Palestinian culture minister recounts 90 days of death and destruction in Gaza: AFP report

AFP , Thursday 8 Feb 2024

Palestinian culture minister Atef Abu Seif was in Gaza on 7 October for a planned ceremony when the Hamas attack on Israel set off the war and left him trapped for 90 days.

Atef Abu Seif
Palestinian culture minister Atef Abu Seif speaks during an event which was held in the Yasser Arafat museum on 6 February, 2024. Photo courtesy of Palestinian culture Ministry.

  

During those painful months, Abu Seif said he witnessed unimaginable death and destruction and lost countless relatives and friends in the coastal territory where he was born.

Abu Seif is a Palestinian writer who was born in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1973 to a refugee family originally from Jaffa in historic Palestine.

He holds a BA from Birzeit University, an MA from the University of Bradford (UK) and a PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the University of Florence, Italy.

Now back in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank after he managed to escape the war zone, Abu Seif, 50, talked to AFP about the traumatic experience.

"Gaza is no longer Gaza," he said. After the war ends, he added, "We will need a new Gaza".

The minister was in the territory on October 7, which marked Palestinian Heritage Day, for a planned ceremony at the Al-Qarara Museum in the southern city of Khan Younis.

"I wanted to celebrate the launch of Palestinian Heritage Day from Gaza for the first time in history," he said.

But it was not to be.

That Saturday saw Hamas launch their unprecedented military operation against Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Hamas also seized around 250 captives. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have been killed from Israeli bombardment of the strip.

Israel, vowing to eliminate Hamas, launched relentless air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,840 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Abu Seif said the toll includes many of his friends and "more than 100 relatives, including my sister-in-law and her children".

'Grief is postponed'

 

Abu Seif said he spent the first 48 days of the war with his 17-year-old son and family members in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza.

But then their home was hit by an Israeli strike, forcing them to flee, like half of Gaza's population of 2.4 million.

They headed south to Rafah, on the border with Egypt, which Israel now says is the next target of its military campaign.

From his days in Jabalia, Abu Seif has painful memories, including helping pull bodies from under the rubble after a strike hit a relative's home.

"We were shocked to find that a body which a friend retrieved belonged to his 16-year-old son," said Abu Seif. "The war in Gaza is ugly."

Abu Seif said he eventually managed to leave Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to return to Ramallah via Jordan.

"I cannot imagine what my neighbourhood in the (Jabalia) camp looks like now," he said.

And what will happen, he said, when he returns one day to Gaza and does "not find half of my friends alive"?

"All the grief of the people of Gaza is postponed... because the sadness has no longer a meaning and is no longer useful in survival."

Before the war, Abu Seif used to travel to Gaza from Ramallah on Thursdays to link up with his friends for the weekend.

He said now "almost half of them" have been killed.

Historic sites destroyed

 

His ministry says the damage has been immense to Gaza's cultural heritage.

Around 195 historical buildings, including mosques and churches, and 24 cultural institutes have been damaged or destroyed, it says.

The Al-Qarara Museum, which was surrounded by 5,000-year-old Roman columns, and an ancient Phoenician harbour have also been destroyed, said Abu Seif.

Abu Seif criticised the UN's cultural agency UNESCO "for keeping silent" on the destruction.

After his return home, Abu Seif urged Palestinian authors and academics living in Gaza to write about their lives there.

The result is a collection of stories from 24 authors called "Writing Behind the Lines".

One account entitled "The Donkey of Return" tells the story of Gazans forced to use donkey-drawn carts amid dire fuel shortages.

Others relate to the challenges of the internally displaced with titles such as "Seven times displaced" and "We hope to survive".

"It is important for Gaza's writers... to write about their lives," said Abu Seif. "We want the world to read them.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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