A brief visit to Gaza this past January brought back a flood of warm, joyful memories of the two years that my family and I lived in the city’s Rimal district in the late 1990s. So many snacks and meals of Gazan delicacies with good friends—tomato salads flavored with dagga ghazzawiyeh (a mixture of hot chilis with dill), zibdiyet gambari (a spicy shrimp dish baked in a clay pot), the lamb-rice mixture of qidreh cooked in clay jars, drinks of warm, creamy sahlab from Kazem’s on Gaza’s Omar al-Mukhtar thoroughfare. Watching the rhythmic waves of the Mediterranean lap up against Gaza’s beach. Laughter over tea and coffee with friends in the refugee camps of Deir el-Balah and Khan Younis. Gratitude to the caring staff at al-Shifa Hospital who looked after our pre-school aged daughter during a medical scare. A trip with a friend to bathe at the centuries-old hammam in Gaza’s Zaytoun district. Gaza’s Catholic priest coming to our home, accompanied by Baba Noël, to bless it. The early morning drums and calls of the neighborhood sahrawati, waking people up during Ramadan to eat before the day’s fast began.
What will be left of Gaza’s everyday joys when these relentless Israeli military attacks are finished? Who will remain to rebuild? Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has promised to turn Gaza “into rubble” and has compared Gazans to Amalek, the biblical foe whom God commands be slaughtered in their entirety. Ret. Major General Giora Eiland proclaimed that “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.” The Israeli Ministry of Intelligence circulated a “concept paper” proposing that the Israeli military force all of Gaza’s 2.2 million inhabitants into Egypt’s Sinai desert. As I write this, 75% of Gazans have been uprooted from their homes, pushed south past Wadi Ghazzah (even as Israel bombs the southern Gaza Strip as well). Whether one calls it genocide or no, Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is, for Palestinians, another nakba, a catastrophe, an intensification of a 75-year history of progressive dispossession of Palestinians by the Israeli state.1 It’s the burying of the life of everyday joys and traditions clung to and maintained by Gaza’s overwhelmingly refugee population—it’s the destruction of a joyful way of life fostered by Gazans for decades amidst the hardships of exile.
In 1996, a friend invited me to a Sufi zawiya in Gaza’s Sheja’iyeh neighborhood to observe prayers. The gathered men stood in a circle, holding hands, inhaling and exhaling together, then saying God’s name together, while beginning to move up and down, on the verge of jumping, attending to the presence of God’s love as close as one’s breath. Sufism has a long history in Palestine, and in recent years has experienced renewal in Gaza, to the consternation of some Hamas authorities, who distrust the priority Gaza’s Sufis typically place on spiritual focus and devotion over politics.
As I receive brief text messages from friends in Gaza (“I am not OK,” “Horror,” “Pray for us please please please”) and scroll through the dispatches of brave Palestinian journalists still posting from Gaza, I try to calm my mind by focusing on my breath, focusing on the names and faces of people I Iove, each exhalation a plea for safety for Majeda, Amal, Maryam, for Samar and her family, for Refqa, Khalid, and Amjad. With further breaths I picture Israeli friends committed to a future of peace with Palestinians: Eitan, Noga, Jeff. And with still further breaths I picture some of the thousands devastated since October 7 whose faces I have only seen online—Israelis killed by Hamas fighters at a rave, so many Gazans whose bodies have been pulled from the crushed debris of homes bombed by Israeli forces, patients across Gaza dying because Israel prevents supplies from reaching hospitals, Israelis imprisoned by Hamas forces in underground tunnels, including children and the elderly, Gazans desperately searching for a bite of bread to eat and a drop of clean water to drink. The images come fast and become overwhelming. I seek to center myself with an Arabic prayer: God of peace, rain peace upon us; God of peace, fill our hearts with peace.
The Great Omari Mosque in Gaza’s Daraj neighborhood, with its fascinating layering of Byzantine, Mamluk, Crusader, and Ottoman architectural elements, is believed to stand on the site of a Philistine temple to Dagon (later to Marnas). Local Gazan tradition associates the site with the biblical legend of Samson (Shimshon al-Jabbar, in Arabic), the temple where the imprisoned champion, blinded and enfeebled, cried out, “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes,” with the additional plea to “Let me die with the Philistines.” Scripture reports that those Samson killed at his death, after he brought down the building where he was imprisoned on his own head and those of his captors, “were more than those he had killed during his life” (Joshua 16:28-30).
Who is Samson today? Do we read Samson’s story today as heroic? As a tale of a figure desperately trapped in an agonizing cycle of revenge? As a flawed, strange character whose story offers little in the way of an edifying lesson? The Hamas attacks on October 7 brought Israeli illusions of security crashing down—but have also provoked an Israeli military response that has reduced a huge amount of Gaza’s housing and infrastructure to debris, burying thousands upon thousands of Gazans under the concrete and rebar. On October 11, Amir Rotem, editor-in-chief of the Israeli magazine Local Call, wrote somberly that “an operation of a thousand eyes for an eye is underway” in Gaza.2 What Israel proclaims as justified military action appears to much of the world as massive revenge. Samson-like cries for revenge have buried hopes for a future of a Palestinian-Israeli peace based on freedom, justice, and equity even further than those hopes had already been buried by three decades of a carceral “peace process” that progressively fragmented Palestinians into ever-more-disconnected parcels of territory, hemmed in by walls, fences, checkpoints, roadblocks, and electronic surveillance.
