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Being A Spectator, Or Bearing Witness

posted on: Jun 5, 2024

By: Barbara Nimri Aziz / Arab America Contributing Writer

They are watching us. At least, they were. Before they became overwhelmed with grief, before they collapsed, wounded, dazed by hunger, confusion, and fear. By now, they must have completely given up on our world of voyeurs, including those taking a moment to glimpse that relentless slaughter day over there. 

They know how we live—our pools and malls, our raucous ball games. Gazan graduates win scholarships to study here. Women and men locked in that smoldering prison have relatives in the US, families who managed to emigrate war after war since 1967. They know how determinedly relatives toiling overseas month after month send some savings back to Jabalia, back to Khan Younis, back to Rafah, back to Deir al-Balah, to Beit Lahia and Gaza City. They drink Fanta and Coke and Maxwell coffee; they buy foreign-made diapers for their infants and children’s outfits embossed with American brand names. They welcome secondhand clothes shipped by charities from church after church, mosque after mosque, country after country. Mothers follow Arabic-dubbed Turkish series after series, while youngsters gather to cheer Mission Impossible’s heroes after heroes. They huddle together to ‘Facetime’ with uncles and cousins in Dearborn, in Austin, in Brooklyn, in Minneapolis, city after city. Before: at home and in the tea shops, they debate comments by senators and secretaries of state, quote their promise after promise and their excuse after excuse, list their AIPAC cash, election after election. 


Palestinians under occupation perpetually looked to the United States. Not only because family members had settled and prospered here. They believed in American democratic ideals; they were beneficiaries of US charity; they watched the US government assume the leadership, brokering treaty after treaty – ostensibly to secure Palestinian sovereignty – with Israel. They saw one US president agonize over the trashing of the treaties he sponsored. Then they watched with renewed promise when a Black man occupied the White House, expecting that the history of his race would align him with their dispossession – only to be spurned by him. 

Palestinians know better than anyone about the schemes and habits of Israel. So, when they lost faith in outside powers’ ability to coerce, bribe, or otherwise convince Israel to forge a real peace, their appeals to Allah were steadfast. This, even as they tried non-violent resistance alongside military strategies. 


What percentage of Gaza and West Bank Palestinians celebrated the valiant attack by Hamas last October, I don’t know. How prepared they were for the overwhelming Israeli military onslaught through these months, I doubt. Can they glimpse any light at the end of this endless corpse-after corpse-strewn fire-tunnel? Do they regret evacuating their home to trudge, naked and humiliated, mile after mile towards more danger, now wishing: ‘better to have stayed, better to perish under our own crushed photos, books, potted plants, and furnishings’? 

However severe their hardships, they will fast in Ramadan and visit ancestors in quiet cemeteries – before. A few may still dream to perform Hajj. Once, if they survive this.

That every Palestinian killed in these seven months is embraced as a martyr – joining tens of thousands martyred in past assaults and assassinations – may help sustain those who still breathe. We’ve glimpsed snippets of their steadfast courage – exhausted medics, gritty journalists, wounded ambulance drivers, humble burial attendants, patient caregivers (some children themselves), and food distributors along with those boys scavenging through rubble for a trace of the untraceable. We receive horrific image-after-image direct from blood-soaked places where, through screams and prayers, men and women determinedly aim their phone cameras to show us unwelcome realities. Day after day, with journalists assassinated or banned from Gaza, with scanty IT connections, they insist on somehow delivering those agonizing images to the world.

Maybe, when they still had the means, those 2 million plus Palestinians under assault witnessed with some hope, South Africa’s presentations to the ICJ. They may have heard that unequivocal early condemnation of Israel by a sole Irish parliamentarian, then noted the steady rise day-by-day of other voices against genocide. Their expectations surely surged by what seemed to be a flood of protests city after city worldwide. Their Nakba became part of global vocabulary; even children learned the dreaded word ‘genocide’. Their Palestinian flag-after-flag and keffiyeh scarf-after-scarf became symbols of victory. 


They realize by now that one more massacre would make little difference to outsiders. One more sabotaged humanitarian shipment, another world court judgment, a further UN Security Council vote: none would deter Israel or shame Western leaders to do what they know is politically and morally right. 

They know some of us are following the war. On our side, we – voyeurs are what we are, let’s face it – gather some cash for humanitarian aid that has little chance of reaching its destination, share stories of another dead infant, cite further proof of genocide, post our heartfelt poems, declare how our eyes have been opened, sign another petition. We hail a college valedictorian for their strong words, we endorse the unequivocal statement of the single American congressperson who cries out so eloquently “I am never going to stop saying Palestinians deserve freedom, that we need to free Palestine… no armaments to kill Palestinians”.

They are watching us, as, however modest or feeble our efforts, we cannot but turn our head away in shame. If not shame for our personal inadequacy, then shame for our membership in this government and our duplicitous press. A Palestinian youth of about 16, struggling through rubble, face streaked with ash and sweat, fist raised, shrieks at a camera: “We will get you; we will get you; you cannot destroy us”.

Dr. Barbara Nimri Aziz is an American anthropologist, journalist, and writer. She is known for her research and scholarship in the areas of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies. Aziz played a leading role in the Arab-American literary sphere and was involved in establishing the literary collective RAWI. She also traveled to Occupied Palestine on dozens of occasions as a correspondent throughout the 1990s. Learn about Aziz at this link:

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