‘How could the occupier have the right to self-defence?’

Across the world, the Palestinian diaspora is speaking out about the realities of Israeli occupation and bombardment. Conrad Landin speaks to Saga and Ahmed, two young Palestinians who have recently settled in Scotland.
A man waves a Palestinian flag. AHMED ABU HAMEEDA/UNSPLASH
A man waves a Palestinian flag. AHMED ABU HAMEEDA/UNSPLASH

October 7 was just another rainy day in Dundee. But for one young woman who had recently arrived in the city, it was to be a special day back home. Saga, a young master’s student in dental public health who asked to be identified only by her first name, had moved from Gaza to Scotland a few weeks before. Her uncle was getting married on October 7, and Saga spoke to family members as they made preparations for the wedding.

She soon realized something was wrong. As her close family went to their relatives’ home in Deir al-Balah, in the south of Gaza, ‘they all had pale faces, and they were struggling with the internet,’ she tells New Internationalist. In the space of a few hours, Hamas militants launched their attack on Israel, and Palestinians began to realize the scale of the counterattack that would follow.

‘Normal life turned to emergency life,’ says Saga. And it’s been different ever since. ‘I am afraid to ask about any one of my relatives, or my friends. Because I don’t want anybody to tell me that they have been killed.’ It’s the seventh time Israel has launched a concerted attack on Gaza in her lifetime, but though living abroad gives her a level of protection, her course lasts only a year, after which she planned to return to Gaza.

‘Insha’allah, I will come back,’ she says. ‘To be honest I will not be happy to remain here: actually, I am very, very upset that here is a very normal life, people are still laughing, people are still happy, while my family is maybe bombed at any minute there.’

Saga now often feels like she’s in ‘another world’, ‘a zombie film’. She says: ‘I am trying to convince myself that it is a very normal thing to see people every minute be killed in the Gaza Strip. Would it be normal if it happens in the UK, for example? It is double standards.’

How not to help Gazans

For Ahmed, another Palestinian who has recently made Dundee his home, the premonition of an attack came earlier. On 22 September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN Security Council and brandished a map of the Middle East. On this map, there was ‘no West Bank and Gaza… which is barely 12 per cent of the historical Palestine, so nothing,’ Ahmed says. ‘I realized they just wanted something to trigger the ethnic cleansing of the entire people of the West Bank and Gaza.’

Waking up on 7 October, Ahmed ‘knew there would be a lot of massacres, I knew there would be a lot of killing of innocent people, and I knew of course the excuses would always be “human shields”, blah blah blah.’

Unlike Saga, however, he has been based in Britain for the past six years, studying and teaching engineering at universities, but he has only moved to Scotland in the past few months. Scotland’s Palestinian community is small, but now more visible than ever – especially thanks to the Palestinian heritage of Nadia El-Nakla, the Dundonian political activist who is married to Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf. El-Nakla’s Scotland-based parents were in Gaza at the start of the conflict and remained stuck there until 3 November.

Yousaf has spoken movingly about his family’s connection to Palestine and called for a ceasefire in the current war. He has also called ‘on the international community to commit to a worldwide refugee programme for the people of Gaza,’ saying Scotland would be the first country to open its doors.

But this has not impressed Ahmed. ‘You should not say this now, it’s like you are encouraging people to be ethnically cleansed,’ he says of Yousaf’s pronouncement. ‘I mean, I am completely against this system now because it is not how you help people in Gaza. If you want to help them, say we have to stop this killing.’

He had harsh words too for the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who said last month that ‘Israel has the right’ to withhold water and power from Palestinians. After a subsequent uproar, Starmer attempted to backtrack, saying the comments were in response to a previous question. ‘He’s lying, because it’s on TV, it’s there on LBC,’ says Ahmed. ‘Obviously, he said Israel has the right to cut off water, food, electricity. He’s lying one hundred per cent. Especially coming from a humanitarian lawyer, I don’t understand.’

‘Palestinians are not Hamas’

Having worked in journalism as well as dentistry back in Palestine, Saga is particularly distressed by how the conflict has been covered by media organizations. ‘It’s complete propaganda, it’s not something new, but this time it is clear that what is happening in Gaza is genocide and ethnic cleansing, but despite that, the media outlets insist that Israel has the right to defend itself.

‘How could the occupier have [the right to] self-defence against civilians?’ she says. ‘The Palestinian people are not Hamas, when you deal with the whole Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip as Hamas, it’s a stupid thing. Because there are women, there are children, there are civilians, even if they are used as human shields, that gives you the right to bomb them?’

She points to an article that appeared on the BBC website on 16 October and was promoted on the broadcaster’s social media channels. It was headlined: ‘Does Hamas build tunnels under hospitals and schools?’ The next day Gaza’s Al-Ahli Arab Hospital was bombed. ‘So they provoked the Israeli military to bomb the hospitals,’ Saga says. Israel has blamed the attack on a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket, but human rights experts have pointed to inconsistencies in the Israel Defence Force’s account, while audio experts have cast doubt on the veracity of a recording purporting to show Palestinian militants discussing the operation.

Both Saga and Ahmed were planning to visit their families at home over Christmas, but this looks less likely by the day. Longer term, the prospects aren’t much better. Ahmed says he could have gone back to Gaza one day to work at the university where he did his bachelor’s degree. ‘But that is completely destroyed now,’ he says.

Nothing, however, is likely to erase Ahmed’s identity as a citizen of a country that many would rather see disappear off the map. ‘I believe … I would be more beneficial to my people back home,’ he says. As for his family, even if they had the chance to join him in Britain, he is sceptical they would want to. ‘When you are connected to a place, it’s very difficult.’