Palestinian Women In The Intifada

By Naila Daniel | 1997-07-01 12:00:00

The intifada or uprising against the 20-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza erupted on December 9, 1987. Apart from the throwing of stones by children and youth, this was essentially a nonviolent civilian struggle of an oppressed people who established a powerful alternative to armed struggle-one that is no less dynamic, no less brave and no less effective. A significant number of the Palestinian activists were women. Their authority as leaders of nonviolent resistance increased during the uprising.

On the eve of the intifada, women's committees affiliated with official national liberation organizations in the occupied territories were well established in towns, villages and camps. Women of all ages, from young girls to elderly grandmothers joined protests, built barricades and reduced their community's economic dependence on Israel.

Protectors Of Men

During the intifada it was dangerous for men to participate in demonstrations or marches in the absence of women. Women became the backbone of the demonstrations both as participants and as protectors when the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) attempted to arrest their men. Women threw themselves between the Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian men being seized, claiming them as their sons, whether they were or not.

One day, following Friday prayers at a mosque, a young mother was beaten by the Israeli soldiers as she attempted to free her son from being kicked and arrested. Upon witnessing this, an elderly woman got a grip of the boy, crying, "He is my son!" In disbelief, the soldiers wanted to know how such an old woman could possibly be the mother of such a young boy. Without hesitation, she snapped, "They are all our sons." Women picked up the motto "He's my son!" in protecting not only their own families, but the whole community.

On another occasion, upon seeing a young man being beaten by soldiers, a woman rushed up to them with her baby in her arms. She began shouting at the man saying that he never listens to her when she warns him not to leave the house. She then turned to the soldiers, encouraged them to beat the man and yelled, "I'm sick of you and your baby. Take him and leave me alone." She then pushed the baby into the young man's arms and ran away. The soldiers became utterly confused and left the scene. A few minutes later, the woman reappeared, collected her infant, and wished the man safety and a quick recovery. They were total strangers.

Another incident involved a man who fled the IDF and dashed into a village home for protection. The woman in the house ordered him to undress and put on her son's pajamas. When the soldiers arrived, they knew the man they were seeking was not an immediate relative of the woman, and so they left. A similar incident occurred when a boy entered another home for refuge and the woman of the house ordered him to enter the bed in which her unmarried daughter was sleeping, posing as her husband and fleeing the soldiers' arrest.

Leaders Of Protests

Although demonstrations are the clearest of political actions and least characteristic of traditional women's roles, Palestinian women defied traditional cultural values pertaining to females and joined in mixed-gender demonstrations or led their own. They expressed outrage at the violence done by the Israeli soldiers or settlers, at arrests or killings, at the deaths and wounding of women and children, and the miscarriages caused from exposure to tear gas, especially when canisters were thrown into homes, hospitals or directly at women. By March 1988, three months into the intifada, there had been an average of 115 marches per week led by women. By then 16 women had died, but the marches continued.

For the first time, women began discussing politics openly. Young women especially were involved in the clandestine distribution of leaflets issued by the United National Leadership, which set strike days and hours, and outlined basic rules of behavior. In times of strikes, young women would go around telling shopkeepers to close their shops. Women also participated in the committee that guarded their neighborhoods at night, a previously unheard of role for women.

Women in villages and refugee camps were the most active in the intifada. They extended their traditional domestic role in defence of their families. In the camps, demonstrations were usually led by young, unmarried girls who also yelled back in response to verbal sexual harassment from soldiers. These women confronted soldiers during army raids (which usually occur at night) on their villages when they came to detain youths. Women would call on each other to confront the army as it entered their camp or village. Here they faced the most difficult situations-unprotected, late at night, in remote villages and curfewed camps.

