Letter to Members: PEN SA’s Response to Israel’s siege of Gaza

04 Apr 2024
Gaza’s Main Public Library, 2023

Dear Members of the PEN South Africa community,

We hope this letter finds you all well.

We have had several enquiries about how PEN South Africa has responded to Israel’s current siege of Gaza and we are writing to share our actions – public and diplomatic – to date. 

1. PEN South Africa’s position on protecting Palestinian writers and journalists is clear, consistent and long-established. You can read about our support for Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour in 2016 here, our 2021 event with Gazan writers here, and our statement on Israel’s targeting of Palestinian journalists and media houses in 2021 here.

2. On 25 October 2023, PEN INTERNATIONAL, horrified by the mounting toll of civilian casualties and the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza, issued a statement denouncing both the brutality of the Hamas-led October 7 attacks and Israel’s retaliatory response. PEN INTERNATIONAL President Burhan Sonmez wrote, “Indiscriminately harming innocent civilians is unacceptable, whether it is the result of attacks by Hamas or bombardments by Israeli forces.” The statement went on to call for an immediate ceasefire, the protection of civilians, the release of all hostages and an end to the siege. PEN INTERNATIONAL was one of the first human rights organisations in the world to issue a call of this nature, and PEN South Africa supported it.

3. For the last several months we have amplified PEN INTERNATIONAL’s coverage on the war. Given our organisation’s remit, this has focused on the unprecedented number of journalists, writers and poets killed in targeted Israeli airstrikes, the destruction of schools, universities, libraries and cultural centres and ‘the mounting violations of freedom of expression, including the killings and intimidation of journalists and systematic silencing of critical voices […]’. You can read more about PEN INTERNATIONAL’s work on Gaza and the West Bank here and here. PEN INTERNATIONAL’s support of the International Court of Justice (ICJ)’s decision to ‘issue provisional measures intended to prevent genocidal acts, including preventing and punishing the incitement to genocide, guaranteeing the delivery of aid and services to Palestinians under siege in Gaza, and preserving evidence of crimes committed in the region, under the Genocide Convention’ in response to the case South Africa brought to the Court can be found here.

4. PEN South Africa are signatories to PEN INTERNATIONAL’s October 2023 global call for ‘Peace – Dispelling all hatreds’, which ‘[…] acknowledges that it is of primary importance to be permanently committed to creating conditions that can lead to ending conflicts of all kinds. There is neither freedom without peace, nor peace without freedom; social and political justice is inaccessible without peace and freedom.’

5. PEN South Africa has been working to support PEN INTERNATIONAL efforts to offer assistance to writers who are trapped in Gaza. For various reasons, we have been advised that it is safer for the writers for much of this work to remain out of the public eye.

6. Most recently – on the 18th of March 2024 – we wrote to our sister chapter, PEN America, about its coverage of the siege of Gaza. Among our most pressing concerns were:

– That they had not joined PEN International’s call for a ceasefire

– Their lack of coverage of the over 122 journalists and media workers killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, in this, the deadliest war for journalists that the Committee to Protect Journalists has ever recorded 

– That none of the 38 statements made since October 7 have directly condemned Israeli forces for the killing of some thirty thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming number of whom are women and children. (This is troublingly inconsistent both with how PEN America have – rightly, in our view – responded to Russia’s assault on Ukrainian civilians and the Hamas-led attacks on Israeli civilians)

– The enforced physical removal of Palestinian–American writer Randa Jarrar during the Writers Against the War on Gaza protest of the recent PEN America event.

– The writers who have withdrawn from the PEN World Voices Festival this year in protest of Pen America’s approach to the siege of Gaza.

We wrote to PEN America because they are a powerful, important chapter in our global organisation and we respect the consequential work they do, not just for writers of their own country, but for writers of the world. We believe, given their focus on Israel/Palestine, that they have a duty to accurately cite the number of Palestinian journalists killed in Israeli airstrikes and held in Israeli prisons. We also believe that because of the United States’ military, economic and political relationship with Israel,  PEN America bears a particular responsibility – as do all human rights organisations – to call for an immediate, permanent ceasefire and an end to the occupation. We wrote to them as one PEN chapter to another, and as South Africans citizens who deeply respect and value the power of international solidarity; we know that our own country’s freedom was won, in part, because of the pressure exerted on the apartheid government by international human rights organisations and artists of conscience. 

