Author recounts personal and political problems in Gaza
In April of 2006, Palestinian blogger Laila El-Haddad was reveling in a rare moment of tranquility as she looked out of her apartment window at the civilians milling around a local park across the street, enjoying a quiet afternoon in the calm Gaza sun.
“There was no chaos, uncertainty and violence that grip our lives,” she wrote. “For a few moments, things seemed normal.”
Then the missiles exploded. Shells rained down on the park and civilians no longer milled, but fled for their lives. That abrupt turn of events didn’t surprise El-Haddad — “It was just another Gaza Friday,” she wrote in her new book, Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting and Everything In Between.
Journalist and pundit Laila El-Haddad, her hair covered with a blue and white hijab, engaged a small group of Stanford students in a talk about the Gaza Strip that alternated between anger, frustration and sadness about the political state of the 25 mile war-torn stretch of land along the Mediterranean Sea.
“What often happens in the case of Gaza is that the personal gets displaced by the political,” said El-Haddad, describing her efforts to bridge that gap in Gaza Mom. “Palestinians are pess-optimists. How do you understand a situation that is ever-changing, where surviving itself is just an act of resistance?”
The Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt on the southwest and Israel on the south, east and north, has been at the epicenter of the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For the 1.7 million civilians and refugees who call the violence-splattered occupied territory home, political disillusionment and border snafus are a part of every-day life.
El-Haddad was born in Gaza and grew up in the Arabian Gulf, coming to the United States for college and then graduate school. She returned to Gaza as a stringer for the Aljazeera English website where she covered the Gaza disengagement in 2005 and Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. She and her husband, who is a Palestinian refugee, are currently living in the United States with their two children, unable to return to or visit Gaza due to the Israeli siege. They, like thousands of others of Palestinians are “languishing in legal limbo,” El-Haddad said.
“As Palestinians we spend so much time waiting for something — for a war to start, for a permit to be approved, for a border to be crossed,” she said. “I wanted to contribute to the Palestinian narrative.”
After wrestling with whether her own story was cause enough to begin a blog — “what right did I have to speak? I didn’t really have it that bad” — El-Haddad began sharing her first-hand experiences online at www.gazamom.com to show the “harrowing manifestations of occupation.”
Several of those experiences focused her talk, such as the Palestinian civilian effects of Israel and Egypt’s blockade of the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, saying that despite media reporting of a humanitarian food crisis, the sanctions represented a “siege of freedoms, not the siege of food.” Israel increased its sanctions and restricted access in Gaza in 2007, after the Islamic political-militant group Hamas won the Palestinian 2006 elections.
“For us, it’s a matter of freedom,” she said. “We want to be able to live normal lives and not have our lives dys-functionalized.”
At one point, El-Haddad got combative with several audience members while fielding questions about what obligation Israelis have to Palestinians in the first place and the underlying motivations for closing borders in the Gaza strip.
“There are always preconditions placed on Palestinians and there are none on Israelis,” she said, prompting a series of heated follow-up questions by the audience.
“There is a great illusion that if one were to open the borders that Palestinians will run out of Gaza with knives and attack the first Israelis they see. But if you talk to Palestinians who have had children killed by Israel and born the brunt of the occupation, they say, I don’t care about that. If you ask them if they bear Israelis hard feelings, they say, no, we would welcome them into our house.”
When asked about what a viable endgame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be, El-Haddad was unequivocal.
“A one-state solution that is democratic with rights for all is where it’s headed whether people like it or not,” she said. “If Israel were to open the borders, people would have no problem co-existing.”
The talk was organized by Students Confronting Apartheid by Israel, a student-run organization that has pressed for Stanford’s divestment from Israel. El-Haddad stopped at Stanford as part of her two-week book tour of California and Washington.