Gaza and the Politics of Grief: Witnessing the devastation of Gaza, outrage is not the only feeling

The Palestinian journalist report from Khan Younis begins:

Have you ever seen destruction like this, even in the ‘End of the World’ movies? No, we have never seen anything like this. I mean who’s going to repair this, who’s going to rebuild this?

Using her phone’s camera to record a rolling up-close account, Bisan Owda talks steadily as she walks the viewer into the shattered housing blocks of Khan Younis. Accompanied by this young woman, one is introduced to, and becomes immersed in, the desertification that has been visited upon a whole neighbourhood. There is systematically occasioned wanton devastation all around, on an epic scale.

A little later, overlaid on the screen, one reads ‘A U.N. team reports it will take 60 years to rebuild Gaza’. Paired with the vistas confronting the observer, this statement seems irreal. Perhaps the intention was to signal a can-do promise. The effect is of a sick fairy-tale.

At one point in Owda’s report, split-screen images of Khan Younis appear. On one side of the screen there is footage of the city’s high street prior to the destruction; on the other there is the in-the-moment vision. This device dramatically contrasts bustling, crowded urban images from immediately prior to the 2023 assault with the desolation that is present today. The immediacy of this contrast is jarring. One shudders at the collision between the scenes of vitality from the immediately recent past and those of a now that is little more than barren annihilation.

My psyche could not reconcile the adjacent images. Lifelessness and physical carnage could not be squared with intact buildings and crowded liveliness. I struggled to reflect on my reaction to this contradiction. Initially, a tumult of mixed feelings could be named. In this affective turbulence outrage was certainly a fierce and persistent element: Just how dare they! Yet somehow, this obvious feeling felt complicated, even conflictual. My outrage felt confusing, impure, because this feeling was tagged to different associations and multiple references.

Righteous anger, however necessary, was not the only feeling triggered by Owda’s report, or by my awareness that the current wave of destruction is not an isolated injustice, or by Israel being granted impunity for developmentally maiming a generation of Gaza’s youth. Witnessing the outcome of Israel’s atrocities also incited anguish and grief. For example, I marshal at the Sunday rally in Melbourne almost every week. At these protests I am enlivened and mostly enraged. The next morning, however, I wake up weighed down, with all the oxygen sucked from my lungs. Galvanised and on the street, oppressed and overwhelmed straight after. There is nothing odd or out of order in this: who hasn’t experienced outrage, depression, fatigue, impotence and much more? Though we non-Palestinians are not, and can never be, the ones who truly count, seeking to make sense of one’s inner life need not diminish the integrity of one’s political allegiance.

Why focus on grief right now? Grief offers a practical reference point—maybe even a frame—which helps many of us articulate the depression and roiling helplessness we are experiencing about the events in Palestine. Given that grief is necessarily a non-logical phenomenon, it offers a rubric within which the contradictory elements of experience can be acknowledged. Yes, it is true that ‘this is not about me’; at the same time, grief offers a theme which can bear witness to the personal anguish one experiences. Many I know report that, like me, since October 7 they have felt depressed, are struggling to concentrate and are less animated and imaginative. This is an epiphenomenon that points to a deeper reality: that the unspeakable catastrophe occurring in Gaza has generated emotions that have, to a palpable degree, colonised the psyches of many who are not materially impacted.

The point is, grief roughs you up. The experience is aversive and disorganising. There is anguish, remorse, helplessness and, in acute moments, the need to howl and lash. Less pure than simple loss, grief is not only about sadness, although there is that too. In its extremes, grief is like being handcuffed to a dangerous child. Here, one is all at once useless, responsible and trapped. The experience is totalising, impossible to put to one side.

Of course, this point can be countered by arguing that putting the accent on personal grief is privileging an indulgent side-track. That to lament what has been lost promotes passivity. That this is a mistake, an expression of Western self-preoccupation. No doubt there is danger, but if the consideration of inner life is kept in check—if we hold fast against today’s what-about-me? / self-care fetish—attending to the emotional truth that grief is part of the account need not displace the legitimacy of outrage or the primacy of activism. As UK psychotherapist Suzy Orbach argues, it is preferable, even necessary, to hold an and-both affective position if one seeks to be emotionally literate. Given this logic, it makes sense to both fired up and downhearted.That’s the nature of grief in all its illogical rationality. Anger, fury, outrage—at Israel’s immunity, at all the atrocities since October 7, at an apartheid state being widely heralded as democratic—all co-exist with the witnessing, however vicariously, of what has been destroyed. Holding these contrary feelings is a big ask, and a necessary one if you want to thoughtfully respond rather than instinctively react.

Many losses are present. Amongst these is the anguish that some of us experience at what has happened, and what is progressively happening, to the consciousness of Israeli citizens, and more broadly to the supporters of the actions of the Israeli state who live beyond that country’s borders. Perhaps best considered as having been indoctrinated into a cult, the subjectivity of these partisans is being progressively coarsened by their support for the atrocities that are being committed in their name.

This regression represents nothing so meek as a lessening of innocence. Rather, an historic process of dissociation—one that has had its seeds planted and its toxic fruit celebrated over decades—is now being furthered. This incremental process has come to licence a form of industrialised brutality that has perhaps never previously been seen in this form. Beyond complicit populations becoming coarsened, a particular sub-case concerns the tens of thousands of conscripts who have been pitched into Gaza as IDF soldiers. The effect of this immersion can be properly imagined: what these conscripts commit and experience will mutate their selfhood indefinitely, with cascading consequences in the future. Given the absolute horrors visited on the Gazans and the callousness of the Israeli attacks, that comes fairly far down the list of sufferings—yet as narrative therapist Michael White argued when considering the crimes US soldiers committed in Iraq, in being coerced to violate their inherent human compassion these young people are being traumatised. This is worth considering, if for no other reason than it will have a further effect on what Israel becomes.

We outsiders inevitably feel helpless as we witness the collective grief Palestinians are experiencing. Theirs are irretrievable losses which we, touching them from a distance, to a degree feel too. Acknowledging our own grief is a way of preventing ourselves from becoming remaindered—from receding into a state of frozen mourning. But such a process of reflection is necessary for reasons quite aside from helping us to remain politically effective, because there remains the possibility that much can be rebuilt, and perhaps even remodelled towards a more just, more moral whole.

About the author

Mark Furlong

Mark Furlong is an independent scholar, and thinker-in-residence at the Bouverie Centre, La Trobe University: .

More articles by Mark Furlong

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Comments

Wow. This piece articulated exactly how I’ve been feeling. Outraged. Helpless. Grief stricken. Thank you for voicing this – and galvanising the need to honour all of our feelings if we are to avoid the fatigue that can weigh us down when we witness rampant and ongoing injustice.

Very good to have these shared feelings put into words with such thoughtfulness. Being a witness to the horrors continuing to occur in Gaza is awful, the powerlessness in the face of seeing unending human cruelty is debilitating. You finish on a somewhat positive note- I hope you’re right & I hope I’ll arrive at that at some point too – but I’m not there yet. But thanks Mark for writing this-

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