Why we need to remember the Gaza dead
PalFest Ireland is a necessary artistic response to the thousands killed in the Israeli bombardment, says organiser Donal O’Kelly
A nine-year-old Palestinian boy in the emergency room of the Shifa hospital, Gaza City, holding his baby sister who was injured by shrapnel in July 2014. Photograph: Oliver Weiken/EPA
On this day two years ago the Israeli army launched a six-week attack on Gaza that left more than 2,500 Palestinians dead, including 556 children. The offensive went on and on for seven weeks – the four Bakr cousins killed playing on Gaza beach, a UN shelter and school bombed, ambulances mortared, Rafah gutted over a four-day-long ground attack with tanks. Yet still it was presented on most of the media as a conflict between two sides.
Irish Artists in Support of Palestine started as an urgent effort to counter that. The first public outing was for a protest march on the Israeli embassy. We mustered 50 actors and arts workers to rehearse and present a drumming unit of everyday domestic utensils – pots and wooden spoons.
We were drilled by percussionist Brian Fleming and choreographers Muirne Bloomer and Ríonach Ní Néill to beat the pots and spoons in various rhythms, while performing basic dance steps. We made kites on poles in the Palestinian colours. It was a start, and we found a voice, even if no-one in power seemed to be listening.
The impulse to craft a demand, to resist with image was an urgent one. It felt like silence was taken as compliance. If you didn’t agitate, it was seen as quiet consent. For the brutality to go on for so long, with no protection from the international community for those suffering the bombardment and nowhere to flee, made things very clear. This would be done again unless we acted. We set out to provide images of challenge.
No More, Dublin Remembers the Children of Gaza, was installed on Sandymount Strand on this day last year to open the first PalFest Ireland an arts festival. It consisted of 556 infant vests propped on uprights in the sand, recalling the 556 Palestinian children of Gaza killed during the Israeli assault a year earlier. The Irish Times video of the installation was picked up by The Huffington Post and Naomi Wolf’s blog, reaching millions of Americans.
When we set out, we didn’t know how we would make our voice heard, we just wanted urgently to say what needed to be said, as clearly as possible. There is no justification, never can be a justification, for killing 556 children.
It was the least we could do for those still trying to cope with the third devastating military attack on their homes in seven years. Children knew fear of Israeli bombs from the moment they were born, and learned that there was no escape from Gaza.
There were over 50 arts events in Dublin and around the country, involving more than 400 artists. Dr Mads Gilbert, surgeon of El Shifa hospital in Gaza, gave the Noble Call from the stage of the Abbey Theatre. On the last day of the four-day festival, we returned to Sandymount Strand for a children’s football match and we had clowns and music and crafts. I spoke briefly with a woman whose son was playing football. Tears flowed down her face as she told me 27 of her extended family were killed during the Israeli attacks.
That’s why PalFest Ireland returns this year, with arts events across a range of music, theatre, literature, poetry, film and food. The theme this year is “Ireland – Beacon of Boycott”. The word “boycott” was coined by the Irish Land League in 1880 to describe a mass strategy of shunning the executor of evictions, landlord’s agent Captain Charles Boycott. The word came from here.
The campaign to boycott Israel through BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) is under attack in some countries. Recently New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced an edict to blacklist companies that support BDS. In Ireland we intend to keep the beacon of boycott lit. We do it through art.
PalFest Ireland starts today, marking the day the Israeli onslaught on Gaza began in 2014.
Donal O’Kelly is a playwright and actor
PalFest Ireland runs from Friday July 8th to Saturday, July 16th, 2016. www.palfestireland.net