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A photograph depicts a pen on an empty notebook on Oct. 24, 2019 (Pedro Araujo/Unsplash)

In Remembrance of Refaat Alareer: Palestinian Intellectuals Silenced but Unforgotten

An Israeli airstrike killed Palestinian poet, educator and writer Refaat Alareer on Dec. 6. He joins a long list of Palestinian intellectuals killed by Israel throughout history.

Words: *Mohammed Ali
Pictures: Pedro Araújo

Around two weeks ago, I had my final conversation with my friend Refaat Alareer, the late English literature professor, writer and poet whom an airstrike killed after he had refused to leave the northern Gaza Strip despite Israeli evacuation orders. The conversation offered a window into his fraught existence under bombings — a life punctuated by menacing death threats on social media and equally sinister phone calls, some of which traced back to the Israeli army. Despite the gravity of his situation, Refaat responded with his characteristic blend of humor and resilience. “If I survive this, our next meal is on you,” he joked, attempting to lighten the heavy cloud of concern I had for his safety. His laughter, even in the face of such dire threats, was a testament to his indomitable spirit.

The life and work of Refaat, a 44-year-old father of six, represent a significant contribution to Palestinian literature, culture and resistance. He contributed to various books, including serving as a co-editor of the book “Gaza Unsilenced” and editor of “Gaza Writes Back.” As a professor of English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza and a cofounder of the “We Are Not Numbers” project, Refaat played a commanding role in shaping a generation of writers in Gaza. His commitment to writing in English to reach a global audience and his defiance in the face of adversity are notable aspects of his legacy.

Amid the relentless Israeli operation in Gaza, Refaat, along with thousands of others, made the choice to stay put in northern Gaza. While many around him sought refuge in the southern parts of the strip, Refaat’s response was firm: “I’m only an academic, a civilian, at home. I’m not leaving.” This decision stemmed from a deep-seated instinct and a resilient commitment to resist, particularly after the harrowing experience of losing over 30 members of his and his wife’s family when Israeli forces bombed his home in the Shejaiya neighborhood during the 51-day war in  2014. Emboldened by an unwavering connection to his roots and a belief in the potency of scholarly and nonviolent resistance, Refaat continued to pen his experiences. His writings chronicled the everyday realities amid bombardment and still provide a poignant and personal window into the lives of those engulfed in the turmoil of conflict.

“I’m tired … I’m tired of searching for water, and I’m tired of being responsible for 50 people,” Refaat told his friend Asim Al-Nabih during their last encounter. Refaat also spoke of his weariness from relentlessly searching for water, exhausted by his responsibility to provide sustenance and safety for over 50 members of his extended family. Refaat’s burdensome responsibility during Gaza’s unrest serves as a reminder of the constant pressure that thousands of people who remained on the northern side of the Gaza Strip were under.

Refaat’s journey was one of constant displacement after Israel bombed his house again during this war, a narrative all too familiar to many in Gaza since Oct. 7. After this, he sought a temporary shelter in a United Nations school in the al-Tufah neighborhood, but that refuge proved unsafe after he received an anonymous and ominous phone call. The caller identified himself as an Israeli officer and threatened Refaat, insisting they knew the precise location of the school where he was and were about to get to narrow down his exact location thanks to the advancement of Israeli ground troops.

“Your words made me feel lighter”

The killing of Refaat Alareer at around six on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 6, in his sister’s home in the al-Sidra neighborhood, al-Daraj area of Gaza City, does not appear to be a happenstance of war. The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor has described the strike, which tore through the apartment on the second floor of a three-story building, as “apparently deliberate.” This fatal airstrike claimed the lives of Refaat, his brother Salah, his child Mohammed, his sister Asmaa, and three of her children — Alaa, Yahia and Mohammed. A neighbor also fell victim to this targeted attack, while Alaa, Refaat’s sister-in-law, and two children, Rafik and Alma, suffered wounds.

The seemingly targeted nature of the airstrike that took his life raises unsettling questions about the cost of intellectual dissent and the vulnerability of those who challenge dominant narratives. His defiance and courage were not just evident in his actions but also in his words. “I’m an academic; probably the toughest thing I have at home is an expo marker. But if the Israelis go door-to-door to massacre us, I’m going to use that marker to throw it at the soldiers, even if that is the last thing I would be able to do,” Refaat said in an interview with Electronic Intifada.

These words, now a poignant echo of his indomitable spirit, underscore his unwavering commitment to resist through intellect and expression.

