"IT really is a peaceful pause,” messages my friend and colleague of 15 years from within the Gaza Strip. “We could move safely; visit my elderly sister and we will be able to have a deep sleep tonight and not expect...”

My friend’s message trails off. He does not have words to describe the horror.

None of us do.

I wander campus, walk around Glasgow, and bump into friends and colleagues. The greetings have changed. “How are you, I mean, aside from ‘the situation?” people ask. “I can’t bear it,” they say. “I have stopped watching,” they say. “It’s too awful for words,” they say. “I cannot comprehend it,” they say.

My friend’s daughter-in-law is expecting a baby imminently, as is my daughter. We have joked about being grandparents together, in our respective families.

“Concerning babies, about 150 babies are born every day in Gaza, some in shelter schools, in hosted homes as the main hospitals were destroyed.

Most pregnant women in such terrible conditions have to deliver babies if needing a caesarean operation without anaesthetic and in a labour and delivery ward that is fully occupied by increasing numbers of badly injured people. The delivery ward in our hometown hospital was closed to treat hundreds of Palestinian injured,” my friend says.

The National: A woman attends a pro-Palestinian march in EdinburghA woman attends a pro-Palestinian march in Edinburgh (Image: Gordon Terris)

My own daughter, coming close to her time, knows she can have anaesthetic, that someone will drive her to hospital in Glasgow, that there will be sterile dressings and needles, and careful monitoring of blood pressure and health should she need a section. My daughter knows there will be pain relief. And that family are close by.

My friend writes: “Almost every house and family in my hometown is hosting at least two more families crammed in flats and houses, stores, shacks, any shelter. This created such agonies and shortages of everything. After bombing many bakeries and preventing fuel and gas, we at home make bread for a large family on wood after struggling, and we are still to get some flour.

“Yet it is our homeland and we want to live in dignity and we live on hope. The sunshine will rise.”

In a world where words fail, we are both, as academics in the arts and humanities, reaching deep, first for greetings of peace, then for documentary and then for poetry.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger, a figure with a difficult history, known for not speaking out properly against the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, wrote: “Poetically, the human dwells.” Heidegger’s work is often opaque, hard to fathom full of locutions, going round the houses, it seems.

“The sunshine will rise.”

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I’ve been a critique of Heidegger’s work and “stance” myself, I’ve hesitated in using some of it. Wondered. And now I find I am understanding, anthropologically, as everyone greets me by failing to find words with which to tell me that they are witnessing a genocide, a slaughter of innocents, that they cannot believe, they cannot believe, that the Israeli Defence Force ordered medical staff caring for premature babies in incubators to abandon their patients.

Let’s repeat that – “premature babies in incubators” at gun point.

These are the words that don’t flow, but fail, hesitate, and are turned into “the situation” that “we can’t watch”. Words fail us.

We fail words.

My friend in Gaza and I regroup every day, gather ourselves and keep writing, back and forth. We’ve now done this through five aggressions – wars – but this is the worst. This is beyond the telling of it.

There it is. That phrase which shows that some atrocities, some horrors are so absolute that they tear the fabric of language and nothing we can say is adequate. We do not understand, and the words we reach for don’t come close to expressing the visceral, nauseous fear in our bodies all the time.

The National: Hundreds turned out in Edinburgh on Saturday to call for a permanent ceasefire in GazaHundreds turned out in Edinburgh on Saturday to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza (Image: Gordon Terris)

There is a chilling atmosphere, too, in a world where a call for a “ceasefire” can be characterised as “antisemitic”; where joining a march calling for peace can be seen as a “hate march”. Where a post on social media in the Occupied Palestinian Territories can lead to indefinite detention as a hostage of the Israeli State, without trial.

Where the world of opinion is so divided that Jewish friends say they feel uncomfortable if people speak out against the aggression, that this belies any true understanding of the state of terror that living in the shadow of Holocaust means for the people of Israel and for people of Jewish faith. That trauma has been visited until the third and fourth generation. And extreme militarisation is the consequence, a militarisation that has failed to make anyone secure.

And in this feart atmosphere, where every word is weighed, measured, and found wanting, Palestinian and pro-Palestinian friends are enraged by what they see as the greenlighting and collusion of the US, much of Europe and the UK Government in what may indeed be officially characterised as genocide one day, by the appropriate bodies.

