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    In case you missed the episode…


    Gaza Redux: Parts Unknown

    So, its been a while, I confess. Things happened: Both a book (The Gaza Kitchen!), and a child (Malaak, now 10 months!), were born. Between book touring and baby boobing (often at the same time!), my poor blog has been neglected. But no more!

    I’ll start with a bit of shameless self-promotion: This past June, I (and a then 8 month old Malaak!) had the true pleasure of meeting Anthony Bourdain, showing him around parts of Gaza, while we filmed a portion of the episode that will air this Sunday (“Jerusalem“).    Tune in this Sunday, September 15, 9pm EST, to watch the season premiere of “Parts Unknown” on CNN. As many of you know, Bourdain was one of the many people who praised our documentary cookbook-The Gaza Kitchen.  I won’t give away all the details, but I will say this:  is-he’s one heck of a baby-sitter!!

    With the production crew, and Bourdain (right); Beach Camp, Gaza Strip, June 2013.


    Gaza under fire 2.0

    On the evening of November 14, Gaza time, shortly before Maghrib prayer, Israeli warships unleashed a series of deadly attacks on crowded Gaza City on more than twenty locations, the first of many more in the days since. Thus far, 16 Palestinians have been killed, including a 7-year-old girl, 10 month old Hanin Tafish, a pregnant woman, and a 13 yr old aspiring soccer player-Hamid Abu Daqqa. He died in his Real Madrid shirt, before he could finish the second half.

    Among the dead: Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari, whom Israeli liquidated in an extra-judicial killing, as it has dozens of times in the past with no heed or consequence. Jabari was instrumental in the prisoner swap negotiations that led to the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and was noted for his role in transforming Hamas’s armed wing. He has evaded Israeli assassination attempts in the past (one in which his son was killed). His killing signaled a clear escalation on part of Israel, and a deadly reminder to Palestinians that they can be squashed like ants at a moment’s notice when and where Israel pleases, so long as Israel is never held accountable. Israeli officials have named this latest deadly assault “Operation Pillar of Cloud”– a reference, noted Ben Soffa, to a manifestation of God. (“Why not just go the whole hog & say it’s a divine act?” he continued.)

    The sky continues to rein terror on Palestinians in Gaza tonight, as my mother fearfully conveyed over Skype this morning. The city was in flames as night fell. And everyone in the besieged territory will be watching carefully to see how Hamas will respond to this latest Israeli escalation, which is sure to pose a challenge to their leadership there. They cannot risk or afford another full scale assault politically speaking, but a non-response will be viewed as a sign of weakness.

    The timing seems remarkably similar to Israel’s war in Gaza four years ago, called Operation Cast Lead: we are fast approaching winter, during a lame duck U.S. Congress following a U.S. election and prior to an Israeli one. Benjamin Netanyahu surely wants to stack his deck (“bodies for ballots“, as Yousef Munayyer put it). But that’s where the comparisons end. This time around, the Arab Street has awakened. A new government in Egypt that is not helping to enforce the siege on Gaza in collusion with Israel as Hosni Mubarak’s was,and the new FM is planning on visiting Gaza on Friday in a show of solidarity and a clear message to Israel. Hamas’s leadership is no longer based in Damascus. In addition, a U.N. vote on upgrading Palestine’s status in the U.S. to a non-member observer state is fast approaching. Israel has already threatened to annul the Oslo accords—already on life-support—in response (which may be a welcome move by many Palestinians). In reality, all this could mean very little on the ground except to put the extent and ferocity of any impending Israeli attacks in check.

    It bears reminding that however this latest episode is parsed to pieces and blame is issued—rockets, retaliation, escalation, deterrence, and all the other familiar buzzwords—the Gaza Strip is still under siege, is still under effective Israeli control (over borders, air and sea space, population registry, and taxation) and thus occupation (contrary to Gil Troy’s opinion in these pages). Palestinians in Gaza cannot do something as simple as visit family in the Ramallah, pray in Jerusalem, study in Bethlehem, love and live together in Jenin, and vice versa. Exports like fish and furniture and produce, once vital to the economy, are still banned from leaving Gaza. Aid dependence has skyrocketed as a result of a siege policy whose tenants intend to deprive Palestinians of not of food, but of freedoms, development and prosperity and leave them perpetually teetering on the edge of humanitarian crisis. So instead of talking about deterrence, perhaps the focus should instead be on granting Palestinians their freedoms; on letting them live free of constant Israeli terror and control.


    Palestinian: Lost in Representation?

