Over the past six years – since the start of the Aqsa Intifada on September 29, 2000 - all sectors of Palestinian society have suffered under the various measures put in place by the Israeli occupation throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These include Israeli army incursions into Palestinian cities, towns, villages and refugee camps, the Apartheid wall, checkpoints, military operations, killings and arrests.
However, as one marginalized sector of society, Palestinian women have bore the brunt of these measures. Thousands of women have endured the loss of their husbands, sons, daughters, their homes and land to the brutality of the occupation.
Walled in, walled out
The Apartheid wall, which, upon completion, will stretch along 645 kilometers and expropriate at least 37 percent of the West Bank, has severed families from many basic life necessities. Where the wall encircles whole communities, Palestinians are cut off from their agricultural land, from health and educational services only found in adjacent major cities and from each other when family members live on opposite sides of the barrier.
Many women, whose families live off the benefits of their land have found themselves with no source of livelihood after Israel’s wall has severed them from their land and crops. According to the Applied Research Institute, ARIJ, 90,000 people will be isolated by the western segregation zone and 42,000 by the eastern zone.
According to statistics provided by the Israeli Committee Against House demolitions, over 5,000 homes have been completely destroyed by the Israeli army in Palestinian areas since the start of the Intifada. Thousands more have been partially demolished. The majority of those displaced by the destruction of their homes – numbering in the tens of thousands – have been women and children, the overwhelming majority refugees.
The impact of house demolitions is enormous. Most often, the Israeli army demolishes homes without prior notice, which means the inhabitants do not have much time to take out any of their belongings beforehand. Women, who are usually the central figure in the home in terms of caring for the children and managing the domestic affairs inside the house, suddenly find that their center of existence has been yanked from them. They find themselves at the mercy of relatives or international humanitarian organizations to provide a roof over their heads and food for their children. The main breadwinners of the family, usually the husband or father, are out of the home for long hours during the day, leaving women to basically rebuild theirs and their children’s lives.
Women Behind Bars
The fact that throughout the Intifada, approximately 8,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned in Israeli jails means the burden of family responsibilities have fallen on the woman of the house. With their husbands in jail, Palestinian women find themselves having to play the role of mother and father and provide food and clothing for their children, often having to seek work outside the home for the first time in their lives. According to a UNFPA situation analysis report, approximately 11 percent of all Palestinian households in the West Bank and Gaza are run by women.
Women and girls are not immune to Israel’s policy of imprisonment either. Addameer Prisoners Rights and Support Group put the number of Palestinian women political prisoners at 115 in 2004, which independent researchers agree is the number of women who still remain behind bars today. Over the past two years, up to 500 women have been arrested by Israeli occupation forces.
Of these 120 women prisoners, 19 are mothers, two of whom gave birth inside prison. One prisoner, 29-year-old Manal Ghanem from the Tulkarm Refugee Camp, gave birth to her son Noor in 2005 and has kept him with her behind bars.
The psychological impact of this on a woman is tremendous, the traumatic experience of carrying a baby and giving birth to it while incarcerated and also caring for a newborn in the bleak atmosphere of Israeli prisons. This also means that for those women prisoners who are mothers, a husband and usually other children are left at home without their prime caregiver.
In addition, there are 20 young women below the age of 18 who are currently incarcerated in Israeli jails and who are forced to share cells with adults. This in itself is in contravention with international humanitarian law, which deems any person below 18 as a minor and should be held in cells separate from the adults.
Death by Occupation
Most traumatic however, are the deaths of Palestinian women as a result of Israeli military operations and measures in the occupied Palestinian territories. According to statistics provided by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, since the start of the Intifada until the end of June 2006, out of the total 3,969 Palestinian deaths, 196 of these have been women, many of them mothers.
In March 2001, 43-year-old Aida Mousa Daoud of Al-Bireh near Ramallah, was killed by Israeli forces while shopping with her 12-year old son Mohammad for the Eid Al-Adha holiday.
On January 5, 2001 18-year-old Arij Al Jabali was bringing down laundry from her family’s home in Hebron when she was shot and killed by bullets coming from the neighboring Beit Haggai Jewish settlement.
Women, along with children and the elderly, often fall victim to Israel’s aggressive military measures carried out ostensibly against Palestinian resistance activists. What Israel considers “collateral damage” is actually innocent Palestinians carrying out their daily routine when they are brutally cut down.
In May 2006, Israel carried out a missile attack allegedly targeting Islamic Jihad activist Mohammed Al Dahdouh in Gaza City. Although the missile missed its target, it did hit a nearby car, killing Al Dahdouh’s wife, mother and son. His three-year-old daughter suffered serious spinal cord injuries and doctors say she will never walk again and will be connected to a respiratory machine for the rest of her life to help her breathe.
Palestinian women have also participated in the resistance. As the conflict grew more intense and young men were recruited to carry out military operations against Israeli targets, several young women also decided to join the ranks of the resistance movement. In January 2002, 28-year-old nurse Wafa Idrees, detonated a bomb in Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street, killing one Israeli and injuring 150 others. She was also killed in the blast.
This marked the beginning of a string of Palestinian women dedicated to sacrificing their lives for the cause. Over the next two years, seven other women carried out similar operations, the most deadly of which was carried out by Hanadi Jaradat, a 29-year-old attorney from Jenin. Hanadi detonated explosives strapped to her body in a busy Haifa restaurant, killing 19 Israelis and injuring 50 others.
However, what makes women even more vulnerable to oppressive Israeli measures is their special status as women and mothers. The over 250 military checkpoints set up throughout the West Bank affect all Palestinians across the board. Citizens are unable to travel freely from one city or town to another and often are forced to quit their jobs because they cannot reach their workplaces.
This includes women as well, who in many places no longer have free access to medical and health care, which is often only found in neighboring major cities. As a result of this Israeli isolation and closure policy, which not only includes the numerous checkpoints but also the Apartheid wall, several women have been barred access to hospitals after going into labor. According to a February 2004 fact sheet prepared by Palestine Monitor on children, 36 Palestinian women in labor were delayed at checkpoints and refused permission to reach medical facilities or for ambulances to reach them. At least 14 of these women gave birth at the checkpoint with eight of the births resulting in the death of the newborn infants.
Rawida Rashid from the Bethlehem-area village of Wallajeh went into premature labor in her seventh month on October 22, 2001. She and her husband were denied access through the Wallajeh Israeli army checkpoint after which they returned home and tried to cross the same checkpoint in a different car. Although her husband explained that his wife was in labor the soldiers manning the checkpoint still denied them permission to pass into Bethlehem where the major hospitals are located. They then decided to bypass the checkpoint and take dirt tracks. The journey took an hour and a half. On the way Rawida gave birth to a premature baby, which was still alive at birth. However, upon arrival to the hospital the baby was found in serious condition and died an hour later.
As is the case with all Palestinians, the ultimate solution for the myriad of problems women face on a daily basis is the establishment of a viable, independent and sovereign state on their national soil. It is clear to both the Palestinians and much of the international community that it is virtually impossible for a people shackled by the chains of occupation to flourish individually and collectively. This concept was put into a recommendation by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in March 2005. Following is part of the council’s recommendations on assistance to Palestinian women:
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She could be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org