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Palestinian Women on the Front Line against Israel’s Occupation

“If we women don’t resist this occupation, who will?” Amidst a pandemic and repression by the State of Israel, Palestinian women are also at the forefront of resisting colonization.

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Photo: Khalil Hamra/ AP

Emilia Louise, Sara Yuki, Margot Vallere

In April 2020, Palestine, like the rest of the world, was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Already in the grip of extreme poverty and unemployment, the pandemic has exacerbated the miserable living conditions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the occupied territories in Israel. Even before the pandemic, the territories had the highest unemployment rate in the world, at 27 percent in 2018, and a quarter of the population lived below the poverty line. More than fifty years after the Six-Day War, the occupation has permeated every aspect of daily life for 4.8 million Palestinians. Today, nearly two million people live stranded in Gaza. Deprived of free movement and the right to most essential services, Palestinians live in very precarious conditions that have greatly facilitated the spread of the virus.

In the space of a few months, nearly 121,000 Palestinians lost their jobs and about 40 percent of households lost more than half of their income. As elsewhere, women are the first to be affected by the consequences of the pandemic, especially during childbirth. The pandemic has increased the burden of care work they must perform within their homes. As elsewhere, women are often confined to their homes with their sometimes violent spouses, increasing their exposure to domestic violence. Palestinian workers who continued to work during the lockdowns and pandemic have also been on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19, both in health care and in other essential work. In addition, Israel has long pursued a policy of vaccine apartheid against Palestine, despite the fact that Israeli citizens have been vaccinated en masse. This policy revealed once again Israel’s true colors as a colonial state which refused to respond to the health emergency in the territories it has occupied since 1967.

But in addition to the pandemic and the crises that continue to afflict the Palestinian people, women are also the first victims of the occupation. They are subject to both colonialism and patriarchy, which is manifested through a form of conservatism that has been increasing since 1987, when Hamas began to gain popularity. This was accompanied during the first Intifada by the spread of Islamic dress for women as a sign of resistance to the occupation on the one hand, but also as a sign of respect for the martyrs of the resistance. Consequently, Israeli colonization has historically been, and continues to be, a fertile ground for the reinforcement of reactionary religious conservatism embodied in Palestine by Hamas. As one mother at the 2015 protests told the French newspaper Liberation, “We should fight against the Palestinian conservative mentality as strongly as we fight against the occupation.”

Palestinian Women Leading the Fight Against Israeli Occupation.

Even though they are hardest hit by unemployment due to Israeli blockades and must simultaneously take on the majority of domestic and educational tasks, Palestinian women are fighting side by side with men against the Israeli occupation. From the first Intifada in 1987 to the recent eleven-day Palestinian uprising, there is a tradition of struggle among Palestinian women.

Since the creation of the State of Israel on Palestinian land in 1948 and in a context of occupation, women from all walks of life have mobilized alongside men in the struggle for their right to self-determination. Since the Nakba that led to the expulsion of nearly 800,000 Palestinians by Israeli forces, the Palestinian national liberation movement has glorified the male figure of the martyr while presenting women as the embodiment of Palestinian honor. But over the years and through their political commitment to national liberation and women’s liberation, Palestinians have challenged these gender roles and established themselves as central actors in the struggles, albeit with significant variations from period to period.

During the structuring of the Palestinian national movement in the 1960s, Fatah and the other left-wing parties did not initially question the family values shared by the majority of their cadres. Movements formed by and for women such as the General Union of Palestinian Women are rare, and their members are mainly engaged in charitable activities. Despite the officially egalitarian ideology of these parties, women are often relegated to domestic care and have difficulty gaining recognition as full-fledged political activists.

It was not until the late 1970s that a new generation of women, often passing through university, gained a foothold in political parties and developed reflections on patriarchy and the status of women. During the 1970s and 1980s, many women’s committees affiliated with these parties were created and more and more women were recruited. Together, they fight both against the Israeli occupation and for equality between men and women in the struggle and in daily life.

The first Intifada (1987-1993) marked a turning point in women’s activism and gender norms promoted by the nationalist parties. In the early days of the uprising, thousands of young people, mostly women, took to the streets of the occupied territories to express their outrage at the murder of four young Palestinians by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

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For these young people who had known only occupation, this murder was the last straw after almost forty years of colonization. These thousands of young men quickly formed battalions and confronted the armed soldiers in the streets of Gaza, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Women played a special role in this Intifada, playing a decisive role in the vanguard, standing in front of the Israeli tanks. Palestinian women also organized among themselves, forming committees to help the fighters and defying curfews to bring food and medicine to neighborhoods besieged by the army. During this period, some 3,000 women ended up in regime prisons for their activism.

Unlike the first intifada, the second intifada, which broke out in September 2000, saw fewer opportunities for women to intervene. Israeli military oppression intensified, making it more difficult for the struggle to develop. Moreover, the militarization of this conflict led to the exclusion of women from the front. The figure of the martyr once again occupies a privileged place and women are less recognized as militants. However, although Hamas initially opposed it, some women committed suicide attacks in the early 2000s.

After the second Intifada, the women’s movement became fragmented, in particular due to a certain “NGOization” of activism in the 2010s. Its political dissensions, including the pacifist initiatives uniting Israeli and Palestinian women, also weakened during this period. At the same time, however, the Palestinian feminist movement has experienced some renewal with the integration of LGBTQ issues into its political agenda. The queer collective “Aswat” addresses Palestinian trans and queer women and denounces the pinkwashing operations carried out by the extreme right-wing Israeli government.