    I recently appeared on Aljazeera’s “The Stream”, to discuss the Russell Tribunal and Palestinian representation-or lack thereof. In essence, who speaks for the Palestinians? The consensus seems to be -no one! Good show with lots of contributors from within Palestine and outside of it.


    Rafah: breaking it down

    Its been a while since I’ve blogged, I realize. Much too long. This has been mainly due to being completely engrossed in finishing the Gaza Kitchen, which as many of you might now, is nearly out (advanced orders now being taken!) and has gotten some rave early reviews from the likes of Claudi Roden, Anthony Bourdain, and Ghada Karmi. But I want to get back in the swing of things-so to start I’m posting a piece I recently wrote for al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, on the status of Rafah (think of it as everything you ever wanted to know about the Rafah Crossing!) from last month…

    When it comes to understanding the complicated realities of the Gaza Strip, the Rafah Crossing ranks among the greatest sources of confusion: Many people know it is the main gateway in and out of the blockaded Palestinian territory, and that it is frequently closed. But other details are fuzzy. Many are likely unaware that even when the crossing is supposedly “open”, it is still closed to large segments of the population – both the Palestinian residents of Gaza and others.

    The government of the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and Hamas leaders were scheduled to meet mid-September to discuss border security and easing of passage through the Rafah Crossing, according to press reports. The outcome remains to be seen, but so far successive Egyptian governments have adopted the Israeli principles governing the Crossing, even though Israel itself no longer manages it. Simply put, those principles are that, only Gaza Palestinians listed in the Israeli-controlled population registry are permitted to use the crossing. Visitors and non-resident Palestinians – even Palestinians from the West Bank – are still forbidden from entering Gaza, and this includes the spouses of resident Palestinians. Moreover, most young males face great difficulty in passing in or out and are often denied permission outright by Egyptian authorities.

    Last month, the Crossing made the headlines again after a series of attacks by masked gunmen on military checkpoints in the Sinai. The Egyptian government closed Rafah indefinitely, much to the dismay of the Gaza Palestinians, who saw no reason for the closure and had no hand in the attacks. The Egyptian move brought back chilling reminders of the policies of years past carried out by both Israel and the government of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak, when the crossing was explicitly closed (according to leaked policy documents at the time) as a punitive measure, a form of collective punishment on the civilian residents of Gaza.

    The Mursi government eventually reversed its decision, after having stranded thousands of Palestinians on either side of the border – but it remains an open question how much influence Mursi wields regarding the border crossing, which is controlled by the Egyptian border patrol.

    Read more here on the Al-Shabaka website.


    How Congress is crushing Palestine

    A few weeks ago, I emailed an old friend in Gaza, a thirty something economist, to seek out his expertise. Years ago, when I was living in Gaza, he and I frequently exchanged thoughts on the situation, particularly during the frenzy of the Disengagement, and I always valued his opinion. That was then.

    I was writing a side-bar on the economic situation for my forthcoming book, The Gaza Kitchen, and was trying to remember a phrase he had frequently used to describe the paradoxical way that the Palestinian economy as a whole, and particular in Gaza, functions, where aid dependence is nearly 80%, yet where prices on par with a developed country.

    Was it “lopsided economy” I asked him in an email, a response to a “happy holidays” message he had sent out to all his friends?

    His response, which had nothing -and everything-to do with my question, took me by surprise:

    Hi Laila. Things haven’t been good in Gaza lately. I was laid-off work 2 months ago when the US Congress decided to freeze aid to the PA. So the US company I was working with laid-off 30 of its employees, and I was one of the unfortunate ones. The Gaza job market is still going through a dry spell. Imagine a market that does not produces more than 10 vacancies / month at best!

    I am trying to apply outside Gaza, but opportunities without good connections and a foreign citizenship are very difficult to get. In 2009, I tried to renew my Egyptian residency and move out of Gaza for good. However, the Egyptian authorities denied my request. So I am left struggling here applying for whatever jobs there are even if they are a down-grade from where I used to be.

    I hope that you, your husband and the kids are all well. Anyway, sorry to respond with a very gloomy email, and I still believe that one has to keep faith and try to survive the ups and downs of life.

    Gaza is commonly associated with gloom, so the email, one might argue, should not have caught me by surprise. After all, two in three Gazans live in poverty; three-quarters of the population is food insecure or vulnerable, and roughly one-third of the work-force is unemployed-a figure that nearly doubles when one takes into account the youth, who make up more than half the population. 30, 000 people join their ranks every year.

