The Great Return March and the women of Gaza

Why are Palestine’s feminists fighting on two fronts?

Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border. Picture by NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

“I
am here because I heard my town call me, and ask me to maintain my
honor.” Fifty-seven-year-old Um Khalid Abu Mosa spoke in a strong,
gravelly voice as she sat on the desert sand, a white tent protecting
her from the blazing sun. “The land,” she says with
determination, “is honor and dignity.”

She
was near the southern Gaza Strip town of Khuza’a, the heavily
fortified barrier with Israel in plain sight and well-armed Israeli
soldiers just a few hundred meters away. Abu Mosa’s left arm was
wrapped in a sling fashioned from a
black-and-white-checkered kuffiyeh,
or scarf, and a Palestinian flag. Israeli soldiers had shot her in
the shoulder with live ammunition on March 30th as she approached the
barrier to plant a Palestinian flag in a mound of earth. The bullet
is still lodged in her collarbone. Three weeks later, however, she’s
back at the Great Return March, a series of protests organized around
five encampments stretching along a unilaterally imposed Israeli
buffer zone on the 37-mile barrier between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

The Return March, which has just ended, was unique in recent
history in Gaza for a number of reasons. Palestinians there are known
for engaging in militant resistance against the Israeli occupation
and also for the internal political split in their ranks between two
dominant factions, Fatah and Hamas. Yet, in these weeks, the March
has been characterized by a popular, predominantly nonviolent
mobilization during which Gaza's fractured political parties have
demonstrated a surprising degree of unity. And perhaps most
noteworthy of all, women activists have played a visibly crucial role
in the protests on a scale not seen for decades, possibly indicating
what the future may look like when it comes to activism in the Gaza
Strip.

The
Return March began on March 30th, or Land
Day
,
commemorating the 1976 killings of six Palestinians inside Israel who
had been protesting land confiscations. The March was slated to end
on May 15th, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba,
Arabic for "catastrophe." The term is used to refer to the
1948 war that led to the creation of Israel and the displacement of
approximately 750,000 Palestinians, as well as the depopulation of
more than 450 Palestinian towns and villages. Seventy percent of
Gaza’s blockaded population is made up of those who fled or were
expelled from their lands and villages during the Nakba or their
descendants. The vast majority of those participating in the Great
Return March, including Abu Mosa, know those native villages only
through family lore, yet their yearning to return is visceral.

During
the March, 125
Palestinians were
killed and a staggering 13,000 wounded

During
the March, 125
Palestinians
 were
killed and a staggering 13,000 wounded. Abu Mosa saw many fellow
protesters wounded or killed, especially on May 14th, the day the
Trump administration opened its
new embassy in Jerusalem when the protests escalated and some
participants attempted to break through the barrier.

On
that day alone, Israeli forces killed 62
Palestinians
 and
injured 2,700 more. “Don’t ask me if someone close to me has been
injured or killed,” Abu Mosa says. “All the protesters are my
relatives and friends. We became one family.” After the carnage of
May 14th, the grassroots committee organizing the March decided that
the protests had to continue. The killings continued as well. On June
1st, a 21-year old woman volunteer paramedic was, for instance, shot
in the chest
 and
killed.

For Abu Mosa, a schoolteacher and mother of six, the March centers
entirely on her dream of returning to her native town of Beer Sheva.
And in its wake, she insists that she will go back, “and on my way,
I will plant mint and flowers.”

Much like Abu Mosa, 20-year-old Siwar Alza’anen, an activist in
an organization called the Palestinian Students Labor Front, is
motivated by a deep desire to return to her native village. She is
also marching “to send a message to the international community
that we are suffering a lot, we are living under pressure, siege,
pain, poverty.”

The Great Return March and the first Intifada

A small Palestinian flag flutters on the edge of Samira
Abdelalim’s desk in Rafah, the southernmost town in the Gaza Strip.
Forty-four-year-old Abdelalim serves as the director of the women’s
department at the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. Her
steely eyes are framed with a simple navy-blue headscarf. Abdelalim
hopes the Great March of Return will peacefully achieve the right of
return to her people’s villages, self-determination, and the
possibility of living “in peace and freedom” -- but she’s
realistic, too. “I know that the occupation will not end in one
day,” she says, “but by cumulative work.”

Iktimal Hamad is on the Supreme National Commission of the Return
March, the only woman among the March’s 15 lead organizers. Sitting
in her Gaza City office, her light brown hair pulled into a tight
bun, she speaks about her own double agenda -- to end the Israeli
occupation, but also to promote equality for women in Gaza. “Women
can play a prominent role in the liberation of Palestine, because
they are integral to the Palestinian community,” she tells us.

