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Exclusive excerpt from Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything In Between

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El Haddad book coverLaila El-Haddad’s new book, Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything In Between, follows El-Haddad’s life and work from 2004-2010, and includes great reportage from and about Gaza, Palestinian life, several pieces of poetry; a live-tweeted text from Cairo Airport, and even a recipe. It includes a great Foreword by Prof. miriam cooke of Duke University, and has received strong endorsements from Hanan Ashrawi, Ali Abunimah, Profs. Stephen Walt, Sara Roy, and Richard Falk, and Nora Barrows-Friedman.

Laila will be undertaking a west-coast book tour in February 2011, requests to have Laila come speak to community or activist groups on the west coast or elsewhere should be made via [email protected]

The blog that was the source of much of the material in my book Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything In Between came about largely by happenstance. It was originally named “Raising Yousuf” and later became “Gaza Mom.” I started it during fall 2004, not even knowing what the word “blog” meant and with no idea of where this new adventure would take me.

That year was a testing time for my husband and me: We were recently married and living with our first child in Boston, where we had met shortly before I finished graduate school at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Just one year earlier, in August 2003, I had gotten my first real break as a journalist with the newly launched Al Jazeera English website. In 2004, that position would take me back to do some reporting from Gaza, my family’s beloved home city. But my husband Yassine could not come with us. As a Palestinian with refugee status, Yassine was denied the right to enter or even visit Gaza or any other part of the occupied Palestinian territories (OPTs)—despite the fact that Palestine is his homeland and that of his wife and child. Yassine is denied any version of “the Right of Return” to his ancestral homeland. This, while Israel gives Jewish people from anywhere in the world—or anyone who can trace his Jewish ancestry back to several generations earlier or is a spouse, a grandchild, or child of such a person—the immediate “right” to reside in any of the areas it controls, even if their immediate ancestors have never lived in the area.

Yassine was born in the UN-administered refugee camp of Baalbek in Lebanon. Until shortly before that point, his family had been living in a Palestinian refugee camp in a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, called Tel al-Zaatar (“Hill of Thyme”) that was a flashpoint in the internecine fighting of the Lebanese civil war. (Yassine’s uncle was killed in the anti-Palestinian massacre perpetrated in Tel al-Zaater in 1976.) Yassine grew up amid the civil war that continued to rage throughout Lebanon in the 1980s. Thirty-five years earlier, his grandparents had been driven out of their homes in historic Palestine, during the Jewish-Palestinian battles that accompanied the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The villages from which two of his grandparents fled were both destroyed in their entirety by the Israeli authorities, soon after 1948. . . .

In 1993, Yassine won a scholarship to attend high school in the United States. From there he made his way to college and eventually to Harvard Medical School. I had also done all my college studies in the United States; and it was while he was at medical school that we met.

* * *

My parents were both medical doctors. When I was born in the late 1970s, they were among the scores of thousands of Palestinian professionals working in Kuwait. I was born in Kuwait and then passed most of my youth living primarily in the Gulf kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; however, my brothers and I would spend our summers, springs, and sometimes our winters in Gaza. I remember that at the height of the first Palestinian Intifada in around 1990, we kids were mocked in my mother’s hometown of Khan Younis, just south of Gaza City, for not knowing the difference between the insignia of the two main Palestinian movements, Fateh and Hamas! My parents tried to keep our lives as far away from politics as possible. But our existence as Gaza Palestinians was itself inescapably political.

Because I am a Gaza Palestinian, I hold a Palestinian Authority (PA) “passport” and the all-important identification or residency card, known as a hawyia, issued by the Israeli military authorities who still control the population registries of both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The hawiya is the document by which we Palestinians from the OPTs live and die. It is a document that, when I was growing up in the 1980s, we struggled hard to preserve and renew because Israel threatened to take it away from Gazans living outside the occupied Gaza Strip, just as today it still tries to take it away from Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Even when we were children we endured annual, 24-hour trips to Gaza by land, complete with strip searches at the hands of young soldiers, just so we could hang on to our hawiyas.

