The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

“What I Witnessed in Gaza Is a Holocaust,” Part 1

Palestinian Writer Susan Abulhawa

MARCH 06, 2024


We speak with Palestinian novelist, poet and activist Susan Abulhawa, who is in Cairo and just returned from two weeks in Gaza. “What’s happening to people isn’t just this death and dismemberment and hunger. It is a total denigration of their personhood, of their whole society,” says Abulhawa. “What I witnessed personally in Rafah and some of the middle areas is incomprehensible, and I will call it a holocaust — and I don’t use that word lightly. But it is absolutely that.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.


A U.N. convoy of food trucks trying to bring 200 tons of food into northern Gaza was turned back by the Israeli military today. A convoy of 14 trucks waited for three hours at the Wadi Gaza checkpoint in central Gaza before it was turned away by the Israeli military and later stopped by a large crowd of desperate people who, quote, “looted the food,” according to the World Food Programme. This comes as Israeli forces have repeatedly opened fire on Palestinians seeking to get aid in northern Gaza, killing at least 119 people in the most deadly attack February 29th.

Hunger has reached catastrophic levels in Gaza. The Palestinian Health Ministry said today the death toll from malnutrition and dehydration has risen to 18, adding, quote, “The famine is deepening and will claim thousands of lives if the aggression is not halted and humanitarian and medical aid is not immediately brought in,” unquote. Children, pregnant women, those with chronic illnesses are most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the Israeli bombardment continues, with shelling and airstrikes today in cities across the Gaza Strip, including in Rafah, Khan Younis, Deir al-Balah and elsewhere. At least 30,700 Palestinians have been killed, over 72,000 wounded in Gaza over the past five months. Nearly the entire population has been displaced from their homes.

For more, we go to Cairo, Egypt, where we’re joined by Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian novelist, poet and activist, author of several books, best known for her debut novel, Mornings in Jenin, an international best-seller translated into 32 languages, considered a classic in Palestinian literature. She’s the founder and co-director of Playgrounds for Palestine, a children’s organization, and the executive director of Palestine Writes Literature Festival. She just returned from Gaza after spending two weeks there, is now in Cairo.

Susan, welcome to Democracy Now! If you can talk about what you saw? You have written, “Some are eating stray cats and dogs, which are themselves starving and sometimes feeding on human remains that litter streets where Israeli snipers picked off people who dared to venture within the sight of their scopes. The old and weak have already died of hunger and thirst.” Describe your trip.

SUSAN ABULHAWA: So, that part of the essay is in the northern region, where nobody really is allowed to go. Trying to venture into the north is a suicide mission. There are tanks and snipers positioned, and anyone trying to get there is basically killed. As you just mentioned, aid trucks are not getting in, either. They are intentionally stopped. And it’s an intentional starvation, basically. I was primarily in the south, in Rafah. I was able to go to Khan Younis and to Nuseirat and a few other places in the middle region, but that became increasingly more dangerous.

I want to say that the reality on the ground is infinitely worse than the worst videos and photos that we’re seeing in the West. There is a — you know, beyond people being buried alive en masse in their homes, their bodies being shredded to pieces, these kinds of videos and images that people are seeing — beyond that, there is this daily massive degradation of life. It is a total denigration of a whole society, that was once high-functioning and proud and has basically been reduced to the most primal of ambitions, you know, being able to get enough water for the day or flour to bake bread. And this is even in Rafah.

And the people in Rafah will tell you that they feel privileged because they’re not starving to death, while their families in the north, the ones that they can reach, because Israel has basically cut off 99% of communication — what remains are basically communications by people who have, you know, set up some ingenious ways to keep internet in the north. But most people in the north have no idea what’s happening. As a matter of fact, at one point — I’m sure you all know Bisan Owda, who is on Facebook. She explained to me she often goes up to the border between Khan Younis and the middle area in the north where you can’t go beyond, and she explained to me that an aid truck, that sort of pushed its way through but was eventually fired on, had — people came up and ran up, thinking that the war was over and people were returning to the north. So, most people in the north are in total darkness and hunger and really have no way of communicating, no way of figuring out where to get food.

