By Stephen Lendman
In spite of their exceptional suffering, Palestinian women display remarkable endurance qualities. Living under stress in poverty, their homes destroyed, lands razed or expropriated, children sick, husbands imprisoned, fathers killed, and more, they plant seeds of hope, fulfill their daily social role, and participate in political and every day resistance. Since the 1948 Nakba, they’ve been denied basic human rights, security, free expression and movement, a safe and healthy environment, and education. They became refugees in their own land and abroad, bearing burdens beyond the capacity most women can bear anywhere.
Under occupation, they struggle daily to endure, survive, and provide the best for their families and children – as spouses, mothers, caregivers, fighters, nurses, workers, and teachers.
Annually on March 8, International Women’s Day commemorates their economic, political, cultural, scientific, and social achievements, but for Palestinian women, it’s more – their struggle under Israeli occupation, their lost freedoms, and imposed hardships, testing them to the limit to cope. For Gazans bordering on Israel, one mother said she "sleeps with her eyes wide open, and lives with her heart broken, expecting grief to be renewed at any moment."
Another woman searches daily for a medicine her son Muhammad needs, hospitalized without it. Some mothers have only photos of lost loved ones, or others imprisoned out of reach.
In Gaza, the burden is greatest. Also, however, after Israel’s 2003 law banning family unifications of Israeli citizens married to Palestinian spouses in Gaza or the West Bank. It legalized Israel’s longstanding practice, forcing some women to live illegally as virtual house prisoners to avoid arrest or deportation without their husbands and children.
Other problems include poverty, unemployment, regular violence, home demolitions, and the dilemma of living day to day in uncertainty, a step away from enough essentials to survive. Too little of everything, including few medical centers, endangers their health, especially when pregnant or coping with serious illness.
Maysoon Saleh Nayef al-Hayek described her experience:
"It was 25 February 2002, not long after midnight, I started having contractions. I woke up Muhammad, my husband, and we went to his parents’ house to call an ambulance. We couldn’t get through, so my husband took his brother’s car and we set off for the hospital in Nablus. My father-in-law came with us. We arrived at Huwara checkpoint (and) were stopped by Israeli soldiers.
"Muhammad was ordered out of the car and they checked his papers. Then my father-in-law and I had to (show ours). Then the car was thoroughly searched. We told the soldiers I had to go to the hospital to give birth as soon as possible, that I was in severe pain. They first refused, then told me to uncover my belly, so they could see I was telling the truth. After all this (for about an hour), we were told to go ahead. We drove on and after a few hundred meters I heard shots. There was heavy gunfire coming from the front of the car.
"The car stopped, and I saw that my husband was hit and was lying on the steering wheel. He had been shot in the throat and upper body, and was bleeding heavily.
Her father-in-law was also hit in the upper body, and shrapnel and flying glass injured her. Contractions were coming faster. Soldiers pulled her out of the car, made her undress to be examined, then left her on the ground, bleeding and in labor.
When she finally reached the hospital, she gave birth to a baby girl in the elevator. Her husband died. Her father-in-law remained in a coma for 40 days. The incident irrevocably changed her life.
Other pregnant women face similar situations, harassed and forced to give birth at checkpoints with no adequate hygienic or medical care to help. In February 2007, the UN Commission on Human Rights addressed the matter in a report titled, "The Issue of Palestinian Pregnant Women Giving Birth at Israeli Checkpoints," noting 69 cases from 2000 – 2006, according to Information Health Center of the Palestinian Ministry of Health records.
Among them, 35 newborns and five women died for lack of care. In six other cases, Palestinian women were injured as a result of being beaten, shot, or affected by Israeli fired toxic gas.
Before the second Intifada, travel time to health facilities was 15 – 30 minutes. Since then it takes two – four hours or longer, and too often security forces prevent it entirely. As a result, many women choose to give birth at home, especially in rural areas and villages, much further away from medical centers and checkpoints needing to get through to reach them – impossible at night for those blocked by the Separation Wall. In all cases, harassment and abuse harm mothers and newborns, at times severe enough to kill.
Rula Ishtaya’s birth was imminent, yet checkpoint soldiers blocked her passage. She had to crawl behind a nearby rock to self-deliver, yelling and screaming loudly without help. She survived, but her newborn daughter died, a common experience for other women, making pregnancy the third highest cause of death among child-bearing age women, instead of a joy in anticipation of a new life.
Even with successful deliveries, post-natal complications add other risks, and under Gaza’s siege, all of them are far greater, exacerbated by other health problems, malnutrition, and shortages of virtually everything let in, and lack of much more excluded.
As a result, studies show women throughout the Territories are obsessed about death, feel helpless and depressed, experience anger, and have nervous breakdowns. In addition, extreme poverty forces them to ignore personal health and focus on their children and families. Somehow, they persist and endure.
Education is another issue because of checkpoints, barriers, and some schools turned into detention centers, among other issues. As a result, many families keep their daughters at home to avoid harassment and humiliation, and in other cases, they leave school before graduation to help out financially, families prioritizing their sons, expected to provide support when they marry.
For young girls, few opportunities for development, recreation and participation are available, other than school. In other cases, families have no choice but to pressure their daughters to marry early because of poverty and deprivation.
