The two-hour lecture by the Norwegian emergency doctor Mads Gilbert about Israel’s 2014 air, ground and sea assault of the besieged Gaza enclave, was for me the highlight of Palfest, a four-day artistic commemoration of the destruction of Gaza in July 2014. Dr Gilbert, who engages in the political act of solidarity medicine, mesmerised a capacity audience at the O’Reilly Theatre on July 11, emphasising the impunity with which Israel continues to occupy, blockade, attack and kill the people of Palestine. He also highlighted the role of the real heroes – the medics and paramedics working in Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital, where he has served several terms as an accidents and emergency doctor, as well as the ordinary Gazans whose losses are unfathomable. He played the noise of the air bombardment, that together with his photographs of dead and wounded children, women and men brought the atrocities home to his audience. This made a Dublin-based Lebanese woman sitting next to me collapse in tears, remembering the 2006 Israeli attack on Beirut. And as she was sobbing I recalled a member of my Israeli family, a jet pilot who took an active part in the bombardment, and we hugged and cried together – victim and perpetrator united in opposing Israeli aggression.
Palfest was an incredibly effective and well attended volunteer-run initiative by Irish artists – actors, musicians, visual artists, film makers, and poets – aiming to commemorate the anniversary of the Gaza assault, support Palestine and demonstrate the solidarity of the Irish arts community with the people of Palestine.
There were many highlights during Palfest’s action packed four days, including theatre productions, poetry readings, lectures and film screenings. The ‘Sumud / Steadfastedness’ photography exhibition brought together three photographic projects about Gaza. In ‘Gaza seen by its children’ Belgian photographer Asmaa Seba showed the result of working with six children who witnessed the massacre during Israel’s previous bombardment in 2008. Anne Paq’s photographs showed the consequences for Gaza’s ‘obliterated families’, and Dublin-based Fatin Al Tamimi exhibited photos of acts of solidarity with Palestine in Ireland.
Another incredibly moving event was the ‘No more: Dublin remembers the children of Gaza’ installation on Sandymount strand, where 551 children’s vests represented the 551 children murdered by Israel during the 2014 massacre.
It is hard to be optimistic about the possibility of Gaza recovering from Israel’s most recent 51-day attack, leaving 2,251 Palestinians dead, the majority (1,462) civilians, and thousands injured, many of whom will remain disabled for life. The destruction of the tiny enclave, one of the most densely populated areas in the world with the highest (43%) unemployment rate, has been unprecedented. With Israel blocking the importation of building materials, some 100,000 Gazans remain homeless and many have been living in the ruins of their homes through the harsh winter and the current relentless heat. Despite UN reports and civil society pressure, Israel seems determined to continue the siege.
Even though optimism seems remote, Palfest’s commitment to freedom and justice for Gaza and Palestine reminded us that pessimism is a luxury none of us can afford. Many of us shed tears and felt the pain, but it was the determination of Ireland’s amazing artists, culminating on the final night in an energising concert at Liberty Hall, that strengthened our resolve to continue to struggle for an end to the Israeli occupation and siege, and for freedom and justice for all Palestinians, those in 1948 Palestine (the state of Israel), those occupied in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, those under siege in Gaza and those in the diaspora, waiting to return.