Abdelalim leads the March’s women’s committee in Rafah, one of
five with 15 members for each of the encampments. With her fellow
committee members, she organizes the women in the March, arranges
logistics such as water and buses, and plans youth empowerment and
cultural activities.

Her
own activism began during the first Palestinian Intifada (Arabic for
“shaking off”) or “uprising” and she insists that the goals
and methods are the same in the present set of demonstrations.
The First
Intifada
 began
in 1987 and was characterized by a highly coordinated, unarmed
mass-mobilization against the Israeli occupation. Widespread acts of
civil disobedience included strikes, boycotts, the creation of
“underground” schools, grassroots projects to develop economic
independence from Israel, and mass demonstrations. Women were that
uprising’s backbone.

“The
masters of the field are the protestors,” Abdelalim says of both
then and now. “In the First Intifada, women and men used to stand
shoulder to shoulder beside each other, struggling together.”

Abu Mosa, who is typical of many women in Gaza in not having been
politically active in more than 25 years, tells us that the Return
March brings back her memories of that earlier period. Even the smell
of tear gas makes her nostalgic. “I feel this March is the First
Intifada.”

Hamad was also a young activist during the First Intifada. Now 51,
she remembers how women were “the vanguard” of that uprising.
“There was a unified women’s council in 1989 and this council had
the responsibility of the streets,” she recalls. Women led
demonstrations and sit-ins, distributed leaflets, created
neighborhood committees and participated in a unified women’s
council. They even worked together in remarkable unity, whatever
political faction they belonged to.

Women’s activism after the first Intifada

The
First Intifada ended with the signing of the Oslo
Accords
,
a peace agreement negotiated in secret between the government of
Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Made up only
of Palestinians in exile, the PLO negotiation team was all male.

The Oslo Accords led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority
and the return of the exiled PLO leaders to the West Bank and Gaza.
Many of the grassroots activists who had led the uprising were
promptly marginalized in the formation of new leadership structures
-- and women were excluded altogether.

According to Samira Abdelalim, the trajectory of the struggle, and
particularly the role of women, then shifted radically. There was now
an armed, institutional Authority governing a traditional,
patriarchal society. "The male societies refused to include
women in the decision-making units, and denied women’s [engagement]
in policies and plans," she explains. So, rather than
confronting the Israeli occupation, Palestinian women began agitating
for social, political, legal, and economic rights within Palestinian
society. Abdelalim and other women activists organized around the
task of creating laws to protect women from honor killings -- that
is, the murder of a female family member when she is perceived to
have brought shame upon the family -- and to prevent gender-based
male violence. 

The
Oslo process was supposed to culminate in agreements on a set of
thorny “permanent status” issues between Israel and the
Palestinians. These issues included Jerusalem, water rights, border
delineation, settlements, and refugees. However, trust in the process
continued to erode over the years and the “final” status
negotiations held in the summer of 2000 collapsed, setting the stage
for the Second
Intifada
,
which erupted on September 29th of that year.

Though
that uprising initially began with large-scale demonstrations
reminiscent of the previous one, it quickly turned toward armed
resistance. According to political scientist Marie
Principe’s research for
the United States Institute for Peace, nonviolent movements create
openings for a wide range of people, including women, children, and
the old, to get involved in a way that violent campaigns don’t. Due
to the armed nature of the Second Intifada, the space for the
involvement of women, in particular, began to shrink radically. In
this period, according to Abdelalim, women activists refocused their
work in the international arena, attempting to expose the violence of
the occupation to the world through documentation, media reports, and
international conferences.

This
sort of activism, however, was predominantly open only to women from
a higher socio-economic class -- those, in particular, who worked for
NGOs, had access to university education, andhad
some ability, however restricted, to reach the outside world, whether
through travel or the Internet. Many of the women who had been out on
the streets during the First Intifada were left without roles to
play.

The Hamas-Fatah divide became a new focal point for women
activists in Gaza

In
2006, Hamas (an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement) won
the Palestinian legislative elections over the previously dominant
Palestinian National Liberation Movement, or Fatah. Some Gaza-based
leaders of Fatah then sought to oust Hamas (with
U.S. backing
),
leading to a bloody internecine civil war on the Strip in which Hamas
violently gained control in 2007.