And, you know, what we’re hearing on the ground is surreal. It’s dystopic. What I witnessed personally in Rafah and in some of the middle areas is incomprehensible. And I will call it a holocaust — and I don’t use that word lightly. But it is absolutely that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Susan Abulhawa, I want —

SUSAN ABULHAWA: The stories I heard from people are — sorry, go ahead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, no, Susan, I wanted to ask you — you write in your article, “At some point, the indignity of filth is inescapable. At some point, you just wait for death, even as you also wait for a ceasefire. But people don’t know what they will do after a ceasefire.” Could you talk about that, even if there is a ceasefire —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — the level of destruction that the people face now in terms of being able to rebuild their country?

SUSAN ABULHAWA: I mean, that’s how much people have been reduced. I mean, the ceiling of their hope at this point is for the bombs to stop. And, you know, everybody wants to go back. They talk about pitching a tent on their homes and figuring things out. But a lot of people are trying to leave. There is a brain drain, basically. Those who can afford it, those who can raise the money, those who are able to get jobs elsewhere, who have professional skills, are trying to leave. They have children. All the schools have been destroyed. College students have nowhere to go.

You know, what’s happening to people isn’t just this death and dismemberment and hunger. It’s a total denigration of their personhood, of their whole society. There are no universities left. Israel intentionally bombed schools and blew them up, presumably to ensure that rebuilding could not take place, that reestablishing a society cannot take place without the infrastructure of education, of healthcare, and, basically, foundational structures for buildings.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan, I wanted to follow up on what you said about a holocaust. And you also used the term “genocide.” And you say, “Genocide isn’t just mass murder. It is intentional erasure.” Can you take that from there?

SUSAN ABULHAWA: Exactly. I mean, one of the — like I said, one of the things that Israel has been keen to do in Gaza is to erase remnants of people’s lives. So you have, on an individual level, homes, complete with memories and photos and all the things of living. And I’m sure you know Palestinians typically live in multigenerational homes. We’re not a mobile society. And so, these homes have several generations of the same family completely wiped out. On a societal level, you have — Israel has targeted places of worship — mosques, ancient churches, ancient mosques. They have targeted the museums, cultural centers, any place that — libraries. Any place that has records of people’s lives, has remnants and traces of their roots in the land, have been intentionally wiped away.

You know, it’s really frustrating for us to read Western media talk about, you know, Israel is targeting Hamas and whatnot. They’re not. This has always — and when you’re on the ground, you understand this has always been about displacing Palestinians, taking their place and wiping them off the map. That has been Israel’s stated goal, I mean, even in this instance and before, in 1948. It has always been their aim, to destroy us, remove us, kill us and take our place. And that’s what’s happening now in Gaza. It’s what happened in 1948, in 1967. And every new Nakba, every new escalation, is greater than the one before. And here we now arrive at a moment of genocide and holocaust, because the world has allowed Israel to act with such barbarity with impunity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you also — you mentioned the world reaction. More people have died in Gaza in less than five months than have — civilians — than have died in Ukraine in over two years, in the war in Ukraine, and Ukraine has 40 times the population of Gaza. I’m wondering your sense of the failure of the — especially of the Western nations, of Europe and the United States, to act?

SUSAN ABULHAWA: The Western world has lost any semblance of moral authority, if they ever had any. Or, you know, I think that maybe there was an illusion of moral authority previously, but I think — you know, what we have always known is that we are dealing with genocidal colonizers. But I think that is more apparent to the rest of the world at this hour. And I think what’s also happening is that Americans are coming to understand, increasingly, though not nearly enough, that they’re being lied to.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to take up that issue in Part 2 of our discussion, which we’ll post at Susan Abulhawa, Palestinian novelist, thanks so much.

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