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Women in Struggle: Between the National and the Feminist
BAT SHALOM, Israel
July 6, 2003
Meeting with Hanan Aruri, Board Member of the Jerusaelem Center for Women
Last Friday (27/6/03) Bat Shalom held a meeting in Afula with JCW board member Hanan Aruri from Ramallah. More than 50 Jewish and Palestinian women from the area came to hear her. This is the first in a series of meetings that women from Bat Shalom in the North are organizing on the subject of: "Women, War and Peace." A summary of Hanan's presentation follows:
Joint activism: There is enormous importance to joint activity between women from Israel and women from Palestine. The situation in the area has become exceedingly complicated and difficult; the continuing closure on the Territories prevents the transfer of information. On both sides the voices of hate are growing and strengthening, there is great difficulty in convincing Palestinians to trust Jewish Israelis; it is hard for them to believe that it is possible to convince the Israelis. In recent years there are fewer meetings, there is a distance and a disconnection, and the media does not report the information as needed, and therefore there is less understanding on the Israeli side about what is happening among the Palestinians.
Palestinian violence: Both sides lose. But as long as only the Palestinian side suffered, the question of the price of violence did not arise on the Israeli side. To her great sorrow, Hanan noted, only after the Israelis were hurt did they also begin to raise questions. From the Palestinian street two voices are heard: one is of those who support the continuation of suicide actions, and the other is of those who are trying to create a dialogue with the Israelis. Both of these voices are trying to convince and to influence the Jewish street.
In the face of personal acquaintance with the suicider in Afula, and from an attempt to explain although by no means justify the action, Hanan tried to analyze the factors that brought the young woman to carry out the action. She pointed out that both she and the suicide bomber came from a similar ideological background. The young woman was an excellent student, courteous and quiet. She was never aggressive or violent. But she went through two very difficult experiences connected to the occupation:
1. When she was 16, the army entered her house, soldiers attacked the family, destroyed their belongings, took her brother and beat him in front of her. Their abuse of him began even before he reached prison, and she heard his screams. The family never saw him again after that.
2. After the trouble with her brother, the army came another time to her house. Her father, a man with a strong physical presence, the source of confidence and security at home, was hit, thrown on the floor and humiliated by the soldiers. This hurt the whole family, all the relatives cried and so did the father. The soldiers injured his honor and his image in the eyes of the family. When the father lay on the floor, his daughter held him and promised to avenge him. In addition, four of her cousins fell in the battle for Jenin and from that moment she began to become more reserved and more religious.
All of her family members were surprised and shocked by her actions. They believed that they did not raise their daughter to engage in violence.
In Hanan's view, the ultimate question is what brought us to the situation in which we both lose? There is one clear answer: the occupation!!!
The routine of life in Ramallah: It is very difficult to justify or to understand suicide actions, but at the same time it is very difficult to understand the ongoing suffering and the humiliation that is being imposed on the Palestinians. From the description of her daily life, Hanan tried to explain how ordinary people arrive to the situation of the suiciders. She gave testimony about herself, an ordinary woman who doesn't participate in extremist or aggressive political activism, but rather non-violent resistance. For a long time now she has not been able to leave her town, unless she does it illegally. If she is caught she expects that she will be arrested, and when she tries to return home today she may discover that she cannot. When the door closes or someone knocks on it, her children jump in fear because they are used to the shelling and shooting from the Israelis.
When her daughter was two months old, there was no milk to give her for a whole week because the army would not allow the "Red Cross" to transfer supplies. Usually they don't go out to walk around, but one time the whole family went out and they had trouble with the army, which decided to demonstrate its presence by putting a curfew on the city. Her daughter, who has trauma from the soldiers' presence, had a nervous breakdown in the car. Hanan said that they have it easy compared to other families whose houses were exploded by the army in order to kill one of the family members.
The occupation is aggressive in a way that is a threat to lives, to the future, and to the culture of the Palestinians. The choice to end the situation or to continue it is in the hands of Israel, the stronger side.
Between feminism and nationalism: A Palestinian woman today has two main concerns: 1) that her children will stay alive, and 2) getting food for her family. 70% of the Palestinians live under the poverty line (about $4 per day!!!). The Israeli and Western media has set its sights on the Palestinian mother, while she lives in constant fear of the danger of losing her children and of the future. The situation has also led to the increase of violence in the home. The woman has become the central pillar of the family.
Palestinian women are convinced that the occupation is a terrible thing and they want to find a solution to change the situation. Even women with no feminist consciousness express a feminist idea - the desire to live with the Jews in peace, on the condition that the Jews will let them live. Everyone understands that the violent struggle is not what will bring a solution and improve the situation, but the women are part of the Palestinian reality, in the sights of the Israelis, and finding themselves in situations of "no choice."
The feminist organizations work under impossible conditions; because of the closure there is no connection between the organizations. In the shadow of the difficult situation, the organizations do the important work of solidarity, at the social level and at the level of psychological support.
Great injury comes from the blame piled on Palestinian women throughout the history of the struggle - the accusation that they send their children to carry out suicide actions. This is the most difficult accusation to compete against; it's an attack in the most sensitive place, the place from which she gives the most and which expresses her being - her motherhood!! In order to back up the accusation, the media has used pictures from funerals in which women are seen making sounds of exultation, which is seen by the West as happiness. But this is part of the culture - the aim is to cope with the difficulty of the loss through denial, and it's also the way to accompany the deceased on his final journey. Hanan explained that many of the women whose children committed suicide are in a state of depression.
The concern of Palestinian mothers is expressed also in their supervision and control of their children at every moment. There are mothers who forbid their children to go to the mosque and to any activities that might lead them to be recruited for suicide actions. But at the same time the Palestinian mother struggles against the reality of the occupation - she cannot prevent her children from meeting with soldiers when they come home from school, she can't prevent the humiliations, the accompanying harm and the trauma that is liable to make the child's views more extreme.
Even the home is not a safe place: Hanan herself lives close to Arafat's "compound," a fact that compels her to be constantly vigilant about what happens in "the compound." For a long time now she has not succeeded in sleeping at night more than two hours at a time. She is always concerned with the physical sleeping arrangements of her family members - if soldiers come in who will they hurt first, who to save first? When her daughter was a little baby a bullet passed by a few centimeters from her bed. It is very difficult to explain to the children that there are good Israelis who are different from the soldiers. In the current situation she can't overcome the hatred that is accumulating among her children.
On the role of Israeli women: Israeli women have a great responsibility to bring up the subject of the moral distress of the occupation, responsibility as women and as mothers. For the women whose children do not refuse to serve and who do go to the army, the responsibility is to discuss with their children what they did while they were wearing uniforms, to talk about what is moral and what is not, to see if they are taking out their frustrations and the accumulating violence on the weak.
On the role of Palestinian women: The role that is cast on Palestinian women is to sound a different voice and to bring it to the Palestinian street. Also, the people don't hear the alternative Israeli voice and they don't believe that it exists. Israeli women must come to the Territories to meet with Palestinian women, and they will be surprised by the warm welcome they will receive.