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Haaretz: “A mother’s resistance”

by Ofri Ilani, February 14th

Laila El-Haddad’s blog took shape in a very unusual way. Her son, Yousuf, was less than a year old when she returned to her Gaza home from a visit to the United States, where her husband, Yassine, lives. The blog, “Raising Yousuf” (a-mother-from-gaza.blogspot.com), had just begun, and it dealt with common child-raising experiences, mainly first syllables and words.

“It was initially purely about Yousuf and his milestones and shenanigans … Then one day, I think it was December 2004, on my way back to Gaza via Egypt, Rafah Crossing was shut down, rendering Yousuf and I refugees in Egypt. We ended up waiting a total of 55 days for the border to open, never knowing whether that day would be tomorrow or the next day or one month or one year. It was a very stressful time for us, and we hardly knew anyone in Cairo. So I began to write about our experiences waiting together on my blog.”

“Gradually,” she says, “the blog was transformed into reflections about how the occupation has become very personal for Palestinians. How it affects us not only as Palestinians or doctors or journalists, but also as mothers and fathers and children, to the very last mundane detail of how we live our lives.”

The details of Yousuf’s first months became a diary describing life in Gaza from the inside, one of the few being written in Gaza in English.

“Dear Mr. Peretz,” she wrote in an open letter to Defense Minister Amir Peretz in November 2006, “My son Yousuf, 2 years and 9 months, would like me to inform you that he wants to enter Gaza. He has asked me to tell whoever it is who is keeping it closed to open the border for him immediately.”

For three weeks they waited in El Arish, Egypt, in an apartment they rented, along with thousands of other waiting Palestinians. “How is it that when waiting for passage through borders, time is suspended, yet somehow the rest of the world goes on living?” she writes. “How is it that all sense of time and belonging and life comes to a standstill here I cannot understand. We’ve packed and unpacked our bags a dozen times … sometimes things work in reverse here: last time we were stuck for 55 days in Egypt; the day we decided to buy more than a daily portion of food, the border opened.”

To crouch or run

Al-Haddad, 29, was born in Kuwait to parents from Gaza City and Khan Yunis. After a few years in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where her parents worked as doctors, the family returned to Gaza. When she finished high school, she moved to the U.S. and completed a master’s degree in public policy. There she met Yassine, who became her husband. In 2003, at the height of the second intifada, she returned to Gaza and started freelancing for several newspapers, and later for the Al Jazeera English Web site.

In the meantime, she says in an interview conducted via e-mail, it turned out that “I had access to a place that gradually became one of the world’s most isolated – now even off-limits to veteran Israeli journalists. So I realized I was in a unique niche and tried to make the most of it … it also entailed enormous risk. I was newly pregnant with Yousuf, and I worried about working as a journalist in a dangerous environment that also happened to be my home, and also about the quality of health care should, God forbid, something happen … And on more than one occasion, I found myself in the line of Israeli fire, having either to crouch for cover until the shooting stopped, or run.

“You want to shelter your children as long as possible – but at a certain point, you can no longer do that,” she says. “For Yousuf, some of his first words were ‘infijar’ (explosion) – and even ‘Hamas’ (when he would see rallies and came to recognize the green flag) – when he was only 18 months. In the end, though undeniably tasking and torturous, being able to live between two vastly different societies has been ultimately rewarding.”

The main reason why she repeatedly had to pass through the Rafah crossing is that her husband, Yassine, cannot enter Gaza. “Yassine is a Palestinian refugee; his family is originally from Haifa. In today’s world and especially I think within mainstream Israeli circles, that title is like the plague. This meant of course that not only was he denied a right of return to his native land, but also that he was denied entry with Yousuf and me into Gaza if he ever had a break and wanted to visit us. This is because Israel has stopped issuing family reunification and residency cards/ID cards to Palestinians for several years now, prior to the second intifada. We had hoped this would change after they ‘disengaged’ from Gaza, but in fact they continue to control the population registry there and therefore our ability to live and travel together as a family.”

Refugee chats

The restriction on movement makes online communication especially vital. “If I can’t reach people in the West Bank, Jerusalem or Israel, then I can reach them through my blog,” she says.

She says Gaza Web users face considerable infrastructure problems. However, the Internet helps unify the dispersed people. “Accessibility is not as far-reaching … But local calls add up … The youth use it a lot to chat in local forums and on more global messenger programs.”

Several refugee camps have Internet cafes, some of them sponsored by projects where youth connect with one another online, such as the Across Borders project. Established by Birzeit University, it aims to connect refugees.

“But it also does more than that,” says El-Haddad. “It creates a psychological connection between members of a nation that would otherwise never see each other or know each other’s parallel – but completely remote – experiences.”

Al-Haddad says her blog is a form of “virtual resistance” to the occupation. She says she receives many responses, including from Israelis.

“Some have been very vitriolic and hateful, to the point where I’ve had to initiate comment moderation. I’ve had people say: ‘Yousuf’s a beautiful boy; it’s too bad he has such a horrible mother who is raising him to become a suicide bomber like all other Palestinians.’ It makes you realize you are throwing yourself out there as cannon fodder, and you have to learn to live with the consequences of putting yourself out there like that. That is the price you pay for opening your door to the world.”