On July 20, our friend Samar Alhallaq, who was aged 29 years, her six-year-old son Kenan, her four-year-old son Saji, and her eight-month unborn child were killed in Gaza, together with five other members of their wider family. An Israeli shell demolished the residential building to which they had fled in trying to seek shelter from Israel’s attacks.
We came to know Samar and her little boys when they came to Oxford during the summer of 2013, to join Samar’s husband Hassan. Hassan was the third annual scholar awarded the Gaza Oxford Brookes University Scholarship, which was established after Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008-2009. Hassan won the Technologies Prize awarded by Oxford Brookes University’s Department of Computing and Communication for outstanding achievement in the Masters Degree of Science in eBusiness.
We saw quite a lot of the Alhallaq family last summer, and, despite not having any language in common, Kenan and Saji seemed to get on well with Millie and Layla, our grandchildren who live with us. On one of the family’s visits to our home, we introduced Samar to the Palestinian History Tapestry Project, which has been set up to extend friendship and support to Palestinian women.
The Palestinian History Tapestry Project is a charity that was established to create a tapestry based on individually embroidered panels. Each panel is sewn with traditional Palestinian cross stitch and illustrates the life and times of the Palestinian people.
The patterns used in Palestinian embroidery are traditionally based on geometrical shapes and stylised images, but they also sometimes include designs that reflect daily life and events. Samar, who had been taught to embroider as a child by the older women in her family, became interested in this project and thought she might like to contribute. She stitched a small panel entitled Samidoun, which means “We Are Steadfast”. It is based on a symbol used to express solidarity with women hunger strikers in Israeli prisons.
Samar said that she liked the idea of spreading Palestinian history worldwide through stitches made by Palestinian women. On her return to Gaza, she met up with Jamila Alza’anin – the second Gaza Oxford Brookes University scholar – who was working voluntarily to commission panels for the Palestinian History Tapestry Project.
Jamila was delighted when Samar offered to help her coordinate the contributions of the various embroidery groups in Gaza. The beautiful panels the groups produce depict various tableaux, ranging from historical events to scenes and activities of daily life, such as the roof tops and local produce of Gaza and women celebrating together at a henna party.
Our interest in the occupied Palestinian territories and its people is longstanding, and we know the Gaza Strip particularly well.
Many years ago we worked there for two years in clinics for Palestinian refugees run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and we have returned there at intervals. During recent visits, we have witnessed the dire effects of the restrictions imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007 by Israel, and more recently by Egypt.
Since the imposition of the siege, Israel has launched two major attacks on Gaza, in 2008 and 2012. The devastation arising from the 2014 Israeli offensive has been exceptional, however, as we know from speaking to our friends in Gaza.
On July 22, Nafiz Abu-Shaban, Director of the Burns Unit at the Shifa Hospital, wrote: “I witnessed the previous two wars against us in Gaza in 2008 and 2012. None of them was like the present one…Everyone and every place is targeted – civilian houses, handicap homes, hospitals, ambulances, children, women.” Unsurprisingly, many of the hundreds of Gazans killed and injured during this and previous attacks have been civilians. As one of us wrote in The Lancet after Israel’s 2008-2009 attack on Gaza: “Israel defines itself as ‘the Jewish State’; yet, within the territory it controls and continues to colonise, there is now approximate parity in the numbers of Israeli Jewish people and non-Jewish, Palestinian Arab people (of whom 3.7 million live in the occupied territories and 1.2 million in Israel). For many, Israel will continue to be judged by its attitudes and actions towards the non-Jews whose lives it controls.”
The UK has special responsibilities for what is happening in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory today, because of its repeated betrayal of its century-old promise to protect the rights of the non-Jewish Palestinian people.
As we write it is clear that Samar, Kenan, and Saji are just three among hundreds of civilians who have been killed during the Israeli attacks this year. When can we expect the UK Government to require Israel to observe international law and to observe the Geneva conventions?
We are biased in favour of the oppressed and biased against oppressors.
Jan and Iain Chalmers, a nurse and a doctor respectively, worked for UNRWA in Gaza in 1969 and 1970. Sir Iain is a co-founder of the Cochrane Collaboration (www.cochrane.org); Lady Jan is co-founder of the Palestinian History Tapestry Project (www.pht2012.wordpress.com). This article first appeared in The Lancet