A painter, a poet, a novelist: the artists being killed in Gaza

The territory’s vibrant arts community was testament to Palestinian resilience, but now it is losing voices central to its spirit

Her vibrant paintings of Jerusalem’s holy sites and Palestinian women wearing traditional embroidered dresses were a way to send a message to the “outside world”, the Palestinian artist Heba Zagout said in a video about her work posted online in late September.

Two weeks later, the 39-year-old was killed with two of her children, Adam and Mahmoud, in an Israeli air strike. Her husband and two other children survived.

Zagout is one of an unknown number of artists, writers and musicians – part of Gaza’s surprisingly once thriving arts scene – among more than 11,000 deaths in the coastal strip since the war between Israel and Hamas began on 7 October.

Zagout, who studied fine art at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa university, painted scenes of Jerusalem’s Old City, Al-Aqsa mosque – the third holiest site in Islam – and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, precious to Christians as the site of Jesus’s birth.

She also painted images of women, some holding a dove or a key or an oud, symbolising peace, the return to home and ancient culture, respectively.

She built a following through social media, the lifeline for so many Palestinians trapped in Gaza in recent years, but also hoped for a new exhibition of her work, according to her sister Maysaa Ghazi.

In the video she posted on YouTube on 28 September, she said: “We all know that there are political tensions and events that are not simple in Gaza. Through drawing, I try to reflect all negative emotions and empty all negative emotions.

“I consider art a message that I deliver to the outside world through my expression of the Palestinian cause and Palestinian identity.”

Zagout was a “very special artist”, said Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran priest and founder of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, which specialises in arts and culture and has a satellite branch in Gaza.

“Her art is very inclusive – many of her paintings include churches with crosses and mosques with crescents. She also has a very feminine touch in her work.” She was very active in the Dar al-Kalima art centre in Gaza City, he said.

The centre is close to al-Shifa hospital, which has come under Israeli bombardment in the past few days. “We’re very worried that [the centre] might have been destroyed. The director has evacuated to the south, fearing for her life,” said Raheb.

A number of artists have been killed in the air strikes on Gaza, he said. One was Mohammed Sami Qariqa, who died last month when a missile hit al-Ahli Baptist hospital where hundreds of Palestinians were sheltering.

Three days earlier, he wrote on Facebook that he felt a responsibility “to convey the news and events that happen inside the hospital, capturing a set of painful details with my phone camera, including photo, video, voice, writing and drawing, etc … I am collecting many of these stories with different techniques.” He entertained children in the hospital compound by playing games.

Staff at the Tamer Institute for Community Education, a Palestinian NGO, told Sky News: “He was the soul of the art studio at Tamer, as he was the one to open it every day, putting the paintings up, mixing the colours and waiting for other youth members to arrive.” He loved life and he loved Gaza, they said.

Hiba Abu Nada, a poet and novelist, was killed along with her son in an air strike in Khan Yunis on 20 October, according to the Palestinian ministry of culture. The 32-year-old writer had published collections of poetry and a novel, Oxygen is Not for the Dead, which won second place at the Sharjah Awards for Arab creativity in 2017.

Her last poem was published on X, formerly Twitter, a few days before her death.

Gaza’s night is dark apart from the glow of rockets,

quiet apart from the sound of the bombs,

terrifying apart from the comfort of prayer,

black apart from the light of the martyrs.

Goodnight, Gaza.

Before the war, Gaza had a “huge arts community”, said Raheb, a testament to people’s resilience and strength in the most challenging circumstances. Artists from all traditions have thrived despite the difficulties of finding materials and markets for their work while the territory has been ruled by Hamas, blockaded by Israel and the scene of repeated conflicts over the past 16 years.

“People outside have no idea of how creative people in Gaza are,” said Raheb. “But this war is destroying all of this.”