Among many misogynist and homophobic policies carried out by the Israeli state, we can evoke blackmail and threats to publicly disclose the homosexuality or trans identity of Palestinians who refuse to serve as informants for the Israeli army.

This brief history of Palestinian women’s participation in protest movements against Israeli colonization shows us that they have every interest in taking an active part in these struggles. This includes putting an end to the patriarchal oppression they suffer and which are the fruit of a colonial and capitalist system orchestrated in this case by the State of Israel, despite the feminist and LGBT-friendly facade it tries to maintain.

In her interview with Révolution Permanente, Mariam Afifi reminds us that, despite Israel’s pinkwashing and its claims to be LGBT-friendly and feminist, Palestinian women and LGBT people suffer the double punishment of gender- and sexuality-based oppression, as well as that allowed daily by Zionism: “I think that using the pretext ‘we support the LGBT community, we support feminism’ is totally false because Israel is not a feminist country. It’s propaganda that Israel uses to get attention. It’s brainwashing people.”

In colonized territories such as Palestine, the material conditions resulting from this colonization necessarily exacerbate the mechanisms of oppression of women and gender minorities. Indeed, mass unemployment, precariousness, and violence hit women particularly hard, as they are often at the bottom of the social ladder, working in low-paid jobs and being subjected to patriarchal violence in the workplace. These material conditions place them in a situation of greater dependence on men.

Moreover, as a reaction to Israeli colonization and the violence of this system, political organizations such as Hamas emerged in opposition to Fatah which eventually adapted to Israel’s existence. Hamas, which promotes a religious agenda to resolve the crisis, is a deeply reactionary organization that advocates a misogynistic and homophobic agenda, and whose emergence has led to a strengthening of patriarchal norms within Palestinian society. We see here how colonial occupation facilitates the emergence of extremist and reactionary ideas.

“If we women do not resist this occupation, who will?”

The Palestinian people were violently repressed by Israeli forces for more than ten days. One of the triggers of this Palestinian youth rebellion and protest movement against the colonization and ethnic cleansing policy of Palestine, and Jerusalem in particular, were the attempts to expel several families from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a historic district of East Jerusalem, to make room for Israeli settlers. The Palestinian youth protest movement, with women at the forefront, then spread to the Gaza Strip.

Numerous testimonies show the importance of women in the resistance to the policy of expulsion and repression carried out by Israel in East Jerusalem, but also in the defense of the holy places of Islam. Palestinian women have been particularly present in the various demonstrations in Jerusalem against Israeli attacks. As Middle East Eye describes in their interview with Muna, a 23-year-old Palestinian girl living in Sheikh Jarrah: “As events unfold in Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinian women are assuming vital and prominent roles, Muna acknowledges, by attending residents’ meetings and participating in the decision-making process. They are also taking individual initiatives towards solidarity activists, attending hearing sessions at Israeli courts and closely monitoring the legal battle.”

Mariam Afifi, a young Palestinian activist who was imprisoned for two days after participating in protests in Sheikh Jarrah, explained to Révolution Permanente that “if we women do not resist this occupation, if we do not claim our rights, if we do not fight to stay on this land, who will?” She also explained that she was beaten and intimidated by Israeli police while in detention. In fact, Palestinian women are very violently repressed: 40 percent of the victims killed during the Israeli offensive are women and children.

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Women also play an important role of resistance as members of the religious community, despite the conservative role played by the latter in Palestinian society. Abir Ziad is the director of the Silwan Revolutionary Center. The Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was attacked by Israeli police, is located to the north of this neighborhood. She explains to Al Monitor that Palestinian women living in Jerusalem “played a prominent role in the recent developments, and that this is normal and a continuation of their approach to prioritize the protection of Al-Aqsa Mosque and East Jerusalem neighborhoods.”

Women who play an important religious role are particularly repressed by the Israeli police, sometimes going as far as to be randomly arrested. This is particularly the case for the Murabitat who are defenders of holy sites. The Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was attacked by Israeli forces, is home to a group of Murabitat, made up of women activists who protect the mosque from attacks by settlers and police. Their activism made them a symbol of resistance to Israeli oppression.

Another important element in the recent mobilizations of women in resistance to Israel is the role played by social networks and the media. The new generation is using these platforms to avoid censorship and share their struggle. In 2009, social networks made it possible to circumvent the media blackout on the evictions that had already taken place in Sheikh Jarrah. Afifi explained that “[many people] started to see the oppression through our eyes, through our producers, through our videographers. We took our stories, we shared them.” She added, “If the video [of my arrest] hadn’t gone viral on social media, I would still be in jail today. If social media wasn’t so powerful, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter wouldn’t delete our posts and hashtags.”

This determination and courage of the Palestinian women who are on the front line of resistance to the colonial State of Israel reminds us that the emancipation of women can only be achieved with the emancipation of all oppressed populations, in this case with the Palestinian people. The global feminist movement, as well as anti-racist organizations and the labor movement, must support the Palestinian resistance movment. 

Likewise, the Palestinian liberation movement must take into account all the problems of the oppressed Palestinian people in order to fight against all the oppressions and injustices suffered by the population. Gender issues cannot be left aside. But this struggle must be done completely independently from the State of Israel that exploits and oppresses them, as well as from all organizations that adapt to Zionism, but also in complete independence from reactionary religious political organizations such as Hamas. This struggle must be part of a general struggle for the construction of a socialist and workers’ Palestinian state, in which Jews and Palestinians can live together in peace.

Originally published in French on May 24, 2021 in Revolution Permanente.

Translated by Tatiana Cozzarelli

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