‘WE were starving trapped in the lower part of the camp for days, with snipers and bombing all around. I had no choice I made a run for it in search of food. Sorry to tell you this bit, Jane! But I found bread on the ground, bread soaked in blood, I picked away at the bits without the blood and ate it.”

These words came back to haunt me as reports emerged of the “Flour Massacre” in Gaza on ­February 29, leaving 118 dead and 760 or more injured when Israeli troops fired on the starving masses rushing to food aid trucks.

Bassam, a young Palestinian, recalled his story when – as part of my research for my art project ­marking the 60th year of the Nakba – I interviewed him with his mother in a garage, the makeshift ­shelter that was their home after the total destruction of UNRWA’s Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in North Lebanon in 2007.

The National: Exhibition entitled Return of the Soul by Scottish artist Jane Frere at the Patriothall Gallery in Edinburgh. (Photo by robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images).

Caught in the crossfire between an Islamist group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army, they were among 30,000 Palestinian refugees forced yet again to flee. In 1948, his parents had fled from their ­village near Akka (now known as Acre) after hearing ­horror stories of the Jewish Irgun and Lehi terrorist ­atrocities – men murdered en masse, rape and abuse of women – that caused widespread panic.

They ended up in Shatila camp in Beirut where Bassam was born in 1979. He was just three when his father, sister and two brothers were killed in the ­notorious Sabra and Shatila massacre. The ­survivors fled to Nahr al-Bared. Now he was in yet another camp.

At that moment, I felt my research into the Nakba – mostly confined to studying books, documentaries and gathering oral testimonies – had come full circle. In the Bedawi camp in February 2008, I witnessed for myself the reality of the havoc, chaos and despair wreaked by repeated displacement.

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With British Council and UNRWA support, I lived in refugee camps in the occupied Palestinian ­Territories of Jordan and Lebanon as a crucial part of The Nakba Project – Return Of The Soul which I ­created to commemorate 60 years of what the ­Palestinians called the Nakba or “catastrophe” of 1948 when thousands were killed and more than 700,000 were forced to leave their homeland.

I worked with small teams in each camp, gave a ­series of educational workshops and was able to ­gather hundreds of testimonies using both my ­camcorder as a notebook in addition to handwritten questionnaires catching the last fragments of ­memory from an ageing displaced population.

These valuable first-hand accounts answered my mundane questions – why did they leave? How? By foot or another means of transport? What were they wearing and carrying etc. The responses gave ­authenticity to the individual wax figurine made by a younger generation of Palestinians, reminding them of what their parents and grandparents had endured during what historians now agree was a programme of ethnic cleansing.

Alongside my sculptural installation of hanging wax figures, hung scrolls of handwritten ­testimonies and a sound sculpture of voices echoing Arabic names was an oral record of hundreds of villages now wiped off the map of Palestine.

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As a research-led artist, I’m drawn to themes ­relating to the darker side of the human condition, violence, vulnerability and death, and the subject of the mass expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians became the focus of my ­attention over a number of years.

In 2009, I designed the play Go To Gaza – Drink The Sea, written and created by Justin Butcher and the distinguished ­Palestinian writer Ahmed Masoud, who grew up in Jabalia camp in North Gaza. The production had its debut in London before coming to Edinburgh and was prompted by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. It explored the ­disproportionate ­extent of human suffering – brought home poignantly by the killing of 48 ­members of the Samouni family in a single attack.

After 22 days, a ceasefire timed just before the inauguration of US President Barack Obama, and left 1400 mostly civilians dead in Gaza, including 300 children. More than 20,000 were made homeless. Israel counted 13 dead, including three civilians.
 FAST forward through the whirling ­vortex of violence and revenge to the post-October 7 apocalyptic level of death and destruction; in a terrible, tragic irony, the Gazan playwright Ahmed Masoud’s brother Khalid was killed by an Israeli drone as he was trying to help others. He was left bleeding to death on the ground for over three days.

Jabalia camp once had a lively ­market, schools, a library, and other facilities. It was the place his family called home and shared with a further 100,000 fellow citizens. Ahmed grew up in the camp, but is now based in the UK. He has a PhD, plays, a novel and there is much more to his name. How many more Ahmeds in Gaza have had their ­future stolen as US bombs raining from the skies turned Jabalia and many other parts of Gaza into a hellscape of ­cement, glass, steel, textiles blended with ­pulverised corpses still crushed rotting under the rubble?

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There’s a danger of becoming hardened to reports of the bloody reality of what two-tonne bombs do to human ­bodies, but stories of a man chasing a stray dog with a tiny baby’s arm in its mouth or of children writing their names on their hands and arms so part of their body can be identified in the relentless Israeli ­airstrikes were beyond imagination.

Whatever the extent of the barbaric ­Hamas attacks on October 7 – and we must not forget that in war, truth is the first casualty – Israel’s ­“plausible” ­genocide has not only claimed the lives of so many, but has systematically erased millennia-old religious ­structures, ­museums with ancient collections, mosques, schools, libraries with rare books, universities as well as hospitals and essential civic ­buildings.

