What is the Israeli military Occupation?
The creation of the Israeli state in 1948 resulted in the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian refugees, who, along with their descendants, have been denied the right to return to their homeland ever since. Of the Palestinians who managed to remain within the new borders of Israel, many of them were internally displaced and are denied the same rights allotted to Jewish citizens. Following 1967, the Israeli state occupied by military force the areas known as the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Since this time, Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (also referred to as the Occupied Palestinian Territories) have been denied a state of their own and continue to live under a foreign colonial rule. The continued occupation of the Palestinian Territories is maintained largely by foreign aid, particularly from the US.
How does the Israeli military occupation of Palestine perpetuate patriarchy within Palestinian society?
Generally speaking, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is not recognized internationally as an important factor in the ongoing existence of patriarchy in Palestinian society. However, numerous studies have shown that the ongoing Israeli occupation is a key factor in the maintenance of patriarchy in Palestinian society.
Israeli occupation has undermined the Palestinian right to self- determination and has thus impeded the development of a Palestinian constitution or legal institutions. In the absence of indigenous legal institutions, Palestinian women have been governed by foreign archaic laws and have been unable to use the legal realm as a means of gaining rights.
For example, the personal status law used in the Palestinian Occupied Territories is a combination of repressive and outdated components of Ottoman law, British Empire law, and pre-suffrage movement Jordanian law. In addition, the components of the Ottoman law that are in use predate the secular movement, and are thus based on sharia (religious) law. Without the establishment of an independent state, it is impossible to develop an indigenous legal framework that can defend Palestinian women’s rights- and this is a direct result of the Israeli occupation.
In terms of labour, Palestinian women have always been very active in the workforce, and are often the sole source of income for their families due to the large numbers of Palestinian men who have been murdered, disabled or imprisoned by the Israeli occupational forces. Like in any colonized nation, Palestinian labour has been solicited and exploited to facilitate the development of the colonial power. In this context, Israeli ‘middle men’ recruit Palestinian women within the Palestinian Occupied Territories to work inside Israel. This work is both seasonal and contractual and thus lends itself to exploitative working conditions. Palestinian women inside the Occupied Territories, although denied the right to return to their homeland to live, are recruited to cross the Green Line on a daily basis to work in Israeli factories. In terms of pay, Palestinian women from the Occupied Territories as a group are the lowest paid with Israeli Jewish men, Israeli Jewish women, Arab Israeli men, Arab Israeli women, and Palestinian men all considered more ‘valuable’ workers. Within this context, Palestinian women have been unable to organize their labour or participate in unions.
Educationally speaking, Palestinian women in the Occupied Territories have always been highly represented in Palestinian universities. However, this number is dropping due to the illegal Israeli checkpoints that female students, along with all other Palestinian civilians, are forced to cross in order to reach their schools. Over the past two years, hundreds of Israeli military checkpoints have been established throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, limiting Palestinians’ freedom of movement. Women crossing checkpoints are often subject to sexual harassment and intimidation by Israeli soldiers, and as a result, many families are afraid to allow their daughters to leave the home. Women living in rural areas, who have to cross numerous checkpoints to reach urban areas, have particularly been denied their right to education. For example, when a Palestinian woman is detained or harassed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint, not only is she victimized by the occupation soldiers, she also risks getting into trouble with her family for arriving home late. In this way, the intersectionality between occupation and patriarchy is explicitly felt in the bodies of Palestinian women.
What is the history of Palestinian women’s political participation?
Palestinian women have always been extremely active politically, and this involvement predates the creation of the state of Israel. The first Intifada came to epitomize the political consciousness of Palestinian women and their ability to organize and mobilize. The sustainability of the 1st Intifada was facilitated by the resourcefulness of Palestinian women. Women were active in many aspects of civil society and in the popular committees.
