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Rehumanizing Gaza

Palestinians in Gaza don’t want your sympathy or anger; we want your action, writes author Laila El-Haddad.

In Khan Yunis, a girl salvages her books from the rubble of her relatives' home, which was destroyed by Israeli strikes on the first day of the assault. (Photo: Eman Mohammed)

We Palestinians from Gaza are frequently spoken of as heroes. We’ve grown accustomed to pats on the back and praise for our courage and bravery. But speak to average people in Gaza and chances are they’ll roll their eyes. Not because there isn’t indeed a spirit of steadfastness in Gaza; historically, it has been a thorn in the side of any army that dared to invade it. But such reductionist characterizations, well intentioned as they may be, assume no frailty and thus, no humanness. Even this most basic of human characteristics, undesirable as it may be, is denied the Palestinian of Gaza.

Such depictions further the dehumanization of Palestinians. By failing to see Gaza as a polity with many debates raging, and many views being aired, we ourselves contribute to the dehumanization or un-humanization of Gaza. If the blockade persists, we think, “But they can handle that, right? They’re Gazan!” If the borders close we say, “But they must be used to this by now; the border always closes.” Instead of viewing Palestinians as human beings, we see them as abstractions.

We have turned Gaza into a legend before the story has even ended.

The simple truth is, people cope because they have to. In desperate and impossible times, people either survive or perish.

Granted, the conditions Gaza is subject to are more extreme perhaps than any other on earth. It is a territory more surveilled, more enclosed, more perversely de-developed and debilitated than any other.

One can’t help but wonder then, is it something about Gaza that makes it unique, where other peoples might have long perished or at the very least acquiesced? Are there some core values or social bonds that enable them to react the way they do?

There are. And it’s precisely these things that Israel’s ongoing blockade intends to fracture: normality, basic freedoms, sustainability, entrepreneurship and prosperity.

But Palestinians insist on existing, and simple everyday acts, like going to school or cooking traditional meals, become acts of resistance.

In 2010, I met a farmer in Gaza’s ravaged northern village of Beit Hanun, the breadbasket of Gaza, gently planting row upon row of olive saplings in his land, after taking a break and drenching himself with the hose. We talked briefly, touching on the debate regarding sustainably grown, rain-fed agriculture like olives versus water-intensive cash crops. “I could have left this land and given up. But I’m planting these trees for the third consecutive time. Three different times, the Israelis have demolished my farm, and cleared it of its fruitful trees. But if I walk away, if I decide one day to stop replanting those trees, fruitless as they may be, then I have nothing. I’ve lost.”

So it’s no wonder we react in awe.

Grieving parents of Ismail, Ahed, Zakaria, and Mahammad Baker, who were killed on July 16 by shelling from an Israeli gunboat as they played soccer on a Gaza beach. (Photo: Alaa Shamaly)Grieving parents of Ismail, Ahed, Zakaria, and Mahammad Baker, who were killed on July 16 by shelling from an Israeli gunboat as they played soccer on a Gaza beach. (Photo: Alaa Shamaly)

But Palestinians in Gaza say, time and again, we don’t want your sympathy; we want your sanctions! We don’t want your anger; we want your action!

Feeling horrified or sad or even proud of Gaza is not going to help anyone. Speaking and building bridges with students, who comprise more than half the population and who are categorically banned from traveling to pursue their higher education, just might, as could supporting young entrepreneurs, whose prospects are blocked from every angle.

How can we support and sustain that strength and those networks – and not merely reconstruct infrastructure – when the guns fall silent? How can we invest in rebuilding a generation of young people, in healing the wounds that go far beyond the visible scars and amputated limbs, instead of reconstructing buildings?

There are no easy answers, but the quest begins by asking the right questions and knowing where to look.

A version of this essay is included as an “Afterword” in Gaza Unsilenced, an anthology co-edited by Refaat Alareer and Laila El-Haddad and published by Just World Books to mark the anniversary of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. Gaza Unsilenced will launch July 8. Copies of the book can be preordered before then at The essay is reproduced here by permission of Just World Books to whom requests for further republication should be addressed.

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