Urban women led demonstrations from mosques on Fridays and from churches on Sundays. These drew widespread participation, regardless of religion. Many women in Ramallah, for example, attended both Friday and Sunday marches. Protests in villages or camps drew strength from communal and family roots. When a woman decided to demonstrate against the soldiers, she would use her extended family, calling on her mother, sister, aunt, and cousin. "We told the shabab (young men), stay home and sleep, today we're in charge." These words were spoken by a young woman from the village of Kafr Na'ama in the Ramallah area as she described the march in her village in celebration of International Women's Day on March 8, 1988, three months into the intifada. Women of all backgrounds, from urban middle-class women to grandmothers in peasant dress to blue-jeaned teenagers, joined for an impressive march through the village.

Following that march, a new generation of women, many of whom had been active participants in students' movements at Palestinian Universities, established grassroots women's committees that allowed the involvement of all women in the West Bank and Gaza in the fight against the occupation. An entire infrastructure of highly specialized popular committees was organized. To coordinate activities, a weekly meeting was held in one of several private homes. Their focus was on instilling self-sufficiency and disengaging from Israeli structures.

Child-care centres were established in villages and refugee camps. They allowed women with children to leave their homes to join the political movement. The centres extended their schedules to accommodate women who were active in the intifada. They opened seven days a week rather than the usual five and one-half day schedule, and they kept late hours.

A medical committee was formed to provide emergency medical treatment and blood-typed entire neighborhoods. First-aid training sessions were held for women who then treated complications from tear-gas inhalation and gunshot wounds from live ammunition, as well as from rubber and plastic bullets manufactured in the United States. The importance of the medical-care committee was immeasurable for the victims of the intifada who escaped being arrested by IDF. These young people refused to be treated at hospitals in fear of being captured while being treated and detained for months. Israeli law does not apply to Palestinians in the occupied territories. Since 1967, these Palestinians have been subject to Israeli military regulations based on the Defense Emergency Regulations instituted by the British in 1945 against both Jews and Arabs in Palestine. These regulations allow the holding of detainees for a year without review, at which time their detention can be renewed. Detention centres are tent camps with open sewers that lack food, medical care, adequate clothing and access to legal assistance. In fear, therefore, the wounded turned to the women in the medical committees for aid and treatment.

The Home Economy

When merchants began their commercial strike, people feared that the closure of the shops would go on indefinitely. They began to create "victory gardens,"growing their own vegetables, fruits, and herbs. The produce was later collected by other committee members for marketing. The women who were especially active in the agricultural committees were those in refugee camps.

Another food co-op activity was the preservation and pickling of fruits and vegetables, such as eggplants and cucumbers (necessary accompaniments to a meal in Arab homes), that were later sold in local markets. These products had previously been imported from Israel.Women, aged 16 to 60, did all the work by hand in each other's homes. They rose before dawn each morning, completed their own housework and then began to "work" at 7:00 a.m. They worked until 4:00 p.m. and then returned home, served dinner to their families, cleaned up, and collapsed into bed. Each woman put about one hundred hours a month into the co-op. They some initial training-in hygiene, accounting, etc.-from members of the Birzeit University faculty.

At times, the co-op would be harassed by the Israeli army. The IDF would confiscate the co-op's goods for nonpayment of taxes (the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, whose priority was also building the economic infrastructure in the occupied territories, had called on the Palestinians not to pay Israeli-imposed taxes), curfews or demonstrations.

The lack of public transportation made marketing of the products difficult. Some committee members stockpiled food that was distributed when curfews were imposed. Women would defy the military and risk their safety to smuggle food and other provisions into refugee camps during curfews, which sometimes lasted for weeks.

Producing handicrafts and clothes was also a popular activity in promoting the domestic market. Church societies supplied some of the materials required for production. These products were also sold locally.

When schools in the West Bank were closed by military order, an education committee was formed. It taught young children as well as high school students in homes, churches, and mosques. However, this alternative teaching was not regular and the schools remained closed for long periods. Under these conditions, children found it increasingly difficult to concentrate.

