On Parenthood and Genocide

A new mother and scholar of forced displacement writes about Israel’s mass murder of Palestinian children in Gaza. For this Mother’s Day, she is calling for action.

Heba Gowayed

Mahmoud Abu Dorra's wife was killed by the Israeli military. He's seen here with one of his children in a damaged building in Gaza on January 5, 2024. Photo by Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty Images

[NOTE: Heba Gowayed first wrote this article in January, and we are reposting it as families across the United States celebrate Mother’s Day in a year marked by the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. We asked Heba if she wanted to say anything to mark the holiday. What she wrote is below, and the original article — which we also urge you read — follows.]

My son is nine months old, almost 10. He is beautiful. He crawls, quickly, babbling to himself like an old man who is late for an appointment. He pulls up on the furniture, taking his first sideways steps. Four months have passed since I’ve written this article, and an additional 4,500 children have been killed. Children like him. Beautiful.

Meanwhile, American students, my students, protesting their murder, are being handcuffed and beaten — criminalized by the very same apparatus that arms this mass murder of children and their parents. 

Sunday is day 218 of genocide and it is Mother’s Day in the United States. And it is a day, like the 217 that preceded it, of sadness and rage. It is also a day that we must act. This genocide must cease, but that is not enough to ensure the safety of these children.

Today, in the name of motherhood, in the name of humanity, I urge you to take seriously and honor the call to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel that has been made by Palestinians, by Palestinian mothers.To fight the state that is conducting this genocide, that has occupied Palestine and destroyed childhoods for more than seven decades. 

Act within every institution you are a part of to end this for good. None of us are free until Palestine is free.

As the sun streams through the windows of our New York apartment, I watch our now five-month-old son grab his newly found feet. He sways as he chats with the baby looking back at him in the mirror attached to the play gym. He breaks into a wide-mouthed smile when he turns and catches my gaze. My chest constricts with the enormity of my gratitude for his existence and joy. 

And, as I have often done in the last 100 days, I think of Gaza.

My chest constricts with the enormity of my gratitude for his existence and joy. And, as I have often done in the last 100 days, I think of Gaza.

I think of the mother who, like me, struggled to have a child only to then lose him to the flippant brutality of bombs dropped from the sky. Of the father desperately clutching his soot-covered daughter, her fat arms and feet dangling limp against his chest. Of another father who tried to wrap a cookie into his son’s lifeless hand. He had been so excited to find his son a treat at the market only to come home to find him dead. Of the babies lined up in the NICU of a Gaza hospital under attack, who would soon likely not be wrapped in the muslin of a swaddle as my baby was, but in a white kafan (a burial shroud).

For the past 100 days we have witnessed a massacre of children, of childhoods. Of the roughly 24,000 Palestinians who have been killed, almost 10,000 are children. Each had a name. A favorite color. A favorite toy. Each cackled at a parent’s funny face.

Activists and mourners place about 10,000 children's shoes in an area of Amsterdam to call attention to the Israeli military's mass killing of Palestinian children. This photograph was taken on January 13, 2024. Photo by Nikos Oikonomou/Anadolu via Getty Images

The horrors befalling children of Gaza do not stop with death. Another 8,663 Gazan children have been injured. Each day, 10 children lose one or both of their legs — their limbs often amputated without anesthetic. Israeli forces have stripped young boys naked and paraded them in public. An estimated 25,000 children have lost a mother, a father — or both.

I am haunted by the images and videos of parents in Gaza with their children, by the love and grief comprising these figures. I am haunted because for the past decade I have worked with people who continue to endure the toll of war and displacement long after the end of violence. I am haunted because I am also the daughter of people who as children sheltered from Israeli bombs.

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But most of all, and along with other parents who protest against the genocide and the mass murder of children in their identity as parents, I am haunted because I am a mother. Because I know what it is to feel a baby grow against my body, kick and hiccup against my ribs. Because I know the anxiety of watching a newborn’s chest rise and fall, the vastness of the dreams I hold for my son, the lengths I’d go for his joy, that there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect him. I am haunted because if for some reason my son did not rise from his nap, I do not know what would become of me.

