Who Is the Cartoon Child Seen on Palestinian Protest Signs?

Students who camped out on Columbia University lawns for the last two weeks, demanding financial transparency and divestments from Israeli military interests, broke into Hamilton Hall early Tuesday morning, smashing the windows of the academic hall and zip-tying and blocking the doors from the inside. Before police could storm the campus and make sweeping arrests, the students “renamed” the building by unfurling a banner reading “Hind’s Hall” after Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian child who was killed by Israeli strikes during the ongoing bombardment of Gaza.

The banner bearing Hind’s name also featured a recognizable image: the back of two barefoot, raggedy children with clasped hands and spikes for hair. This figure, known as Handala, has been consistently rendered on protest signs and art in support of the Palestinian people in the midst of the siege on Gaza.

Handala, created in 1969 by the late Palestinian political cartoonist Naji al-Ali, embodies Palestinian identity and resilience through years of war and subsequent resistance. Named after a plant bearing bitter medicinal desert fruit, the drawing of the 10-year-old child symbolizes the pain of forced displacement.

“As soon as I saw that with ‘Hind’s Hall,’ it made so much sense because at least with regard to Gaza, it’s such a young population,” Kholood Eid, a Palestinian-American photographer, told Hyperallergic. “The median age is roughly 18. So I can’t not associate the genocide with children.”

“I think about a lot of orphans in Gaza, and Handala is synonymous with the yearning for home,” she added. “And it’s something that every Palestinian can relate to.”

Mukta Hinds Hall Keffiyeh Protester
A protester wearing a keffiyeh outside of “Hind’s Hall” at Columbia (photo Mukta Joshi/Hyperallergic)

Handala made his first appearance in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassah in 1969. Back then, the child had been drawn facing the viewer. But in the years that followed, beginning in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War, al-Ali rendered Handala with his face hidden and his back turned, representing the artist’s dismay at the global community’s complicity in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. “I will continue with him, even after I die,” al-Ali once said

The beloved cartoonist was assassinated by unknown assailants in London in August of 1987.

Khalid al-Ali, his son, told Al Jazeera in a 2009 interview that Handala serves as “a reminder of the poor Palestinian children still lingering in refugee camps — the children who are homeless and are looking to return to their homes.”

Eid found it especially poignant to see Handala with Hind’s name next to him, “sharing the same space, with her having been just a child, being killed in the most tragic way imaginable.”

“It’s such a simple sketch,” she said. “But that character has survived for generations, and to see him on Columbia’s campus is not something I ever expected.”

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