Regional Programs > Israel & Palestine > Next Story

 We just want to live normally
 Libby Brooks, Great Britain
 January 29, 2002
On a clear morning last autumn, in a village in Arab east Jerusalem, a woman was screaming. It was a high, desperate note and it jangled through the stiff air that had yet to be warmed by the bustle of the day. She was begging for her home, hopelessly.

We watched as the clumsy yellow Caterpillar drilled straight through the wall of her trim two-storey house. It splintered like a cracker, to the inexorable crunch of bulldozer tread on rubble. The demolition—one of an estimated 8,000 across the occupied territories since 1967, which have left some 40,000 Palestinians homeless—was a desperate affair. A crowd of Palestinians had gathered on a nearby rooftop to witness the inevitable, as another home fell to the complex system of zoning, permits and demolitions, by which Israel maintains its artificial domination over the city of Jerusalem and beyond. Mainly women, they paced, wept, cursed, turned to one another, turned away. Here was a domestic tragedy.

The woman's father raved at anyone who would listen. He had sunk his savings into his daughter's house. It was built on his land, expropriated by the Israelis. He had no money left, and no patience. He would martyr himself, he threatened wildly, strap a bomb around his waist and blow up the lot of them. The women listened kindly. It was a father's threat to make—a man's threat.

The news that the 20-year-old Palestinian who detonated a suicide bomb in Jerusalem on Sunday was a woman—the first woman to carry out such an attack in Israel—has been greeted with incredulity. Extreme acts of violence have not generally been part of the lexicon of Palestinian women's struggle. There have been exceptions, notably Leila Khaled, an international hijacker for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the 70s and now an outspoken politician. But Khaled herself has described the battle to prove that women could be equal to men in armed struggle, to the extent that "we wanted to be like men—even in our appearance".

But in the villages, and around the checkpoints, the story has been one of endurance, not extremity. Women have reached a stage where they simply want to feel safe, says Marina Barham, who lives in the West Bank village of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, and runs a local theatre company. "They want their children and their husband to be safe, in their home, in the street, at their place of work. They want to live normally, not to be under stress all the time worrying whether their family will come home safely."

Hope comes down to a street empty of tanks and food on the table. As Israeli incursions continue into the West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinians' sphere of movement becomes increasingly limited, the fabric of civil society is unraveling. Half the Palestinians are now living below the poverty line. With many men out of work, the responsibility for feeding the family is increasingly falling to women. The majority of those killed or injured since the second intifada began in September 2000 are men—and again women are left to care for the disabled. Widows and those whose husbands are in prison, become the breadwinners.

The checkpoint regulations out of Bethlehem have changed again, Barham tells me, and there is even further to walk. Last November I watched women trudge past the lines of cars at the checkpoint into Ramallah, mud caking their smart work shoes, or sticking to their heavy shopping bags. And last year, seven women gave birth at checkpoints, unable to reach the hospital in time.

The new regulations make it harder still for the women who work as cleaners and hotel staff in Jerusalem to reach their jobs. With the Palestinian administration paralysed by Israeli military strikes and economic sanctions, young couples take work where they can find it—being a housewife is no longer an option.

Likewise, politics is about survival. "A lot of women have been involved in political factions," says Barham, "but over the years women have taken a different role, and not just a supportive one. During the first intifada, it was easier for women to take part in protests, though traditionally they were told that this was not something for women to do. But in this latest struggle, because the Israelis used guns and tanks so quickly, women have kept back."

Instead, women are more likely to want to be involved in community programmes, she says, working with children, dealing with the grieving and the traumatised. There have been women's demonstrations in Ramallah, bringing together intellectuals from the women's studies institute at nearby Bir Zeit University with those active in local non govermental organisations. Meanwhile, the likes of Hanan Ashwari and Intisar Al Wazir, the minister for social affairs in the Palestinian Authority, are gradually raising women's public profile.

Occupation has a different impact on women than on men, says Barham. "Women are not just individuals but mothers, sisters, wives. Whatever happens to their families affects their lives completely and they have to take responsiblity for it. It is even harder now because they are not only working inside the house but outside."

Professor Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli committee against house demolitions, who has studied the effects of demolition on families, agrees. The violation and ensuing trauma of losing one's home is akin to that of rape for many women, he says. "For most Palestinian women, the house is their entire world. Unless they are educated and go out to work, that's the woman's domain. After the demolition, she will usually have to live with her husband's family. She has lost her world in a physical sense, and in a social sense, too, because she is no longer in charge but living in someone else's house, and has to take on the subordinate status of a daughter to her mother-in-law."

Shadia el Sarag tells me that after the bombing on Sunday, the Israeli military flew so low over Gaza City that the windows in her office smashed. El Sarag runs a women's empowerment initiative, as part of the Gaza community mental health programme. The Gaza strip is a miserable place, saturated with fear and poverty. Refugees bed down in the streets, El Sarag says, because they are afraid that Israeli tanks will come in the night to destroy their shacks while they sleep.

More conservative in outlook than the West Bank, more than 35% of women here are in work. But this liberation through necessity has created a fatal unbalance in relationships, creating an explosion in domestic violence, mental health problems and "honour killings".

"Unemployed men feel helpless and frustrated, so the women feel they have a double burden of providing for their family financially and emotionally. The violence undertaken by Israel against Palestinian men is then revisited on their wives and children. They have to combat domestic violence as well as political violence," says El Sarag.

Women are suffering doubly the effects of occupation, says El Sharag, in an echo of Mairead Farrell, the IRA volunteer who was shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988. She once said: "I'm oppressed as a woman, but I'm also oppressed because I'm Irish... We can't successfully end our oppression as women until we first end the oppression of our country."

In the south of Gaza, the situation has become particularly desperate. Women are divorced in absentia by husbands who cannot afford to support them. Sent back to live with her parents, the woman often finds that her children are not welcome there. Prostitution is a final desperate solution—should her relatives find out, she will be killed to preserve the honour of the family name.

If women are becoming more radical, argues Fikr Shaltoot, the coordinator of a medical charity in Gaza, it is because of the brutal Israeli action against the Palestinians. "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 an ambulance past to get to the hospital.

"Many women are depressed and suicidal. If there is a chance for Palestinian women to martyr themselves, then they will. Everyone is very surprised that the Jerusalem bomber was a woman, and perhaps she will be honoured more because of that. But in Palestine there are already many heroines—if a woman has a son handicapped by a shell, if she is widowed, if her husband is imprisoned and she continues to support the family, then she is a heroine for me."

From The Guardian (London), January 29, 2002.