But most of all, and along with other parents who protest against the genocide and the mass murder of children in their identity as parents, I am haunted because I am a mother. Because I know what it is to feel a baby grow against my body, kick and hiccup against my ribs. Because I know the anxiety of watching a newborn’s chest rise and fall, the vastness of the dreams I hold for my son.

As a world we have failed the children of Gaza. We have failed our fellow parents. It is not a new failure. The vast majority of the 1.1 million children in Gaza were born behind a 17-year-old blockade which even in utero saw them as a danger to their colonizer, their lives and freedoms expendable for the sake of its stability. It’s something we’ve seen time and again with the Israeli military. After the 2014 assault on Gaza, the Obliterated Families project reported that one-fourth of the 2,200 Palestinians killed were children, with 1,000 other children permanently disabled.

We have long acquiesced to Palestinian children living in these conditions, to our tax dollars being sent to build the technology of their confinement. I live in a country whose leaders have long deemed Arab children like my son as less than human. In Yemen, in Syria and Iraq, in Libya, in Palestine — Arab children, our children, are simply ok to kill.

Against the horror of this assault, Gazan parental love, the most natural thing in the world, is resistance. On November 3, Doaa, a Gazan mother of two, and an Arabic teacher, tweeted a photo of her five-year old daughter beaming, holding a cupcake and wearing a sparkly tiara. She was proud to have managed a makeshift celebration for her daughter’s birthday in the midst of the violence, writing her happiness was worth the world.” When Doaa was killed along with her other daughter 24 hours later, the image went viral.

Someone compiled videos of Gazan men playing with babies covered in soot to say Look at how gentle our men are; look at how they are not terrorists.” As the daughter of a doting Arab father, I watched these videos and felt caught between my recognition of their sweet nothings and my offense at the need to share them. 

I am angry any person would have to distract a baby covered in soot.

I must admit, this piece about their loss is the hardest thing I have penned in a long career of writing. I know I can never do justice to the depths of this parental love and loss.

That any of these images of parental love and resistance exist is testament to Gazan strength and endurance. The photographs and videos are produced because grieving parents allow journalists to train their cameras on them as they kiss their baby’s eyes, kiss their baby’s feet goodbye. I am struck by the desperate rage of it, the unwillingness to break. I am reminded of Black mothers in the American south like Mamie Till insisting on open casket funerals to show their children’s mutilated bodies at the hand of white supremacists, their decades-long oppressors. The hope is that the world has a shred of shame, that if they look maybe they would be moved to act, to stop the violence. Do not look away,” the videos and photographs instruct us. The parents are cognizant that what they have endured is too much for the rest of us to passively consider. I must admit, this piece about their loss is the hardest thing I have penned in a long career of writing. I know I can never do justice to the depths of this parental love and loss.

A member of the press covering the Israeli assault on Gaza with a child on January 14, 2024. Photo by Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty Images

The crime of genocide is the crime of destroying a nation, a people. In Gaza, multiple generations of families have been killed at once, giving rise to a new acronym, WCNSF: Wounded Child No Surviving Family. I have never had a fear of dying before I had my son. If something were to happen to me, I’d count on my loved ones to take care of him. They’d know the airplane sounds he likes, how he likes to be burped. I’d count on them to remember me to him. But what if they were all gone, too? The massacre in Gaza is so much more than an aggregate count of lives. It is the loss of collective memories held in those lives — of events, of people, of places. A loss for which generations and generations to come will continue to pay the price.

In the face of a colonizer intent on the destruction of their nation, of 75 years of unrelenting violence, Palestinians have insisted on sumud, unwavering perseverance. That they will be free in their land. That they will grow and bear fruit like the olive trees that they plant.

Gazan children deserve more than survival. They deserve more than to simply be unmolested by the whims of tyrants. They deserve futures, joyful futures. They deserve to babble and giggle with their parents. They deserve to live free, from the river to sea.

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Heba Gowayed is an Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY Hunter College. Her work centers the lives of people who migrate across borders and the unequal and often violent institutions they face. She is author of Refuge, published with Princeton University Press, and is working on her second project, The Cost of Borders, where she argues that borders, rather than moral markers of sovereign land, are better understood as a series of expensive— and often deadly — transactions. She is published in academic journals as well as in Slate, Al Jazeera English, The New Humanitarian, and Teen Vogue, and has had her work featured in various outlets including her favorite podcast Code Switch.

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