It may indeed be judged that war crimes, and multiple breaches of International Humanitarian Law, have occurred and been perpetuated by the State of Israel in breach of its responsibilities as an occupying power, in the International Criminal Court.

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Caught in the limbo where words fail, between fear of offence, and visceral fear; between horror at atrocity and revulsion at what human beings are capable of, we can only work with silence, law, and poetry, with the white space of the page, and the attempt to form sentences, and with sentences wise judges have formed for us in the past, as guides.

It’s a good thing that we are being careful. It’s a good thing that we are holding to the language of International Humanitarian Law. It’s a good thing that we turn to poetry, or find it as a solace in the messages to our friends. I see my colleagues in Gaza, writing poems, even as the bombs rain down.

As academics and artists, we’ve been meeting to think, to hold to a line of critical vigilance around the ways in which we might speak and write of what is unfolding – I’ve just done it again, words failed me as I wrote, and I’ve glossed over the description with “what is unfolding”.

Second attempt: where we might speak and write of the horror that appears to us – and I am one of the 800 scholars of genocide who had signed a letter warning of this – of what appears to us, to be another genocide.

My friend writes: “My daughter-in-law is OK, counting days with so much apprehension and fear as this is her first baby and experience.

“At the time of delivery, we hope I can take her to hospital safely.

The National: Rubble in Gaza following an Israeli airstrikeRubble in Gaza following an Israeli airstrike

“We are living in total predominant and dominant uncertainty as none know what might happens now or the next minute or hour or day. When we could sleep, we don’t know if we are going to wake up. Waking up safely is a dream to every Palestinian and family in Gaza.

“The speed and variety of the many bad and sad events on reality is beyond description.

“I would guess the media covers less than 10% of what happens round the clock, for 43 days and nights.”

This should, of course, be a refugee emergency evacuation, like the one which befell Ukraine in 2022. There should, of course, be around two million people in emergency refugee camps or being evacuated to countries offering aid, as with Ukraine.

It’s what happens when war breaks out. But not here. Not here. Not here because Palestinians are already refugees, in the main, and within the State of Israel, as an occupying power. This is a situation so strange it needs whole separate United Nations Agency – UNRWA (United National Relief and Works Agency) to deal with this 75-year-old humanitarian disaster. There is literally nowhere for the people in Gaza, to flee to.

Any aid arriving is meagre, and nowhere near close to adequate, even in the pause when aid has been traded for hostage freedoms.

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“But a new dawn of peace will emerge,” writes my friend, with two doves of peace emojis. My friend uses these all the time. As do I.

We’ve found ourselves in the strange rhythm of war. Technically this is an aggression, not a war, according to UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Francesca Albanese.

The reportage style of the messages continues between the poetry, in the “pause”.

“Tomorrow we all will pick up olives in our land and produce olive oil, though we should have done so a month ago. In brief, it is great big relief to all in Gaza.”

I smile. I’ve seen my friend’s olives trees and I know his love of the land. A day later I receive more news:

“We happily harvested almost one ton of olives today with my sons and 10 workers.

“Tomorrow it will be squeezed as mills are very busy and don’t have electricity. But one is happy not to lose the harvest of this year as we are more than one month late.”

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My concern has temporarily shifted from the sick feeling in my stomach every morning for the last weeks, wondering if my friend is alive, anxiously watching for news, to a concern for the olives.

More news arrives, of the olives: “Making use of the war pause, with great relief yesterday, I was busy with my sons squeezing olives. Mills are busy and lack electricity and

fuel but after 24 hours of queuing, we went home happily with

several gallons of olive oil straight away in the evening we finished distributing almost all olive oil to displaced families after keeping something for my large family. It is a great pleasure to see smiles on the faces of these families and to hear their prayers.

“Making and promoting peace to all humans.”

I do not know if I would have such strength, such courage, such generosity. But I do know this; that these words we insist on making and sharing between us, these words which cross the blockade and share the fears, that this is where it is kept alive, the hope of peace, of children born in safety, with care and medical attention, of olives pressed into oil without fear, of a sharing of the first fruits of the land.

Alison Phipps is Unesco Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and Arts and the University of Glasgow