Despite all, learning and school attendance rates are growing, showing where there’s a will, there’s a way. True also in the labor force, a 2006 study indicating females comprised 14.5% of it. Because of extreme poverty, many must work, though never easily given the high unemployment rate. Others work unpaid in agriculture.
Palestinian women become victims when their husbands, sons or other relatives are arrested, killed or in any way harmed. They’re also detained and pressured to help security forces against their loved ones, on threat of home demolitions or worse.
‘Um Mansur Shreim’s tragedy is typical. A single mother of three detained sons, her husband died at an Israeli checkpoint en route home from his only visit to one of them. He succumbed to a heart attack because authorities delayed his ambulance. Earlier, the family home was demolished after one son was arrested – how Israel punishes family members when one is sought or detained. If one suffers, they all do, women always harmed most if their husbands and sons are seized or killed.
"Um Nasir Abu Hamid’s story is also heartbreaking, a mother of 10 sons. One was assassinated. Seven others are in detention, denied parental visits for "security reasons." Four were sentenced to life in prison, and her home was demolished twice.
Despite it all, Palestinian women persist and endure. "Um Nidal Farhat is one of many. The Israeli army killed three of her sons. She wasn’t deterred, sheltering others Israelis wanted in her home, and being willing to sacrifice her own children for freedom and justice.
Women are also politically active, participating in demonstrations, marches, and other protests as well as providing medical and nutritional aid to the injured. Even armed resistance for family and country at times, putting their own bodies on the line at the risk of death or imprisonment.
It’s a tradition, going back to the 19th century, the first one in Afula in 1893 when women demonstrated against the construction of a new Jewish settlement. In 1929, British forces killed nine women in al-Buraq Battle, the event called a turning point in the fight for economic and political status.
The first Palestinian women’s conference followed in Jerusalem, and the Arab Women’s Association executive committee established the Arab Women’s Union in Jerusalem and Nablus.
During the 1936 – 39 revolt against Jewish immigration, transfers of land to Jewish owners, and for a new general representative government, women participated valiantly, supplying food, arms, and taking training to fight.
Again during the 1948 war, women were active, trading jewelry for a rifle, providing food, arms and other supplies, and at times fighting alongside their men. One group of women from Jaffa formed a secret women’s squad called the Daisy Flower (Zahrat al-Uqhuwan), charged with urging others to fight and provide aid to the resistance. Another Women’s Solidarity Association supplied medical, ambulatory and first aid services.
Post-1948, refugees, especially women facing poverty and deprivation, did whatever they could to survive and help their families. The Nakba ignited their spirit and identity to struggle for the right of return.
In 1964, the Union of Palestinian Women was founded to "improve the economic, social, and health status of women, take care of working women, and provide care for mothers and children." A year later, the General Union of Palestinian Women and several charitable socities followed after the PLO was established.
After the 1967 occupation, activist women joined the resistance, engaged in political and social work, and at times armed fighting.
In December 1976, the Israeli military governor amended the 1955 Jordanian election law, enabling all Palestinians aged 21 or over to vote in municipal elections, including women. As a result, women, more than ever, became politically active, causing hundreds to be targeted, arrested or killed.
During the first Intifada, women participated with men. More than 500 arrests didn’t deter them nor do they now. After the PA was established in 1994, women worked in public ministries and institutions, mostly in support roles as teachers, secretaries or other non-official capacities, yet some became political candidates and five (out of 88) became cabinet members. In 2006, it became 17 of 132 – representing Hamas, Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Third Way, and Independent Palestine candidate lists.
During the second Intifada, women participated actively, including through heroic demonstrations – 163 paid with their lives. A notable instance was on March 11, 2006 when Beit Hanun women rallied for the release of 70 Palestinian resistance fighters besieged by Israeli troops in Nasr mosque.
Without weapons, they faced down Israeli soldiers and tanks, taking overhead gun fire and some direct, killing two and injuring 18 others, several severely. Among them was Jamilah al-Shanti who said: "The truth was greater and stronger than what you saw on satellite TV screens….we were adamant on ending that Israeli besiegement of the mosque even if it cost us our lives."
Beit Hanun women volunteered to get others injured to hospitals in spite of Israeli forces banning medical staff from helping. Others confronted Israeli forces directly and were killed or injured – similar to other incidents throughout the Territories, but never easily, for women or men against ruthless forces not shy about gunning them down in cold blood.
A Final Comment
Like heroic Palestinian men and children, women have struggled for liberation for over six decades – socially, politically, and at times militantly for justice, in spite of enormous pressures and responsibilities as wives, mothers, caregivers, and, as needed, freedom fighters.
They’ve endured poverty, deprivation, and enormous suffering, struggling to endure while facing down Israeli aggression. They sacrificed for their families, lost their children, husbands, and homes, yet they persist as Um Leila explained, saying: "….in spite of all the obstacles, in spite of the opposition from the men, the Palestinian women will participate in the liberation struggle. Every day, people are killed amongst us, every day produces a martyr. If people don’t understand (our) situation….they won’t understand the pain that makes mothers wish, more than anything else, for their sons to become commandos."
That spirit won’t die until a courageous people are free again in their own homes, on their own land in liberated Palestine.
– Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.