My son asks me what will be left when we return to Gaza. The answer? Only rubble and memories

Ghada Ageel

Each Palestinian home has two hearths: the

space where the family eats and the kitchen, where the food is prepared. These rooms are where the fires of life and hospitality burn most brightly.

When I visit Khan Younis, one of the popular family meals we enjoy together is maghluba (“upside down” in Arabic): a large, savoury cake of rice, vegetables and chicken cooked in a large pot. When the meal is ready, the pot is turned upside down and the family gather around to await the unveiling, when the pot is lifted off to display the yellow rice, red tomatoes and deep brown aubergines. Every dish of maghluba is a family celebration.

Today, with the destruction of Khan Younis, and of my family home there, it feels like my life has been turned maghluba. My youngest son, Aziz, cannot understand how a home can disappear. He still carries all the emotions and the fond memories of his auntie’s kisses. “Mom?” he asks incessantly. “Who will be left when we visit this summer? What will be left?”

My cousin, Heba, is still in Khan Younis, though displaced to the Al-Mawasi area, where she is in a tent. She wrote in a Facebook post that a home is “an extension of our soul”. Therefore, the destruction of a home is not just a physical act of violence, but also a spiritual one. It is violence against the memory of “whispers, scents, possessions and our children’s laughter”. The deliberate destruction of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian homes has prompted some people to characterise Israel’s actions as “domicide”, which the scholars J Douglas Porteous and Sandra E Smith say “involves major, planned operations that occur rather sporadically in time but often affect large areas and change the lives of considerable numbers of people”.

The desire to wreak vengeance is clear. Take the claim by Rami Igra, the former head of the Mossad, that the entire Palestinian population of Gaza could be regarded as combatants. Such claims have gone unchallenged by outlets such as CNN.

The consequence of these claims is the displacement of about 1.9 million people. Among those are hundreds of thousands of individuals whose homes have been subjected to wanton destruction not justified by military necessity. This marks the fourth generation of Palestinian homes to be destroyed since the Nakba, the catastrophe inflicted by Israel that shattered Palestinian society in 1948. Despite the continuing domicide, the western world continues to turn a blind eye, refusing to act or acknowledge the suffering of our people.

Heba’s story embodies the broader Palestinian narrative. Her father, Jawad, was born in Beit Daras, a village erased from current world maps. In 1948, Jawad, at only one-year-old, along with my then three-year-old father and my grandmother, Khadija, faced forced expulsion from Beit Daras. Barred from returning, they sought refuge in Khan Younis camp, one of several refugee camps established by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to temporarily house refugees.I visited Heba last summer. Her home was an oasis in the midst of Gaza’s bleak, grey tower blocks. Warmth and beauty filled every corner. She called it “paradise on Earth”.

It has since turned into paradise lost. On 12 October, several missiles struck Heba’s cousin’s home in the heart of the Khan Younis camp. Her cousin, a heavily pregnant teacher, was killed alongside her two children aged three and one, as well as nine neighbours and other women and children seeking shelter in their home. Then, on 26 October, three multistorey homes housing 36 family members, including her uncle, aunt, cousins and all of their children and grandchildren, were destroyed. One week later, the home of another cousin was destroyed. The destruction of relatives’ and neighbours’ homes continued throughout November and December. On Christmas Day, the entire refugee camp was ordered to evacuate. By January, most of the refugee camp homes lay in ruins. The camp and its infrastructure were destroyed either by tank shells, aerial shelling, carpet bombing or fire.

Heba’s raw messages shake me with their profundity and their pain. “Our homes are woven from our flesh, our toil, and our aspirations. We may rebuild new houses but they will never replace the homes that once sheltered our dreams. Home is not a sum of money; it is a sanctuary, a comforting embrace, a complex fragrance that defies replication. Our longing to embrace our homes mirrors the ache within us, echoing the plight of our cherished abodes.”

My response to Heba’s cries is visceral. In October, my own home in Al-Zahra was destroyed. The town was devastated in a blink of an eye. The memories of my former life lie under the rubble: all the precious photo albums with images from my graduation, my children’s first steps and the smiles from the early days of my marriage. It feels like a bomb was dropped on to the very substance of my memories. Today, it feels like myself and Heba are continuing a grim family tradition.

In the 1980s, our grandmother visited the old village of Beit Daras. Overwhelmed by the destruction, she wandered through the remnants of what was once a thriving village. In shock she asked her son (who is now displaced in Rafah) to leave her alone for some time. Eventually, she stumbled upon a fragment of her house – a solitary wall standing amid the ruins. With tears streaming down her face, she embraced the wall, clinging to the memories it held, even as they lay in ruins around her.

For Heba and myself, there will be no solace in such remnants. Unlike our grandmother, we have no walls to embrace. The only answer to my son’s innocent question is that on our visit to Gaza this summer, all we will find will be the fragments of our memories, scattered amid the rubble of our once-beloved homes.

(Source: The Guardian)