“God is under the rubble in Gaza,” writes Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Lutheran theologian and priest in Bethlehem.3 Palestinian Christians in Gaza share the fate of their Muslim friends and neighbors during this horrendous war, including being crushed under rubble by Israeli bombardment—on October 19, an Israeli air strike caused the assembly hall of the St. Porphyrios Greek Orthodox church compound in Gaza’s Zaytoun neighborhood to collapse, killing 18 Christians, joining the thousands upon thousands of Gazans killed by Israeli strikes since October 7.
Under and amidst the rubble, Gaza’s Christians cling to the promise of the new life offered by God through and with Jesus. “We were baptized here, and we will die here,” testified Ibrahim Jahsan, an Orthodox Christian, at the funeral of the martyrs from the Israeli bombardment that crushed them under the ruins of the assembly hall.4 One week later, the Orthodox community gathered on October 28 to baptize the community’s nine children who had not yet received the sacrament, a witness to and proclamation of new life in the face of rampant death. At the nearby compound of the Holy Family Catholic church, also in Zaytoun, George Antone posted a brief poem on November 10 about how the current horror has shaped the Christian community and has turned them amidst the rubble to the hope of salvation in God’s loving embrace:
We are better and stronger now than we were.
Our children chew fear to make it disappear, and our women bake despair in the oven to feed us hope.
We are children of God and He prepares us in the ship of salvation.
And for those who go out to His Paradise, He has prepared for them a place, as He promised, and their future in His sanctuary.5
As I write, calls for a ceasefire and for a release of hostages and prisoners have gone unheeded. Serious steps towards a future of freedom, justice, and equality seem infinitely more remote—what looms on the horizon is threat of more death, more exile and dispossession, hardened barriers that prevent Israelis and Palestinians from encountering one another as humans made in God’s image. A friend recently observed on social media that all proposed “solutions” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (one state, two states, a federation of some sort) currently appear equally utopian, as in equally distant, without a clear or even distorted roadmap for how to get there. Yet utopian visioning is essential for keeping the embers of hope alive during the war’s devastation (while practical ways to stay warm during Gaza’s winter will also be needed for the over 1.6 million Gazans displaced from their homes).
In 2014, the Palestinian playwright and Israeli citizen, Amir Nizar Zuabi, offered one such utopian vision, reimaging the network of tunnels created by Hamas not as “terror tunnels,” but as a metaphor for how Palestinian life in Gaza has been driven “underground” in the face of years of military and economic siege, maintaining a furtive hope under the rubble that an alternative to the degrading violence of life under military occupation is possible. Zuabi writes:
we start to hope that if we keep on digging, all the way to the core, if we don’t stop, if we perforate the land like a honeycomb, if we make it as flimsy as silk, maybe it will suddenly collapse in on itself. And then, like a tray piled with cups of coffee and cookies that crashes to the floor in a mess of crumbs and glass, it will all mix together. The upper part and the lower part will blend. And the rules will change. And we’ll be able to say with a sigh of relief: Here is a piece of sky mixed with a cracked piece of sea; here is Shujaiyeh [neighborhood in Gaza] mixed with Sderot [Israeli city]; here is Zeitoun [Gazan neighborhood] mixed with the Mount of Olives; here is compassion mixed with relief; here is one human being mixed with another. And we’ll know that we were saved from the living death in which we are trapped, and now we’ll join the life of above, and with them build a new land.6
Zuabi’s utopian vision is of course just that: utopian. For many Israelis, the Hamas attacks on October 7 were a brutal confirmation that coexistence with Palestinians is impossible. For Palestinians, the ensuing war on Gaza, coupled with intensified assaults on Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank, including the depopulation of 16 communities, along with harsh Israeli surveillance and repression of its Palestinian citizens, stand as evidence that the end goal of the Zionist project is their elimination from the land. The utopian vision for a shared future for Palestinian and Israeli alike seems buried underground in Gaza. Yet the Palestinian churches proclaim that God is also buried under the rubble, and that hope can and does spring forth from that tomb.
The phoenix is the symbol of Gaza.
- For discussions about the use of the term genocide to describe Israel’s actions, see Raz Segal, “A Textbook Case of Genocide,” Jewish Currents (October 13, 2023), available at https://jewishcurrents.org/a-textbook-case-of-genocide, and Omer Bartov, “What I Believe as a Historian of Genocide,” The New York Times (November 10, 2023), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/10/opinion/israel-gaza-genocide-war.html. See also Yuval Abraham, “Expel All Palestinians from Gaza, Recommends Israeli Government Ministry,” +972 Magainze (October 30, 2023), available at https://www.972mag.com/intelligence-ministry-gaza-population-transfer/.
- Amir Rotem, “Operation ‘A Thousand Eyes for an Eye’ is Underway in Gaza,” +972 Magazine (October 11, 2023), available at https://www.972mag.com/gaza-operation-supplies-dehumanization/.
- Munther Isaac, “God Is Under the Rubble in Gaza,” Sojourners (October 30, 2023), available at https://sojo.net/articles/god-under-rubble-gaza.
- “ ‘We Were Baptized Here, and We Will Die Here’: Gaza’s Oldest Church Bombed,” Al-Jazeera, published October 20, 2023. Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2023/10/20/we-were-baptised-here-and-we-will-die-here-gazas-oldest-church-bombed?fbclid=IwAR1IZDWtP615pu5MqnX3MSMQ7Ehfp_RwB6LhcH3mIhSXQKanonqDRFIzAQ4.
- Posted on Facebook on November 10, 2023, https://www.facebook.com/george.antone.75.
- Amir Nizar Zuabi, “The Underground Ghetto City of Gaza,” Haaretz (August 4, 2014), available at https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/2014-08-04/ty-article/.premium/the-underground-ghetto-of-gaza/0000017f-e4dc-d9aa-afff-fddca82e0000.