    In spite of this, the most secure have always been the urban elite (or else, one might argue, anyone with an excellent command of English and a fixer contract. Media is the one enterprise that seems to thrive in such dark times), but in particular those who work with the countless international organizations and NGOs, who increasingly over the past few years have come to rely on local hires.

    Yet here is one of these so-called “western minded moderates”, to quote a frequent and favorite refrain of Congress, educated in Cairo’s American University,booted from his job as a direct result of this same Congress’s policies aimed at, what exactly? Punishing the PA for its statehood bid? For attempting to reconcile with Hamas? Or simply in deference to Israel, their masters?

    The West Bank, the conventional thinking might go, is a different story: we have become accustomed to hearing glowing World Bank reports about how well Fayyad’s Ramallah is doing. Earlier today, I came across a TIME blog post which depicts a similarly gloomy outcast, one that many Palestinian analysts have argued was a long-time coming:

    In a donor economy – which Palestine emphatically is – tides and waves are governed by the whims of distant overlords as much as by global finance. Since 2007, Washington has sent some $4 billion to the West Bank, intent on encouraging the moderate governance of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whose secular Fatah party the militants of Islamist Hamas had just chucked out of Gaza. While Israel enforced a siege on the coastal strip in hopes of making Hamas less popular, the international community gushed dollars into Ramallah. Thus did the city just north of Jerusalem take on the look of a boom town, its hills stippled with construction cranes and flashy new restaurants, especially on the north end, where aid agencies and “non-governmental organizations” set up shop…the effort put money in the pockets of the educated, Western-oriented locals who worked there. Those are the people being laid off now.


    I Complain, therefore I am

    Just came back from Detroit where I attended the ADC-Michigan annual awards gala, during which I received the Literary Leadership Award for my work in Gaza Mom. During my allotted two minutes, I read a selection from the book with which many be familiar, called “I Complain, therefore I am”, from 2006 (and which first appeared in the Guardian).

    At the time, I wasn’t yet aware of Newt Gingrich’s disgusting Palestinians-don’t-exist comments, but given the circumstances, re-posting my entry seems timely. As an aside, the [lack of] response to Gingrich’s comments is simply appalling, as was the thunderous applause he received when he unabashedly restated his beliefs during the Iowa Republican debate.

    Well Newt, this piece is for you.

    I’m fairly certain I exist.

    Descartes tells me so, and before him, Ibn Sina. And when my son drags me out of bed to play with him in the pre-dawn hours, I really know I do.

    So you can imagine how distraught I was when my existence was cast into serious doubt by a major airline.

    After booking a flight online with British Airways out of Cairo (the nearest accessible airport for Palestinians here, eight hours and a border crossing away from Gaza), I attempted to enter my “passenger details”, including country of citizenship and residence.

    Most people wouldn’t give this a second thought. But being the owner of a Palestinian Authority passport (which one can acquire only on the basis of an Israeli-issued ID card), I have become accustomed to dealing with Kafkaesque complications in routine matters.

    And sure enough, in the drop-down menu of countries, I found the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Isle of Man and even Tuvalu – but no Palestine.

    Now, I understand “Palestine” does not exist on any western maps, so I would have settled for Palestinian territories (though Palestinian bantustans may be more appropriate), Gaza Strip and West Bank or even Palestinian Authority, as my “pursuant to the Oslo accord”-issued passport states.

    But none of these options existed. And neither, it seemed, did I.

    I was confused. Where in the world is Laila El-Haddad if not in Palestine, I thought? Certainly not in Israel (as one of many customer relations representatives casually suggested).

    I sent an email of complaint to BA humbly suggesting that they amend the omission. Several days later, the reply came: “We are unable to assist you with your query via email. Please call your general enquiries department on…then select your country from the drop-down list.”

    Frustrated, I sent a follow-up email and was told to contact my “nearest general enquiries department” (if I was to take that literally, that would be Tel Aviv). Instead, I opted for customer relations in the UK, whose web support told me there was no guarantee I would ever get a definite answer.

    I relayed the tale to my friend, whose own status as an east Jerusalemite is even more precarious than mine as a post-disengagement Gazan. “Could it be,” she posited, “that there is no definite answer because we aren’t considered definite people?”

    I’ll leave that for British Airways to answer.


    Gaza’s Food Heritage-in Saudi Aramco World

    A bit tardy of me to only post this now-but have been insanely busy putting the finishing touches on the first draft of our book! If you happen to live near Madrid or DC, stop by for some of the fruits of our kitchen-testing! In the meantime, enjoy this article-the product of many months of hard work, published in Saudi Aramco World magazine. Consider it a prelude to our book!

