In Christ’s birthplace existential war rages

What a sad Christmas season this is for the peace-loving peoples of the world. Devastating wars are being waged, most notably, today, in Palestine and Ukraine. Soldiers are dying, civilians are suffering and dying too, and there seems to be no power on earth that will stop the gunfire.

This is happening in an area that has special significance for many Filipinos, being majority Christians. Bethlehem, which they know as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is today part of the West Bank in Palestine. Nazareth, where he grew up, is today the largest Arab city within Israel.

The carnage is happening on the Gaza Strip, within Palestine, which is governed by the Hamas militant movement. Since Oct. 7, Israel’s military has systematically carried out almost daily airstrikes on Gaza Strip, while its ground troops have conducted a running battle with Hamas fighters.

The Israeli government is retaliating against Hamas’ surprise armed incursion into Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 Israeli civilians and some soldiers and taking hundreds of hostages into Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to carry on the war until it smashes the Hamas forces – which similarly has vowed to smash Israel. The United States government backs Israel; it recently vetoed a majority UN Security Council resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

Thus far, the war has caused 20,000 civilian deaths, levelled a wide swath of Gaza and displaced nearly two million Palestinians with nowhere to go. Netanyahu’s conduct of the war has been condemned by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres as a probable war against humanity.

Beyond the physical destruction and the loss of human lives, something else is happening. The culture and history embedded in the land is being erased – “something existential, rarely acknowledged and potentially irreversible,” in the words of Nesrine Malik, a columnist in the Guardian.

It’s not just the Christian religion that has deep roots in Gaza. Earlier this month, she wrote, Israeli airstrikes destroyed Gaza’s oldest mosque. “The Omari mosque was originally a 5th century Byzantine church, an iconic landmark of Gaza: 44,000 square feet of history, architecture and cultural heritage,” Malik pointed out, “but it was also a live site of contemporary practice and worship.” A 45-year-old Gazan who had been praying there and playing around it since his childhood decried that Israel is “trying to wipe out our memories.”

Also dating back to the 5th century and believed to be the third oldest church in the world, St. Porphyrius church was the oldest in Gaza. It sheltered displaced people, among them members of the oldest Christian community in the world (dating back to the lst century). It was damaged in an airstrike in October.

So far, more than 100 heritage sites in Gaza have been damaged or leveled. 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,” Malik wrote on, “the future is also being curtailed. The Islamic University of Gaza, the first higher education institution established in the Gaza Strip in l978 and which trains, among others, Gaza’s doctors and engineers, has been destroyed, along with more than 200 schools.”

The university rector, Satian Tayeh, was killed along with his family in the airstrike. He was the UNESCO chair of physical, astrophysical and space science in Palestine. Other high-profile academics who have been killed included a microbiologist and a prominent poet-writer.

Journalists are also being killed. As of last week, more than 60 had become casualties of the war. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an American nonprofit organization, has said that those reporting on the war risk not only death or injury, but “multiple assaults, threats, cyber attacks, censorship and killings of members of their families.

“As the ability to tell these stories publicly comes under attack,” Malik noted, “so do the private rituals of mourning and memorialization.” She cited a New York Times report that Israeli ground forces are bulldozing cemeteries in their advance on the Gaza Strip, destroying at least six of them so far.

Ahmed Masoud, a British-Palestinian writer in Gaza, wrote and posted online a picture of himself visiting his father’s grave. “This is the graveyard in Jabalia [refugee] camp. 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,” Malik wrote, lamenting, “Libraries and museums are being levelled, and what is lost in the documents that have been burned joins a larger toll of record-keeping.”

Meanwhile, the scale of the killings is so large that entire extended families are disappearing. The result, she wrote, “is like tearing pages out of a book.” “Such loss results in the erasure of shared memories and identities for those who survive,” she quoted Dina Mater, a professor at the Soas University in London, as saying. “Remembering matters. These are important elements when you want to put together histories and stories of ordinary lives.”

“Remembering matters,” Malik reiterated, “and it’s easy to forget…that the Gaza Strip is a real place that, even though it existed behind a fence,…was not only just an ‘open-air prison’.”

Gaza Strip, she wrote, “has Mediterranean cities of tree-lined boulevards and bougainvillea, 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,” Malik mused, “as is only natural among any people given the chance to express themselves, no matter how difficult the circumstances. They too are vanishing.”

“This is what it would look,” she concluded, “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.”

Published in Philippine Star
December 23, 2023

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