International Women’s Day: When Palestinian women brought Israel’s occupation to the brink of collapse
Around the world and throughout history women have long been the backbone of movements, uprisings and revolutions, only to have had their fundamental role wiped out, if written in at all.
The Western narration of the Palestinian struggle has often lacked visibility and acknowledgment of the vital role of Palestinian women within Palestinian resistance, that predates Israel’s existence.
From Tarab Abdul Hadi, a Palestinian feminist born in Jenin in 1910 who founded the Palestinian Women’s Congress which resisted the British Mandate’s occupation of Palestine, to Fatima Bernawi who was amongst some of the first to mobilise against Israeli colonisation and was the first female Palestinian political prisoner. The list continues with NASA’s Nujoud Merancy who is one of the leaders of the Orion spacecraft programme which plans to send the first woman to the moon in 2024, Hanan Hroub, recognised as one of the World’s Best Teachers. And of course the courageous young Palestinian women at the forefront of the fight today, like Ahed Tamimi who defied Israel’s occupation with a slap that was heard around the world.
''This international women’s day, let it not be forgotten just how vital and powerful a role Palestinian women have served, and continue to play in the struggle against Israeli colonisation, occupation and apartheid.''
Muna El Kurd is another brave Palestinian woman whose fearless journalism covering the continued Israeli colonisation of her neighbourhood, Sheikh Jarrah, led to the Palestinian struggle going viral in 2021. She was honoured as one of TIME Magazine's most influential people.
The stories of these Palestinian women contradict the West’s sensationalist and racist reportage that depicts them as anomalies in an “inherently patriarchal” society. Indeed, the stories of Palestinian women’s resistance are both historical and consistent.
For example, in 1936 Palestinian women from Baqa Al-Gharibiyeh stormed a British Mandate prison in response to the mass arrest of Palestinian men by British soldiers, then succeeded in freeing all the prisoners and ended the enforced curfew on the village.
Additionally, Zahrat al-Uqhawan, that was originally established as a women's social organisation in Yaffa in 1933, was later transformed by Palestinian sisters and teachers Moheeba and Arabiya Khursheed, into an all-women’s armed group to directly combat British occupation and the increase of Zionist settler gang violence in Palestine.
The powerful role of Palestinian women in the First Intifada, must also be memorialised in the collective memory given it brought Israel to the brink of collapse. When it erupted on 8 December 1987, the united front that had been mobilised across Palestinian civil society, was an unexpected shock for Israel. This led to an almost instantaneous brutal crackdown and over 1,300 Palestinians were murdered, more than 120,000 wounded, and over 600,000 were arrested. Israeli occupation forces started a mass arrest, deportation and execution campaign against Palestinian men in particular because they were accused of ‘leading’ the intifada. Palestinian women quickly stepped up to fill the subsequent void in leadership.
All sectors of female Palestinian society mobilised, across generations, political factions, class lines, from its urban cities to its traditional villages. Palestinian women from all walks of life were suddenly left totally in charge of rallying hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in a concerted effort against Israeli colonisation and occupation.
This was organised from the grassroots as the women immediately connected previously disconnected political networks, formed popular committees, created women’s unions, and undertook direct action.
Palestinian women began initiating mass political strikes which also included a boycott that saw a refusal from Palestinians to pay extortionate Israeli taxes.
Israeli goods that Palestinians were forced to be dependent on due to the occupier’s military laws – some of which included banning Palestinians from growing their own fruit and vegetables even for personal consumption – were also boycotted.
Palestinian women introduced the first mass boycott against Israel, decades before the popular BDS movement was founded. In defiance of Israel’s restricting laws, they set up backyard gardens, farming co-operatives and taught women to grow their own food.
Any issues that would arise during the intifada, Palestinian women were quick to allocate solutions to solve it. They were even teaching themselves medicine, and set up medical teams to provide emergency care due to increased Israeli violence against protestors.
When Israel closed Palestinian schools and universities in an attempt to undermine student political mobilisation, Palestinian women organised teach-in’s and provided lessons in basements and abandoned buildings.
The prolonged civil strikes across Palestine partnered with the co-ordinated boycott effort, dramatically reduced the reliance on Israeli goods and the Israeli economy plummeted. This led to millions of dollars of losses as each year of the intifada passed.
Israel’s response was barbarous, they inflicted daily curfews, mass arrests, Israeli soldiers were given the infamous government orders to ‘break the bones’ of Palestinians, they cut phone-lines of entire Palestinian towns and villages, and placed a huge number or organisers under house arrest.
However, Palestinian women persisted and found ways around the numerous barriers Israel would put in their way. Even when Israel outlawed the Palestine flag, the women formed knitting groups and would make their own to be flown at demonstrations. When Israeli forces placed leading female Palestinian figures under house arrest, those very women would bake bread and secretly place pamphlets within each loaf, detailing their upcoming plans and demonstrations. These were then distributed across Palestinian villages, towns and refugee camps by mothers with their babies in slings, without Israeli forces having any idea.
Palestinian women were simultaneously fighting two struggles: the struggle for national liberation and for gender equality.
Their strength and determination throughout the First Intifada captured global attention, so much so that the US – the most complicit and supportive nation – was forced to respond to Israel’s unwillingness to attend negotiations led by then president George H.W. Bush, and withheld financial support from Israel. The first negotiations, known as the Madrid Conference, was then held in 1991.
For the first time since Israel’s settler colonial inception, Palestinians brought the occupying force to its knees, and it was Palestinian women calling the shots.
Unfortunately, the Madrid Conference was quickly overshadowed by the Oslo Accords in 1993. These negotiations that were secretly launched by all-male PLO officials abroad who had no part to play in the intifada, who exploited Palestinian women’s tireless efforts, and signed an agreement which has worsened the lives of Palestinians to this very day. Not to mention, it has created a corrupt political class known today as the ‘Palestinian Authority’ who are not only embroiled in corruption scandals, but who actively work with the Israeli occupation to crush Palestinian resistance.
This international women’s day, let it not be forgotten just how vital and powerful a role Palestinian women have served, and continue to play in the struggle against Israeli colonisation, occupation and apartheid. For any revolution to triumph, women’s participation and inclusion at every stage, is necessary.
Farrah Koutteineh is head of Public & Legal Relations at the London-based Palestinian Return Centre, and is also the founder of KEY48 - a voluntary collective calling for the immediate right of return of over 7.2 million Palestinian refugees. Koutteineh is also a political activist focusing on intersectional activism including, the Decolonise Palestine movement, indigenous peoples rights, anti-establishment movement, women’s rights and climate justice.
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @key48return
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