    As home to the largest concentration of refugees within historic Palestine, Gaza is an extraordinary place to encounter culinary traditions, not only from hundreds of towns and villages that now exist only in memory—depopulated and destroyed during the Palestinian exodus of 1948—but also from the rest of Gaza’s long history.

    Through decades of conflict, families in Gaza have held to recipes and foodways as sources of comfort, pleasure and pride. Unable to control much else in their lives, Gazans are renowned for lavishing care and attention on food and family. Visiting kitchens up and down the Gaza Strip, talking to women about cooking and about life, offers lessons in the vital art of getting by with grace.

    More here:

    Saudi Aramco World : Gaza's Food Heritage.


    Israel to legalize outposts as prisoner swap deal signed

    The airwaves are abuzz with news of the Gilad Shalit/Palestinian prisoner swap, in which 1027 Palestinian prisoners will be released over two stages and several months in exchange for the release of soldier Gilad Shalit.

    Among those to be released are prisoners serving life sentences, and all Palestinian women prisoners, as well as big names like PFLP’s Ahmed Saadat, and Marwan Barghouthi.

    AJE analyst Marwan Bishara refers to many of those being released as the “lost faces of this conflict” because of the sheer length of time they have been serving sentences-some from before the signing of the Oslo Accord.

    5000 or more Palestinian prisoners will remain in Israeli detention of course, many without charge, and conditions conditions continue to deteriorate on the ground. Criticism of the deal aside-the distraction it is causing from ongoing Israeli colonization and apartheid etc., the deal is being celebrated by at least some people: children have grown up without ever knowing their fathers. For the first time in decades, they will re-unite. Tactically, this deal was one both Hamas, and Netanyahu, badly needed. It was Hamas’s power play answer to Abbas’s UN statehood bid, though Hamas’s Meshal emphasized in a televised speech earlier today that this was not a factional, but a national, accomplishment.

    Also today, overshadowed by news of the prisoner swap, was this bit of less headline making news: Netanyahu today announced has decided to form a spin committee that would find a way to legalize the construction of illegal settlement outposts on private Palestinian land.

    In response, B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, stated that the move will “render the Israeli government an active accomplice in the private land theft and dispossession of Palestinians” and labeled the committee a merely more blatant version of an already existing Israeli occupation policies: “manipulation of the law in order to lend a guise of legality to the settlement project. Until now, the government aided the theft of Palestinian land by turning a blind eye, by lack of law enforcement and, in some cases, by funding construction in outposts. ”

    The formation of the committee means that the government will now become an active accomplice in the private land theft and dispossession of Palestinians: until now, the government aided the theft of Palestinian land by turning a blind eye, by lack of law enforcement and, in some cases, by funding construction in outposts.


    Hunger Strike for Palestinian Prisoners

    On Sept 27, several hundred Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails started a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their incarceration. They have made several key demands, including an end to abusive isolation, restrictions on higher education in prisons, denial of books and newspapers, shackling, excessive fines, and most importantly, an end to all forms of collective punishment, including the refusal of family visits, night searches of prisoners’ cells, and the denial of basic health treatment.


    All freedom supporters around the world are called to join the prisoners with one day hunger strike, on Wednesday October 12th, when they will have entered their 16th day of hunger strike.

    If you are joining, declare it: “On 12.10.11, I will be on hunger strike in support of Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike since September, 27th”

    يوم 12.10.11 انا مضرب\ة عن الطعام دعماً للأسرى الفلسطينيين، المضربين عن الطعام منذ 27 أيلول

    Hashtag on twitter: #HS4Palestine

    Some 8000 Palestinians are being held in Israeli prisons or detention centers by the Israeli army, including 370 minors and 103 Palestinian women, according to the Palestinian prisoner’s rights and support group, Addammeer.

    Over 750 are held without charge or trial.

    These are not hardened criminals we’re talking about folks. The overwhelming majority of Palestinian prisoners are regarded as political captives who have been arbitrarily imprisoned or detained under the broad banner of “security”, according to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem.

    “If these same standards were applied inside Israel, half of the Likud party would be in administrative detention,” noted the group in a report.

    Palestinians have been subjected to the highest rate of incarceration in the world-since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in 1967, over 650,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel-constituting some 20% of the total Palestinian population, and 40% of all Palestinian men.

    According to Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and B’tselem, their conditions of detention are extremely poor, with many prisoners suffering from medical negligence, routine beatings, position torture and strip searches.Since the beginning of this Intifada in September 2000, over 2500 children have been arrested.

    Fore more information regarding Palestinian Prisoners, please see this IMEU fact sheet.