We have received an acknowledgement of receipt from PEN America and are  pleased that on the 24th of March they joined the call for a ceasefire. They have not yet engaged substantively with the other matters we raised but they have indicated that they are willing to do so and we look forward to their response. 

Today we mark the 152nd day of Israel’s siege on Gaza. 

For five months, the people of Gaza have been subject to intense, near-unimaginable collective suffering. The continued and deliberate destruction of buildings, homes, streets, public services and water systems by Israeli bombardment has caused the displacement of two million people and rendered the entire area uninhabitable. The death rate and harm caused to civilians – the overwhelming number of whom are women and children – is a stain on the world’s conscience. Of the over 30 000 Gazans who have been killed, 13 000 are children. Over 70 000 Gazans have been wounded or maimed. Several thousand more are missing. Others are trapped under the rubble of their collapsed homes, dying excruciating deaths alone and in the dark. Babies in forcibly evacuated hospitals have perished in incubators. Every major hospital in Gaza has been destroyed. Women are undergoing caesarean sections and children are having their limbs amputated without anaesthetic. Every university has been obliterated. More than a hundred mosques have been flattened. Libraries, bookshops, theatres, community centres, historic buildings, places of worship and communal gathering have all been destroyed – an assault as much on the Palestinian people as on their culture, knowledge, intellectual and creative life, social and religious practices. Palestinian men and boys have been rounded up en masse, stripped to their underwear, blindfolded and marched through the streets, and unarmed civilians waving white flags have been shot. There have been mass burials for unidentified bodies. Entire family lines have been wiped out. A horrifying new acronym, WCNSF – short for ‘wounded child, no surviving family’ – is now in common use. The social fabric of Palestinian life in Gaza has been all but destroyed. 

In January, our country, South Africa, which has long recognised the profound injustice of the Israeli occupation, brought a case of plausible intention to commit genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice. Key to those proceedings was South Africa’s historicised approach to the current Israeli siege on Gaza, as demonstrated in His Excellency Mr Vusimuzi Madonsela’s opening statement, when he noted the ‘broader context of Israel’s 75-year apartheid, 56-year occupation and 16-year siege imposed on the Gaza Strip’.

In December 2023, leaders of some of the world’s largest global humanitarian organisations, which have been stationed in some of its worst conflict zones (such as Ukraine, Sudan, Khartoum and Syria), reported that the siege on Gaza is ‘like nothing they have ever seen’. By March 2024, an entirely preventable famine has set in, as a result of Israeli barriers to aid distribution; there is now mass hunger and with it, the first recorded deaths from starvation. Rafah, the Gazan city thought to be the last safe zone, where over one million civilians are currently sheltering, is now under threat of a ground invasion by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). There are hundreds of thousands of children in Rafah. 17 000 of those children are unaccompanied; newly orphaned or separated from their parents, their adult carers either lost or killed in the ongoing carnage. 

We are painfully aware, even as we write this letter, that no description, no statistic, no single story, can begin to capture the catastrophic, lethal, collective physical and psychic trauma Palestinians are currently experiencing. 

Our board is composed of writers and researchers and cultural workers; our work is rooted in witnessing, in words and in engaging. 

We have been stunned and horrified by what we have read, seen and listened to. 

We will continue to advocate for the freedom and protection of Palestinian writers, journalists, poets, and academics. 

We will continue to advocate for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and an end to the occupation.  

We will continue to support all of PEN INTERNATIONAL’s efforts in this.

We will continue to believe that every action, no matter how small, matters. 

And we will hold close the words of Nelson Mandela when he said, “‘In extending our hands across the miles to the people of Palestine, we do so in the full knowledge that we are part of a humanity that is at one.”

All PEN South Africa’s action are guided by our charter. During this exceptionally difficult, painful time, we are reminded that we pledged to “do [our] utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world […] to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which [we] belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible” and that “the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order renders a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative”.

In solidarity,