Palestinian and Israeli feminists spearhead new leadership in the Middle East

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The violence and destruction perpetrated by the Israeli military in April against the residents of the Jenin refugee camp is one more in a very long line of atrocities committed against the Palestinian people. A crowded refugee camp was left in ruins. The death toll could be as high as 500 — many crushed under the rubble of their homes. The obscenely named “Operation Defensive Shield” left thirteen thousand people homeless. Yet all of the might and ferocity of the U.S.-backed Israeli military machine cannot crush the determination of the Palestinian people.

Jenin has now become the most popular name for newborn baby girls in Palestine. And like the current generation of young people who treasure the land titles and keys to homes from which their grandparents were evicted in 1948, these girls are sure to fight for justice.

Women on the front lines. Palestinian women have long been prominent in the resistance to the Israeli State. The Palestinian women’s movement dates back to the early 1920s. After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, the grassroots activism of women was key to mobilising the Palestinian community against the invasion.

Women’s militancy is again on the rise. Mass demonstrations against recent Israeli violence are sweeping cities throughout the Middle East, and women are participating in equal numbers. This phenomenon is even occurring in the conservative Gulf states, where women have taken to the streets in large numbers for the first time. Many claim their inspiration from a new breed of Arab heroine — the women suicide bombers, who they call martyrs or self-sacrificers.

On January 27 this year, the first known woman suicide bomber — Wafa Idris — strapped a 10- kilogram bomb to herself. She detonated it in a busy intersection in West Jerusalem, killing herself and two others. Wafa Idris was 27 years old. She was a Red Crescent worker and she lived in the Al Am’ari refugee camp. Several young women have since followed in her footsteps.

But other Palestinian women are pursuing a very different strategy. On June 8 this year, Nabeha Morkus, a veteran Palestinian activist from the village of Tandi near Acre, was a featured speaker at a rally organised by the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. She and other Palestinians joined with activists from the non-Zionist Israeli Left to campaign against the occupation and for Palestinian rights. Of Sharon’s aggression inside Israel, they say: “The Occupation is Hurting Us All.” The Coalition of Women for a Just Peace has united nine feminist organisations into an alliance which has become a driving force against the occupation. They boldly proclaim: “The age of the generals has ended, the era of the women has begun!”

Decades of oppression, coupled with the complete failure of the Oslo “Peace” Accords, is what motivates Palestinian women such as Wafa Idris and Nabeha Morkus.

Not a battle between equals. Israel was created in 1948, based on the bloody dispossession of its Palestinian inhabitants. The new State was inspired by Zionism — an ideology that Jewish people can achieve safety and security by creating an exclusive Jewish homeland. The logic of Zionism is to eliminate the Palestinian people permanently.

The Zionist spin doctors work to turn the aggressor — the Israeli Settler State — into the victim by absurdly presenting desperate Palestinian suicide bombers as the cause of the violence, rather than a response to a sustained campaign of Israeli State terror.

Israel possesses a lethal military arsenal supplied by the U.S.  In contrast, the Palestinians are stateless. They are isolated from each other in 160 tiny cantons. To travel from Jenin in northern Palestine to Hebron in the southeast, it is necessary to pass through 24 checkpoints,  an average of one checkpoint every 6 kilometres.

The Palestinian people also face the indignity of seeing new Israeli settlements springing up in front of them on a daily basis. And this piecemeal conquest is not a new story. Since 1948, more than three million Palestinian people have been made refugees. Those living in Gaza and the West Bank have fiercely resisted the alternating Israeli policies of open war and covert dispossession, carried on through phony peace processes.

The Oslo Peace Accords have been a disaster for the Palestinians. The pace of construction of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories tripled after the agreement. Rightwing settlers explicitly admit that their aim is to occupy enough land to prevent the Palestinian people from ever having a viable State. Settler violence against the Palestinian population has reached epidemic proportions. The Israeli government backs this movement with generous funding, road construction and military protection.

Any “peace agreement” that prolongs military occupation and avoids fundamental issues of territory and autonomy is just a forced march to nowhere.

A double burden. For Palestinian women, life has become one long endurance struggle. Two-thirds of all Palestinians now live below the poverty line. Unemployment stands at 55%. Many women are the sole breadwinners for their families — their partners are in jail or have been killed or injured. Some are driven to prostitution, but if relatives find out, these women may be killed to preserve the “honour” of the family name.

Women are the ones left caring for the disabled. They are the mainstays of the community programs which support the grieving and the traumatised.

Day to day movement is severely curtailed for Palestinian women. Something seemingly as simple as going shopping has become an obstacle course. The regular “closures” imposed by the Israeli State on the Palestinian people prevent many from getting to work or getting an education. The closures have a life-threatening impact on access to medical care. Last year, seven women gave birth at the checkpoints in Bethlehem, unable to get to hospital on time.

Since 1967 more than 8,000 homes have been demolished in the Occupied Territories, leaving more than 40,000 people homeless. This has a devastating effect on women, many of whom equate the violation of seeing their home demolished as akin to rape. Women who lose their home are usually forced to live with their husband’s family, taking on the subordinate status of daughter-in-law.

Domestic violence and mental health problems are also a rising problem. Feminists suggest that the violence undertaken by Israel against Palestinian men is then taken out by Palestinian patriarchs on women and children. Shadia El Saran, who runs a women’s empowerment initiative through the Gaza Community Mental Health program, argues that Palestinian women cannot successfully combat their oppression as women until they end the occupation of their country.