But the hawiya is the ultimate Catch-22. With it, the Israelis, who still today—despite their much-vaunted “withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005—control all the Gaza Strip borders, consider me to be a “legal resident” of Gaza. And thus, so long as the only land crossing, at Rafah, is open. the Israelis will graciously “allow” me to travel to my hometown, Gaza. But they forbid most other kinds of people—even Palestinians from the nearby West Bank or refugee Palestinians who grew up in exile, like my husband, let alone any of my American or European friends who might want to visit me—from doing so. The hawiya is also used to prevent me from traveling to other areas Israel controls like the West Bank, Jerusalem, or “1948 Palestine” (that is, modern-day Israel). It even bars me from the kind of access to those areas that other, non-Palestinian journalists have. As an Israeli army officer once explained to me, “We consider you as Palestinians, and therefore security threats, first; as journalists, second.” All those kinds of restrictions intensified after the conclusion of the Oslo Accords in 1993. (Go figure.)

The Israeli military has imposed the hawiya system on the indigenous (and therefore legitimate) residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip continuously throughout all the 43 years since they first occupied these territories back in 1967, long before I was born. From the mid-1990s on, possession of a hawiya has also entitled its holder to obtain a passport issued in the name of the PA (though the whole system is still maintained and controlled by Israel.) But basically, the hawiya system lies at the heart of the tight-knit mechanism by which Israel controls Palestinian movement, residency, and life in general. It allows Israel alone to decide which “Arabs” it will recognize as “Palestinian,” which couples it will recognize as “families” that qualify for “reunification” and thus residency, and who is allowed to move where and at what point—all inside our own homeland. As the pioneering Israeli journalist Amira Hass has explained:

This control allowed Israel to deprive hundreds of thousands of Palestinians of their residency status after 1967. It allowed the continuation of marital, social, economic, religious and cultural ties between Gaza and the West Bank until 1991—and then, it severed those ties. This control allows Israel to prevent the addition of foreign residents to the population registry; it allows Israel to intervene in, and even decide, the choice of a partner, place of study, type of medical treatment, address, quality time with children, participation in celebrations and funerals, the writing of wills and distribution of family property. Israel has the authority to ban the entry of friends or family members who are not Palestinian residents—not just their entry into Israel, but also into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

After Israel occupied the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip in June 1967, it issued hawiyas only to those Palestinians it found in residence there during a door-to-door census. Palestinians who had been driven out of, or fled, their homes in either the 1948 war or the 1967 war were excluded, as were any Palestinians who, at that time, were abroad for whatever reason—studying, working, visiting family, or vacationing. An exception was made for Palestinian physicians, for whom there was a desperate need. My parents were both dong medical internships in Egypt at the time. They grabbed the opportunity to return to Gaza, traveling in Red Cross ambulances with blackened windows that whisked them through the closed military zones of the newly occupied Sinai.

Then in 1975, my father had a sharp argument with the head of the Israeli medical military unit, who had come to meet with leading Palestinian doctors in Gaza to assess the needs of the main hospital there. The Israeli officer arrived with a predetermined opinion: The hospital had no further needs. My father, a person who tells it like it is, staunchly disagreed. He told the officer that the hospital was substandard, ranking at only “negative 2 on a scale of 1 to 10,” and that “we run out of antibiotics by the first week of the month!” The other Palestinian doctors panicked, pleading with my father to stay quiet, but he continued. Israeli promises to build a new hospital never materialize, he continued.

“So we’re liars?” asked the Israeli official. “Take it anyway you like,” My father replied.

The Israeli official forwarded my father’s file to Israeli intelligence, where he was then summoned on a weekly basis. He was advised to leave Gaza to seek work elsewhere—or face imprisonment, so he and my mother left. . . . Many years later, when their careers in the Gulf came to an end, my parents decided to retire back home in Gaza City.

* * *

When I started traveling to Gaza for my job in 2004, I took my son Yousuf, then 9 months old, with me. (He was still nursing.) Yassine stayed behind in the United States. A tech-savvy cousin suggested I should start a “blog” to help Yassine keep in touch with our travels and with Yousuf’s development. My first reaction was that I knew nothing about creating or maintaining websites! “You don’t need to,” she replied. “Just create a title, and you’re off.”