The Hamas-Fatah divide became a new focal point for women
activists in Gaza. In those years, women generally called for
Palestinian unity, remembers Abdelalim, insisting that their enemy
should be the Israeli occupation, not a competing Palestinian
faction. The official reconciliation negotiation team (which signed
multiple unity agreements starting in 2011 that were never
implemented) did not include women. Abdelalim and other women
activists nonetheless held weekly demonstrations to protest the
internal split in Gaza, even drafting a joint statement by women on
both sides of the political divide calling for national unity.

Under the Hamas regime, however, the situation of women only
continued to deteriorate. “Hamas took us back decades,” says
Iktimal Hamad, noting the regime’s desire to impose Islamic Sharia
law in place of the Palestinian law in force on the West Bank. “Hamas
doesn’t believe in equality between women and men,” she says
bluntly.

Palestinian society has indeed grown ever more religiously
conservative over the past decades, especially in Gaza. Siwar
Alza’anen remains among a small minority of women in that
imprisoned strip of land who do not cover their hair. She admits,
though, that most women in Gaza have little choice but to adhere to
restrictive societal norms in dress and culture. They generally can’t
even leave home without the permission of a male relative. Abu Mosa
remembers protesting during the First Intifada alongside women with
uncovered hair who were wearing short skirts. “Now they ask girls
to wear head scarves at the age of 12,” she adds with obvious
disapproval, though she herself does cover.

Yet throughout those repressive years, Hamad points out, women
continued to play a central role in the Palestinian struggle through
family education. Women were the mothers of the martyrs, the wounded,
and the prisoners. A woman, as she puts it, remains “half of the
community and the community is not complete without her
contribution.”

Women begin to reclaim their activist roles

Abdelalim and Hamad are hopeful that the current protests indicate
a new phase for women’s activism in Gaza and may provide a path to
greater gender equality. “What happened in this Great Return March
is that women reclaimed their large role in the Palestinian
struggle,” Abdelalim says. As Hamad observes, the number of women
involved increased each Friday. In fact, according to Abdelalim’s
estimate, women made up about 40% of the protesters, a remarkable
figure given the history of these last years.

Because the protests are unarmed and popular in nature, men have
even supported women’s involvement. Hamad is organizing for the
first time not just with men from the national secular movements but
from the Islamic movements as well, and she feels respected and
appreciated by them.

Still, Abdelalim insists that women have never simply sat around
waiting for men’s permission to act. “We’ve always claimed our
role in the struggle,” she says.

Abdelalim, Hamad, Alza’anen, and Abu Mosa all spoke with pride
about the unity exhibited during the Great Return March. As Hamad put
it, “In spite of the internal political split, we succeeded in
embodying the unified struggle.”

“No
one raises the flag of their political faction,” adds Alza’anen.
Instead, the chants for Palestine send a message of unity both to
Palestinians and to the world.

Women’s participation in the March boosts their self-confidence,
says Abdelalim. “The march broke the wall of silence between the
women and [the rest of our] community,” she insists. And she’s
convinced that this new sense of power will lead women to struggle to
take part in decision-making on a larger scale, while becoming more
courageous in demanding their rights. After marching at the border
side by side with her father, her husband, her brothers, no young
woman will be content to “stay at home waiting for men to give her
small benefits.”

All four women hold expansive visions of what they want their
national struggle to yield. Abdelalim says that she is “fighting to
guarantee the best future” for her children. She wants her people
to be free in their homeland. She imagines children playing with joy
instead of fear and a future world lacking refugees, hunger, or
war-related disabilities. “The future means young men and women
singing, dancing, building their homeland,” she muses.

“I have no problem with Jews. If
they visit me, I will host them in my house, and they can live in my
country.”

For Abu Mosa, “the future is hope and love for the homeland.”
In her dream of the future, she describes an old man, right of return
fulfilled, wiping away his tears so many years later. Her vision also
has space for non-Palestinians. “I have no problem with Jews. If
they visit me, I will host them in my house, and they can live in my
country.” But, she adds, she will not tolerate the presence of the
Zionists who displaced her family.

Alza’anen hopes the losses sustained during the March will not
be in vain. The killings “motivate us to keep walking in the same
direction, that our determination and intention will not collapse.”

Hamad is convinced that the liberation of Palestinian women is
dependent on the national liberation that the Great Return March
embodied. “Women,” she says, “will always be in the front lines
of our national struggle.”

This article was originall published on Tom's Dispatch

Sideboxes

Country or region: 
Palestine
Topics: 
Civil society
Conflict
Rights: 
CC by NC 4.0