No peace without equality. Ending the occupation is crucial. But to achieve lasting peace, the creation of a secular State, where both Palestinians and Jews can live together as equals, is necessary.

The solution to the conflict in the Middle East will be found in the deliberations of those who have the most to gain from a just cessation of hostilities — Israeli and Palestinian workers, feminists and intellectuals.

Speaking alongside Nabeha Morkus at the June 8 rally was Vered Madar, a young feminist and Mizrahi (indigenous Jewish) activist. Vered works on a project called Achoti (My Sister) which organises to empower working women at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. The rally adopted multi-issue demands, taking up the burning problems of inequality inside Israel and the need to mobilise oppressed sectors uninspired by the narrow, pacifist politics which previously dominated the movement.

However, the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace and, in fact, the majority of the non-Zionist Left advocate peace through the establishment of two States — one Jewish and one Palestinian. This cannot bringing lasting peace. It could only ever be a transitory phase.

The establishment of a Palestinian State alongside a Jewish state of Israel cannot deliver justice for the Palestinians who have lived in refugee camps since 1948. These people have a right to return to their homes or receive comparable compensation. It cannot end the racist discrimination and guarantee the human rights of Palestinians who have lived inside Israel since 1948 and are Israeli citizens. It cannot resolve the economic questions which currently force Israel to rely totally on Washington’s patronage. Nor can it address the economic inequality which sees Palestinians and Mizrahi used as crucial cheap labour for the European-dominated Israeli economy. Only the creation of a bilateral secular socialist State in Palestine, run by Arabs and Jews as equals, can solve these problems.

New leadership. Among both Palestinians and Jews, a new secular nationalist leadership is starting to emerge. While not yet advocating a single secular State, it is providing a political space where alternatives to Islamic fundamentalism, Zionism and grossly inequitable “peace” deals can be considered.

Recent opinion polls show that 40 to 45% of Palestinians supports neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Islamic fundamentalists. The silent majority is not inspired by fundamentalism and does not trust a return to the discredited Oslo process.

In Palestine, this movement is not yet a party, but it is starting to receive some popular recognition. It includes leaders such as Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi, Dr Mustafa Barghouthi and a number of writers, including Edward Said.

There have also been recent women’s demonstrations in Ramallah, bringing together intellectuals from the Women’s Studies Institute at the Bir Zeit University and local grassroots activists. Fikr Shaltoot is the coordinator of a medical charity. She argues that Palestinian women are becoming — and will continue to become — more radical because of brutal Israeli actions. She says: “It is because of what we see day and night — the destruction of homes, the closures, people killed while they are sleeping, people dying because the checkpoint won’t let the ambulance get to hospital.”

Like the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace and the Palestinian feminists organising through the Jerusalem Women’s Centre, these alternative poles of leadership believe that a necessary precondition for any progress must be the end of occupation.

On the ground in Israel, things are also beginning to change. With the Zionist Left locked into Sharon’s agenda by their campaign for separation rather than justice for Palestine, the non-Zionist Left — spearheaded by feminists — is gaining ground.  In February, over 20,000 people demonstrated for peace at a rally addressed by both Israeli and Palestinian speakers.

What was even more significant was the presence of a delegation of approximately 250 Israeli soldiers — including officers — who refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. There are now more than 400 “refuseniks,” and the number is growing daily.

The public and very organised nature of the Refusenik movement has caught Sharon off guard. A recent opinion poll found that 31% of the Israeli population supports these protesting soldiers, who are supported by a group called Yesh Gvul. The name is a play on the words “there’s a limit.” In Israel both women and men are drafted to serve in the military, and Yesh Gvul does not advocate avoiding this service on pacifist grounds. Instead, Yesh Gvul calls for political/anti-occupation organising inside the military and mobilises in support of political or “selective” refuseniks.

Another important development is the formation in October 2000 of Ta’ayush (Cooperation), a group mobilising young Arab and Jewish women and men in active solidarity with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and inside Israel itself. They mobilised hundreds of activists to successfully prevent the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in the Yatta region.

Activists within the lesbian and gay community are also providing an inspirational lead. Kveesa Shchora, Lesbians and Gay Men for Peace, is making an impact. At an anti-occupation mobilisation last April, they wore pink scarves over black clothes and walked chained together with their eyes blindfolded. Their placards read: “The media are keeping us in the dark.”

On June 7, over 4,000 people marched in the historic first West Jerusalem Pride March. Organisers distinguished their parade from previous events held in Tel Aviv which were criticised for being overly commercial. “There were no musical battles between various discotheques,” explained organiser Hagai El-Ad, “because we’re not marching in a bubble.” Kveesa Shchora highlighted the need to directly challenge borders in a leaflet which said: “On the one hand this is an important step for the lesbian and gay struggle while, on the other, Jerusalem is a complex city of racism and poverty. The parade will be held under the title ‘love with no borders,’ but this love seems to be open to Jews only — Palestinians wouldn’t be able to make it past the border patrol soldiers.”

Inside Israel, feminists, the refuseniks, Yesh Gvul, young activists and radical queers are speaking out against the occupation and saying “Not in my name!” Their actions — especially when organised in partnership with Palestinians — provide a great deal of hope.

If these new fronts of resistance could form a united leadership and move beyond the important work of campaigning against the militarism of the Israeli State to the more developed position of campaigning for a secular socialist Palestine, they could harness the defiant spirit of the Palestinian people and anti-Zionist Jews to win justice, equality and ultimately lasting peace in the Middle East. Imagine that!

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