Refaat’s impact transcended geographical boundaries. The Indian-Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, touched by Refaat’s humor and wit, remarked, “Your words made me feel lighter … Now it will be us teaching your poetry to the world.” Refaat’s engagement with international figures like Kaur highlighted his belief in the power of global solidarity against oppression.

“I’m only an academic, a civilian, at home. I’m not leaving.”

– Refaat Alareer

Asim, still grappling with the reality of Refaat’s death, shares a request tinged with sorrow and reverence. He asks for the world to focus on Refaat’s story — not just as a number in the war but as a storyteller of human lives amid despair. Refaat, a steadfast figure in the streets of Gaza City, which he adamantly refused to abandon, embodied the spirit of resilience and defiance. “He was a man who, until his last breath, was committed to documenting and sharing the narratives of those around him,” Asim concluded.

In his last days, Refaat’s social media posts included a mix of poignant reflections and scathing critiques of the political landscape. His final tweet, quoting US Vice President Kamala Harris’s support for Israel, stands as a stark reminder of the global dynamics at play in the Gaza conflict. “The Democratic Party and Biden are responsible for the Gaza genocide perpetrated by Israel,” he wrote, a statement reflecting his deep frustration and sense of betrayal by international politics.

Not an isolated incident

Refaat Areer’s tragic death is not an isolated incident in this round of fighting: it occurred alongside several other intellectuals, including scientists like the Islamic University of Gaza’s president, Professor Sofian Tayeh; doctors like Omar Ferwana and his daughter Aya; and artists like Ali Nasman, whose loss has left a significant void in Gazan society. These killings are part of a disturbing pattern that has plagued Palestinian intellectual and cultural life for decades. 

Throughout history, Israel has time and again targeted Palestinian intellectuals, artists and cultural figures, often aimed at silencing the voices that articulate and embody the Palestinian struggle for identity and freedom. One of the most notable cases was the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani in 1972. A renowned Palestinian writer, journalist and leading member of the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Kanafani was a prominent voice in Palestinian literature and politics. His assassination in Beirut by the Israeli Mossad was not just a blow to his family and followers — it was also a calculated strike at the heart of Palestinian cultural resistance. Kanafani’s works, including the novel “Men in the Sun” and the novella “Return to Haifa,” remain seminal texts in understanding the Palestinian narrative, highlighting the enduring power of intellectual legacy in the face of oppression.

The Palestinian cultural landscape has been marred by the targeting of other intellectuals and artists over the years. A poignant example is Wael Zwaiter, a Palestinian translator and intellectual. Known as a staunch pacifist, Zwaiter was assassinated in Rome in 1972, marking one of the earliest casualties in Israel’s Operation Wrath of God. This operation, aimed at individuals Israel considered terrorists, often blurred the lines between activism, intellectual dissent and militancy.

Zwaiter’s death, much like that of Refaat, underscores the peril faced by Palestinian intellectuals who use their work to voice resistance and critique. Their loss is not just a personal tragedy but represents a significant blow to the Palestinian narrative and cultural expression, highlighting the ongoing vulnerability of artists and academics in the region.

These acts of violence against Palestinian intellectuals must be understood not merely as isolated incidents of political conflict but as part of a broader strategy to undermine Palestinian cultural and national identity. By targeting these influential figures, there is not only immediate grief and loss suffered by their communities but also a long-term impact on Palestinian cultural expression and the transmission of its historical narrative.

The legacy of these intellectuals, however, transcends their untimely deaths. Their work continues to inspire generations, embodying the resilience and unyielding spirit of Palestinian cultural identity. In the words of Ghassan Kanafani, “The word is the most dangerous of weapons.”

Indeed, for Palestinians, the pen, the brush and the voice have served as potent tools in their ongoing struggle for self-determination and justice.

“Let it be a tale”

Days before Refaat’s death, he republished one of a 2011 poem on X (previously Twitter) — titled “If I Must Die,” which will be forever remembered: 

If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze—
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself—
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale

From the heart of the Shejaiya neighborhood, the cherished place of his birth and life, Refaat Alareer’s legacy endures, resonating far beyond its borders. I fondly referred to him as “Al-Sijai,” a playful nickname that captured his deep affection for his beloved hometown and symbolized our enduring friendship of over a decade. For myself and many others, Refaat was more than just a friend: he was an inspiration. His death left us in a state of disbelief, struggling to grasp the reality of our loss — unable to truly mourn the departure of such an extraordinary soul.

*Mohammed Ali

*Mohammed Ali is a journalist working in Gaza for a major international newswire. He wrote this first-person account under a pseudonym to protect his identity.

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