Genocide will always remain a crime that the world prefers to acknowledge in retrospect. An apology, a “never again” pledge, a fact-finding mission, a handful of human remains handed half-heartedly to the bereaved. Decades, centuries, lifetimes. Genocide exists within academic and legal frameworks as a way to mark exceptional forms of violence, and to be counted as such, it demands of its victims the willingness to endure spectacle after the spectacle of violence to be registered as a footnote in a file somewhere—finally qualified to be heard before the sanctimonious temples of international laws. Genocide is classified by its supposed rarity, as a horrifying aberration, an unfortunate anomaly in the routine of state violence, civilised, permissible violence.
Nakba, on the other hand, gestures an overturning, a calamity in motion, a verb—present continuous. Nakba, the catastrophe jostling against all corners of time, devastation sinking its teeth across all space. Nakba is the interstice between each moment that begins and expands ‘Israel.’ If genocide is the precision of numbers, Nakba is numbers exceeding all imagination, the inability to count any further. Every Palestinian death and every Palestinian dispossession is ‘Israel’’s attempt to continue its beginning. Each loss is singular, each its own distinct Nakba. If academic and legal institutions read genocide as an event, Nakba asserts its material urgency in its continuum: the settler-colonial project of ‘Israel’ is dependent on the Nakba to sustain itself; there can be no settler life without indigenous death. This is the epistemic weight that Nakba carries. Dust that continues to rise, wounding that refuses to subside. A doing-undoing.
80 days and our eyes see the unspeakable. But this hyperspectacle of Zionist violence is made possible by the slow forms of violence that have shaped the last 75 years. Specifically, in the case of Gaza, the siege has been a measured method of administering death, slowly, without a trace of blood; the city and her people are always kept enclosed from all claims to be allowed to be counted as human. The recorded massacres, mass maiming, torture, and sexual violence are accompanied by the unrecorded humiliation, enforced disappearances, and rubble entrapments are accompanied by the untranslatable stress, paranoia, anxiety, and palpitations are accompanied by the unspeakable. 80 days and our eyes continue to see.
The last three weeks have witnessed rising hunger levels and an alarming increase in skin diseases among the starving population of Gaza. There are cases of heart attacks, of wounded slowly succumbing to their injuries, of others left to die because their chronic and terminal illnesses have no infrastructure of support anymore, of women being robbed of their reproductive autonomy, of infections and contagious diseases multiplying in conditions where sanitation is impossible, of rain seeping into makeshift tents and cold seeping into grieving bodies, of a landscape rendered toxic for the next few decades with its air and water being dangerously polluted by the unceasing brutality of Zionist weapons. From tens of thousands of bunker-buster bombs to thousands of metres covered in blistering smoke of white phosphorus, “precision-guided munition” is a mythology strategically deployed to conceal the fact that the entire population of Gaza is a target. More than 20,000 Palestinians have been murdered so far. This is not “collateral damage,” this relentless simultaneity is Nakba. This is not “excessive,” this is what is made necessary by ‘Israel’ to continue existing. This is not the consequence, rather the very function.
The UN Resolution on Genocide in 1946 refers to the “conscience of mankind,” “great losses to humanity,” and finally categorises genocide as a crime that the “civilised world condemns.” Genocide Convention, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, states genocide to be “a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” The same year, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights announces in its preamble the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” and refers once again to the “conscience of mankind” which has been “outraged by barbarous acts.” How can these nebulous nomenclatures make space for Palestine when decade after decade, Palestinians have been expelled from the universal abstraction of humanity, when they are categorised as “human animals,” when they are the “children of darkness” being killed to preserve the “the civilised world?”
Nakba is the perpetual tightening of the enclosure, an unabating prison where all forms of violence are permitted and acceptable—and are simultaneous, with differing grades administered from time to time. As long as ‘Israel’ exists, Nakba will too. Nakba is its mirror. And ‘Israel’ is frightened of its apparition. Nakba is a map, where borders are lodged in Palestinian bodies like a stubborn shrapnel. Nakba is a map, a tapestry fading into shrouds. Nakba is a map, the ceaseless shadow that makes no distinction between mournable and unmournable losses.
With each passing day, new reports emerge of new war crimes that surpass the previous ones, of more lives written into statistics of horrors and written out of histories they belong to, of this being the most devastating destruction the world has ever known. When men, children and the elderly are rounded up, stripped, and humiliated when families are subjected to summary field executions, when mothers are forced to watch the killing of their infants when neighbourhood after neighbourhood is drowned in ash, smoke, dust, and screams, the fundamental logic of imperialist violence is revealed: it wipes out all distinction between armed fighters and unarmed civilians, making the entire population a “legitimate target.” This is what the established semantic routines of genocide, coded as transgression and event, fail to acknowledge. Genocide, enshrined as the “crime of crimes,” overlooks the foundational crimes that sustain colonial state crafting and remains oblivious to the necrodeterminism of settler-colonial projects that make indigenous deaths necessary and inevitable. ‘Israel’ has unleashed against Palestinians a total war, with full permission of the “civilised world” to administer death to the population that refuses to comply with its civilising mission, that stands in the way of the “children of light.” Genocide demands of its victims documents of their innocence—in a total war, the besieged are allowed none.
Decomposed skeletal remains, the dead not being allowed a dignified burial, disfigured graveyards, demolished graveyards, bulldozers running the dead over, bulldozers burying the living alive, hospitals turned into mass graves, ice cream trucks transmuted into a mortuary, children returning to parents in shrouds and plastic bags, 80 martyrs returning home with their bodies mutilated, with their organs and their names stolen, premature babies killed, pregnant women killed: by what name should we call these crimes against the dead and the unborn?
As we grow exhausted in our language, as we confront genocide-denialism among the very structures that claim to “prevent and punish” genocidal crimes, our focus should not be on legal or illegal forms of violence, but on legible and illegible registers in which colonial violence operates, allows itself to be seen, and morphs into “normalcy.” If they will not acknowledge this as genocide, we must persist in calling it Nakba, a term that gathers the Palestinian experience on their terms.
“The denial of the genocide in Gaza is rooted in the denial of the Nakba,” Rabea Eghbariah reminds us. Nakba. We must persist in paying attention to the haunting slowness of this catastrophe.
Crossing the Line is a bimestrial column by Shivangi Mariam Raj.
A line is a sentence, a queue, a border, a mathematical and architectural gesture of measurement and control. In a map, line becomes the foundational speech of a politics of exclusion. Frontiers and fences are rehearsed first in a line. Every wall begins with a line. A line is a weapon concealed in plain sight. Each line articulates its continuity by a series of infinitesimal points arranged densely. What happens when these points—even a single one of them—refuse to obey this design? What if they cross the line that is meant to contain them in the violence of its symmetry?
Shivangi Mariam Raj is a writer, translator, and independent researcher. She works with The Funambulist, a magazine that engages with the politics of space and bodies.