Condolence Visits

When a Palestinian man, woman, or child was killed, the women's committees mobilized the neighbors to visit the victims' families. These visits were not restricted to relatives or immediate neighbors, but to anyone wanting to join. Women were obliged to lie at army checkpoints, for if soldiers knew the destination of the passengers was the home of a victim's mother, they would not be allowed to proceed.

Committee members would go out into the neighborhoods after army raids to survey the damage and call for emergency services. They visited the sick and the wounded and provided material assistance. They ensured that roads were cleaned, that the garbage was properly disposed of, and that information was provided to the media.

Other activities included caring for imprisoned Palestinian women. This required constant encounters with the army, military courts, prisons and police. Hunger strikes carried out by political prisoners ensued. Women organ- ized sit-in demonstrations at local Red Cross offices to protest mass detentions and prison conditions. Their committees worked on behalf of prisoners and their families. They contacted lawyers, sent clothing and other supplies to prisoners, and arranged prison visits via the Red Cross.

To organize the neighborhood committees, women went door to door and spoke to the occupants. They would pin-point problems in the community to find ways to solve them. For example, if families needed food, they collected money to buy it. (As the intifada continued, men lost their jobs with Israeli employers or were unable to work full-time because of curfews and strikes. Other families suffered from the restrictions placed by the Israeli government regarding the importation of money, including Jordanian old-age pensions.) Through these regular visits, the committee members would diffuse information about daily activities and encourage residents to join the mass activities.

The squalid conditions in refugee camps sustained their women's persistent activism in the intifada. Palestinians in refugee camps live in dangerous conditions that include overcrowding, inadequate shelter and food supplies, lack of sewage systems and support facilities. As well, they are subject to constant military surveillance, demolition of homes, separation from family and friends, detention, imprisonment and deportation.

Overt political action on the part of women passed through three phases, in accordance with the stages of the intifada. In the first, they mainly engaged in direct confrontation with Israeli army. They also organized sit-ins at the doorsteps of human rights organizations and led demonstrations that grew in size and impact through the years of the intifada. The next phase consisted of consolidating the network of neighborhood committees. Slogans such as "Expanding and Strengthening the Popular Committees in All Areas" and "Neighborhood Committees: Organizing for Self-Reliance" reflected the core strategy of the women's committees in the political sphere. The third and final stage concentrated on maintaining the gains of the emancipation of women realized during the intifada, once statehood is achieved and beyond. The leaders of the women's committees seriously sought ways in which to consolidate the gains of the intifada and achieve permanent changes in the social and political status of women.

Women contributed to the drive for economic self-sufficiency and empowered themselves. Their participation accounted for the ability of the Palestinians to sustain the intifada and survive as a people. Not only did these women have a leading role in their people's struggle for national liberation, but Palestinian women realized their rights as females as a result of their role in the intifada.They won the respect and admiration not only of their male counterparts in the occupied territories, but of people around the world.

The Oslo Agreement signaled a new beginning, yet the election of the Likud Party in 1996 set the peace process back again. A "peace" that is founded on injustice and exploitation will never survive. I only pray that the Palestinians will find the courage to adhere to nonviolent means of disobedience, which sooner or later will bring a lasting peace to the region and to the world.

Naila Daniel has a sociology degree from the University of Toronto.

The Four Women's Committees:

Association of Labor Committees

founded by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in 1978. Activities: occupational training, lectures, courses in first aid, fund-raising, and the publication of leaflets

Association of Working Palestinian Women

founded in 1978 by the Palestinian Communist Party

Association of Palestine Women

founded in 1981 by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Activities: sewing workshops and small industries employing women to produce food products and baked goods

Women's Association for Social Works

founded in 1988 (following the outset of the intifada) by Fatah, a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Activities: occupational training collecting donations, organizing strikes, and struggling on behalf of prisoners

In November 1988, the Palestine National Council (PNC) in Algiers united all four organizations under one-the Supreme Women's Council. Women's neighborhood committees were banned by military authorities on August 18, 1988.

Their activities continued in secrecy.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1997

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1997, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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