Never has the expression “the personal is political” held such meaning for me, until the weeks since 7 October. Overnight, my family and I found ourselves caught up in the horror and geopolitical catastrophe of the Hamas attacks on Israel and the collective punishment of Gazans inflicted by the Israeli government.
My wife Nadia’s parents were well aware of the dangers in Gaza, where the elderly mother of my father-in-law, Maged, and other family members live. Conditions are always difficult given the ongoing blockade, but there was relative calm before 7 October.
I remember getting the call from my mother-in-law, Elizabeth, that morning, saying how worried she was upon seeing hundreds of rockets in the sky heading towards Israel. She and her husband had seen the news that Hamas had breached the Erez Crossing and entered Israel. Far from jubilation, she said there was an atmosphere of anxiety in the air. She knew, as I suspect everyone in Gaza did, that there would be serious repercussions. They were obviously – tragically – not wrong.
Communications in Gaza became intermittent at best. We usually got a call between 7am and 8am UK time from Elizabeth telling me they were alive. The nights were – and are – unbearable in Gaza.
The children would lie awake crying and screaming as missiles rained down. Elizabeth says her hands would shake as she covered her three-year-old grandchild’s ears, trying to protect her from the noise. At an early stage, the grown-ups decided which corner of which room might give them the best chance of survival if the house was hit. No one should ever need to have such conversations.
After the evacuation order of the north of Gaza came, extended family from Gaza City came to the family home, which is located further to the south, in a neighbourhood called Deir al-Balah. This meant that the house that previously had ten people living in it now had around 100, with limited supplies that were fast running out.
Our worry was not just that our family would be killed in an Israeli airstrike, but that they might die of thirst or starvation. Nadia’s youngest nephew is three months old – he needs clean water as well as baby milk. The water they have now is from the sea, it is not filtered and is dirty. But it’s either that or nothing – the trickle of aid coming through the Rafah Crossing to Egypt is wholly inadequate.
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And then there are the worst moments, which will live with me forever: during my party’s conference last month, at around 1.30am, I had a call from my mother-in-law. She was screaming that their neighbour had been told to evacuate so they were all on the street wandering in terror, looking for some kind of shelter against bombs. She began to say her goodbyes; I will never forget her voice as she asked me to look after her girls.
There had, in fact, been no such evacuation order, but it is a demonstration of just how precarious the situation in the middle of a war zone is.
On the Tuesday (17 October), after my conference speech at about 5pm, I was in my hotel room when Elizabeth called, again in great anguish telling me they had been hit. It transpired a house around 70 metres away had been bombed, but the blast had smashed all the windows and mirrors in the family home.
The impact of what’s going on has been felt by all of the family. My 14-year-old step-daughter, Maya, is very close to her gran, and well aware of the situation. We could shield Amal, our four-year-old, a bit more. But even she began to understand that granny was in a place called Gaza that wasn’t safe, and that we were trying to get her home.
Fuel supplies were low, and twice my in-laws travelled to the Egyptian border as they heard Rafah might be opening. Unfortunately, both times they had to head back. They described this as the hardest journeys they have had to make.
The Foreign Office sent us a list around 1am on Friday 3 November from the Egyptian government, which confirmed that my in-laws’ names were on a list to cross. At around 10am that day we received confirmation they were in Egypt. I have never felt relief like it. But until we actually saw them, safely in Scotland, I don’t think we quite believed they were coming home.
As you can imagine, there have been lots of tears and hugs since their arrival. I have never seen my father-in-law cry; he isn’t one to display much emotion, but he was inconsolable when he told me he had to say goodbye to his mum, son and grandchildren. Both my in-laws describe a heavy burden of guilt that they escaped but have left so many behind in Gaza. They are now safe, but millions are not.
Others will never come home, including Bernard Cowan from Scotland, murdered by Hamas. The service of solidarity at Giffnock Newton Mearns Synagogue in Glasgow, where I met with Bernard’s mother, was a stark and cruel reminder of our common humanity and shared grief.
As for my mother- and father-in-law, they may never fully recover from the trauma they have experienced. I’m not qualified to say. They arrived back home on Bonfire Night. As my father-in-law was talking to a neighbour, a firework went off which made him jump.
My mother-in-law cannot understand how the world has not intervened to stop the mounting death and destruction. I believe her position to be the fervent wish of the vast majority of people, in this country and internationally. I only hope that all politicians pay heed to this will of the people for a ceasefire.
For now, my family’s phone calls to Gaza continue daily. There is worry about loved ones left behind, and whether we will ever see them again.