I regret never having been able to go to Gaza; it was an important destination for my Nakba project, but my entry into the “open-air prison” was denied by the ­Israelis who controlled everything and everyone going in and coming out.

Still one of my closest friends, the late artist Laila Shawa, was able to paint a proud picture of Gaza’s rich 5000-year-old heritage. She co-founded the ­landmark Rashad Shawa Cultural ­Centre – named after her father who had been mayor for 11 years – and designed delicate stained glass panels to ­complement its modern ­architectural style. I’m glad she was spared seeing it reduced to rubble by ­Israel’s bombardment.

During my project, I sometimes saw my role as a “tear collector” gathering testimonies from sobbing refugees. Gaza would have been rich with stories from refugees, many of whom could still see their former homes and farmland so close on the other side of the Gaza barrier. 
 In the weeks after Cast Lead, ­preparing my designs for the play, I met Abdel Bari Atwan, the renowned veteran ­journalist and editor, who was born in the refugee camp Deir al-Balah in Gaza. He told me as a child he loved listening to his ­mother’s stories of a simple yet idyllic life she and his father enjoyed on their farm ­handed down through many generations in a ­village of Isdud. Its ruins remain ­alongside the Israeli town of Ashdod.

Once again, fear tactics used by the Zionist militias worked in the aftermath of the notorious Deir Yassin massacre. Rumours of killing, rape, mutilation, and torture including even the beheading of children were rife. Atwan ­documented his mother’s account in his book A ­Country Of Words, describing how when the Zionists came into the village square with loudhailers ordering: “Leave your houses and go to Gaza where you will be safe. If you don’t leave, we will kill you”.

The family turned the key in the door, imagining it would not be for long, but like other Palestinians, little did they ­realise it would be for the last time, their right of return under the United Nations Resolution 194 rendered meaningless.

Israel seized Gaza from Egyptian governance in 1967, and ended its direct occupation, withdrawing its settlements in 2005, but instigating a blockade that intensified into a siege in 2007 after Hamas was elected and took power.

The creation of what some call “an open-air prison” resulted in a pressure cooker environment of resentment and bitterness against a grotesque, injustice compounded by serial wars which some Israelis cynically call “mowing the grass”.

I am often asked why an artist who hails from the Highlands of Scotland has been so captivated by this particular ­subject – British-mandate Palestine and the birth of modern-day Israel.

The most pressing historical ­connection however has to be that of Lord ­Arthur ­Balfour (below), born in Scotland, whose ­infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917 laid the foundation for one of the most intractable issues of modern ­history.

The National: In the 1917 declaration which bears his name as then foreign secretary, former PM Arthur James Balfour wrote: 'His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endea

The promise of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for ­Jewish people” was made at a time when an ­ancestral home inhabited by ­generations of one people could be carved up by ­strangers and given away to outsiders ­regardless of the consequences for the majority of the indigenous inhabitants.

If the British mandate authority had not betrayed the second part of the ­Balfour promise that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”, history might have taken a different course After 75 years, the longest unresolved refugee crisis in the world has resulted in the mass displacement of 5.9 million Palestinians trapped in a suspended state of perpetual misery, violence and ­precariousness, for many, their reality within an apathetic world is a purgatory on earth.

I ventured into their world as a ­witness to their existence, removing myself from my comfort zone of insularity that so many of us by the mere lottery of birth are privileged to enjoy.

The purpose of my work has been to look beyond the myths and hopefully to highlight the truth giving context to such injustice which has led to ­unspeakable tragedy of both sides locked into ­seemingly permanent conflict.

When I was invited to contribute a chapter to the recently published book Becoming Pro-Palestinian – ­Testimonies From The Global Solidarity Movement, I had some misgivings about the title. Since writing the chapter, long before that ­catastrophic date for humanity ­October 7, I have an even greater doubt about ­labelling myself as pro-Palestinian – not because of the demonising of those who are critical of Israel’s collective punishment and terrifying revenge, but because being “pro” one ethnicity over another lies at the core of the schism in all conflicts.

If we are to survive as a species already on a self-inflicted broken earth, we have no option but to reconcile our ­differences. I prefer the label Pro-Humanitarian or, as someone who has been on a quest for the sincerity, Pro-Truth.

Becoming Pro-Palestinian – Testimonies from the Global Solidarity Movement, edited by Rosemary Sayigh. (IB Tauris, Bloomsbury Publishing)

The National: Jane Frere - sew their names ,work in progress.


SewTheirNames is a community project I started in collaboration with Highland Palestine with the support of Circus Artspace in Inverness, ensuring that the slaughtered victims in Gaza are not just numbers, but their names are known and recorded by 80 people across the Highlands and beyond, who have sewn hand-written names of many of those who have been slaughtered since October 7 on to banners as a simple act of compassion and humanity. The first banner will be shown as part of the alternative Palestine exhibition at the Palazzo Mora during the Venice Biennale opening next month