And so I did. In the fall of 2004, Raising Yousuf was born while we were visiting Boston. The idea was to write strictly about, well, raising Yousuf. I created a separate blog in which I commented on all things purely political, often in a satirical manner. But in December 2004, as I traveled back to Gaza with Yousuf, I was faced with the very real prospect that I would be unable to return to the Strip, and I would have no recourse for appeal against that decision. I was stuck in Cairo, a city that I barely knew, waiting to make the arduous land journey to the Rafah Crossing, which was (and still is) the only way Gazans who had left the Strip for any reason, could get back in. Israel announced it was indefinitely closing the Rafah crossing after a bomb killed several of their soldiers there. That closure stranded 1.5 million Palestinians inside the Strip, and tens of thousands of others (including us) outside it. It continued for 55 days, leaving Yousuf and me beached in Cairo. I came to understand then, as I would 100 times over in the years that followed, that as a Palestinian you cannot separate the personal from the political. Our identity surfaces with particular intensity on international borders!

In 2006, I left Gaza to spend more time with Yassine in the United States, though I remained determined to return as frequently as I could. My parents stayed behind in their apartment in central Gaza City. At that point, I had to face a different challenge: the pain of being stranded outside my homeland when it was under siege. I struggled to explain our complicated lives to Yousuf—and later to his little sister Noor, born in early 2008: Palestine and Gaza; border crossings and closures; the right of return and occupation; civil unrest and Palestinian division. Who were “the bad guys”? Why were the Israelis, who made for so many of the miserable experiences he had, not visible? Why couldn’t we travel like ordinary people, when we want and how we want? Why could the children’s beloved baba (daddy) never travel to Gaza with us, anyway?

I managed to visit Gaza twice more in 2007. But in 2009, after Gaza had been under prolonged closure, my attempts to go back failed. In April 2009, the Egyptian authorities, which were colluding closely with Israel to keep Gaza completely closed, held my children and me in Cairo airport for 30 hours before they finally expelled us back to the United States. Finally, in early summer 2010, responding to pressures raised by the Israel’s lethal showdown with the Turkish-led aid flotilla, Egypt loosened the siege—just a little. In July 2010, I was able to go back to Gaza for a three-month visit.

The chapters that follow cover this 6-year period—from fall 2004, when the second Intifada was still raging and Israel’s systematic demolitions of homes along Gaza’s southern border was at a peak, until the very recent past. They chronicle in intimate detail such historic events as Israel’s highly misleading “disengagement” from Gaza, which ended up repackaging its occupation in more insidious forms; the first truly democratic Palestinian parliamentary elections, held in 2006—and the Western-backed, Israeli-enforced boycott and bloody intra-Palestinian feuds that ensued; and ultimately, Israel’s “Cast Lead” assault on Gaza, which still left Israel’s tough siege of the Strip in place despite the many new needs for reconstruction that became clear once that assault’s ruins could be surveyed. Today, much of the optimism and hope I saw during critical moments like the Palestinian elections also lie in ruins. But its people go on living.

* * *

Throughout the book, you will be introduced to many of the people in my life, most of them Gazans. Chief among them are my children, Yousuf, now 6 years old; Noor, who turns 3 in January 2011; my husband, Yassine, now nearing the end of his medical training in the United States; my parents, Maii El-Farra, a pediatrician, and Moussa, a retired obstetrician gynecologist (OBGYN).

The tone and style of writing changes continuously throughout the book, as do the space, the setting, the content, and the situation. In the book, you will see me trying to navigate the variegated terrain of identities and spaces, of being reporter and mother, of being a Palestinian under occupation and a Palestinian in exile—and all the complexities and details in between. I try to do this with as much fluidity and clarity as possible.

This book does not claim to explain Gaza comprehensively or to speak for all of its residents. It is merely a singular account within the dizzying multiplicity of experiences and existences that constitute the Palestinian experience as a whole. It is a window into Gaza during some of its most turbulent years and into the violated but resilient lives we live as Palestinians. It is a story about mothering, homeland, identity—and survival.

Laila El-Haddad
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