and, contrary to the reasons given by Israel that the blockade was a response to the election of Hamas, she says it was an effort to ‘maximise control on the Palestinian population of Gaza’.

‘The Palestinians of Gaza, against the claims of [Ariel] Sharon to have submitted and to have ‘learned peaceful co-existence’, showed an uninterrupted resistance,’ she said. ‘People defended the streets and their homes with their own bodies.

‘We didn’t have access to any weaponry. The Molotov cocktail that Ukrainians are now using – and they are framed as heroes for using it and Western media doesn’t mind showing it – that’s probably the maximum that the Palestinians had then.’

She said that is when the settler colonial occupation transformed into a remote control occupation, where Gaza was effectively besieged from land, sea and air with everything coming in and out being decided by Israel. And with the frequent bombardment of Gaza, thousands have been killed.

Shahd remembers clearly the horrors of the ‘Rains of Summer’ of 2006 and then so-called ‘Operation Cast Lead’ 2008-2009 which consisted of 22 days of constant bombardment.

Shahd’s art expresses the pain of her people

‘I was so many times so close to death,’ she said. ‘I saw my own death – and this is a story that is not exceptional to me. Many of us feel we are living by chance.’

In 2008, Shahd was 17 years old. ‘I was holding my mid-term exams when Israel dropped – literally, it felt like rain – the bombs. It felt like the end of life – and we were just holding mid-term exams like any normal day and all of a sudden, there were bombardments everywhere around us, pillars of smoke rising and that continued for 22 days.

‘By the end of it, 1200 people – a third of whom were children – were killed. For me that was a moment of consciousness because I knew I could have died.

‘And that’s when I thought that if I lived I had to do whatever possible to show the world what is going on. My dad had hopes for me to become a doctor and I thought: ‘No I just want to speak English fluently enough to speak to the world about what is going on.’’

Shahd uses her voice to advocate for Palestine

Shahd moved to the UK in 2014 and successfully completed first her MA and then her PhD, fulfilling her promise to speak out for her people through various platforms – dabke dancing, writing and art.

But her activism drew attention from the Israeli Lobby in the UK and in January this year, a complaint made under the new IHRA definition of antisemitism that conflates the crime with legitimate criticism of Israel, led to the suspension of her teaching at Sheffield Hallam university.

A massive and worldwide outpouring of support followed, the investigation was dropped and Shahd was reinstated on better terms, but she says she is still subject to persecution and attacks.

‘They still want me silenced,’ she said. ‘Every event I take part in, every talk that I give, even my dance company, Hawiyya, gets dragged into their bad publicity, so this is not exceptional, again. And I’m not an isolated example: we have seen it happening against so many in the West but also in Palestine, historically, every Palestinian who dared to speak the truth, they knew their life was at risk.

‘Silence and censorship is a culture that Israel predicates on in order to reinforce this hegemonic narrative that we are challenging. Our stories, the Palestinian experience under Israeli settler colonialism and occupation and siege exposes a side of Israel that Israel is not interested in showing the world.

‘We stand as the direct contrast to their story. But this hegemony suffers lots of cracks. And I see it, I see it even when they are coming after me.

‘The tools of repression are just continuing to evolve and the IHRA which is being directly cited to silence me and persecute me is also another tool that Israel uses to protect itself against accountability.’

Solidarity from Hastings with Katy and Shahd

Shahd believes the actions taken by the West against Russia in recent months highlight what is possible when it comes to holding Israel to account and that international law can be implemented if there is enough political will.

‘Unfortunately, there isn’t enough political will when it comes to serving justice to the Palestinians and this is what we need to change,’ she said.

‘We need to expose these double standards and BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – is a very powerful tool that the people can use in order to hold them to account. It worked with South African apartheid, it can work against Israel. They are using it against Russia and they are calling Russia an occupying power. But Israel is not called as it is and it is time we called it as it is – a racist, apartheid settler-colonialist state.’

Apartheid meeting

The next HRPSC meeting, jointly hosted with Amnesty International’s Kent and East Sussex Network, will be a presentation of Amnesty International’s ground-breaking report into Israeli Apartheid.

In February this year Amnesty International released a powerful new report detailing Israel’s system of military rule, segregation and forced removals that treats Palestinians as an inferior racial group.

The meeting will be at The White Rock Hotel at 3pm on Saturday 2 July. Details can be found here.

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Posted 14:25 Wednesday, Jun 15, 2022 In: Campaigns

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