For example, Palestinian women took a leading role in the 1987 boycott campaign against Israel products in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. This boycott initiative was incredibly hard to mobilize due to the lack of indigenous Palestinian industry. In order to convince Palestinian families to boycott Israeli products, it was necessary to provide them with alternative sources of income and products. So Palestinian women began establishing their own industries such as cheese making, jam making, bread baking and community gardens, and in doing so were not only able to encourage the boycott initiative but also develop the infrastructure-base for a Palestinian economy.
Also during the 1st Intifada, Palestinian women led a campaign to reopen schools (which had been closed by the Israeli army). During this campaign, Palestinian mothers established underground community schools that their children could attend. This campaign, along with many others, was in addition to their street activism directly confronting the occupational forces. When the Israeli soldiers would arrest a child, Palestinian women would come out en masse and demand that the child be released, all claiming that the child was their own. With dozens of women demanding the return of their ‘own child’, the soldiers often felt pressured to release the child they had in custody.
When you examine the history of Palestinian women’s activism, you see that it is has been based in grassroots needs, creativity and non-violence. This is not to say that Palestinian women have not been active in the armed resistance against colonialism, because they have. But Palestinian women have realized that if armed resistance against occupation is a right under international law, then non-violent resistance is a duty.
How has Palestinian women’s political participation changed during the 2nd Intifada?
When I went to the West Bank in August of 2002, I really went looking for Palestinian women political activists, those who had been such leaders during the 1st Intifada. I was distraught by the fact that Palestinian women’s political participation was the lowest it had ever been. It became clear to me that the Oslo Accord had a lot to do with the ever-shrinking political participation of Palestinian women in the national liberation struggle. The platform of Oslo, while reducing Palestinian grievances to the issue of land occupied in 1967, did bring international attention to the fact that Palestinians are living under occupation. Thus, at the same time that Oslo brought recognition to the occupation, it also made the occupation the only issue on the agenda. Hence, there was a massive mobilization of NGO interest in the Occupied Territories. Oslo brought hope of a Palestinian state (which was never delivered) and with that came an international attempt to help the Palestinians build the political, economic and social foundations of a future state.
The irony is that the international NGO industry (that is dominated by the West) is also dominated by a liberal paradigm, which cannot include national liberation priorities in its rationale. So in helping to build the foundations for a state, NGOs have done so from a strictly humanitarian focus, without recognizing that the Palestinian people are an occupied people, and that the lack of state infrastructure is in fact a direct result of foreign occupation. Thus, NGO initiatives have sought to address the symptoms, not the cause.
This problem is particularly pronounced within international women’s organizations. International women’s NGOs give funding to further Palestinian women’s rights and gender equality issues without recognizing the link between Palestinian patriarchy and Israeli occupation. What is happening now is that international donors are forcing a de-linking between the feminist struggles and national struggles of Palestinian women. Palestinian women’s organizations that hold true to the link between patriarchy and occupation do not receive funding from foreign donors who will not recognize this link. As a result, international NGO funding works to further separate the connection between feminism and national struggle and this has led to a depoliticizing of the Palestinian women’s movement and a type of ‘schizophrenic existence’, where they know that the link between patriarchy and occupation is very real, but they are denied the space to articulate that link and organize around it.
How can we improve our work to support the Palestinian women’s movement?
I deploy a concept called ‘discontinuous responsibilities’ in referring to the differences in responsibilities we must shoulder depending on our differences in locations of power. International women’s organizations and funders, who are genuinely interested in participating in eliminating the oppression facing Palestinian women, must face the fact that they are currently misusing their power to depolitize women’s movements in the global south, including the Palestinian women’s movement. They must start thinking about what it means to incorporate the experiences of Palestinian women into their analysis. Doing this means recognizing the connection between patriarchy and occupation in Palestinian women’s daily lives, and incorporating this connection into the theory, practice and agenda of international feminist organizations.
Palestinian women living in Diaspora have the responsibility of liaising with the Palestinian women’s movement within the Occupied Territories and the international women’s movement. We should not try to speak for Palestinian women living under occupation, but rather act in liaising and translating between the local and international. As activists we must really think about the ethics and sustainability of our activism, so that we continuously keep our activism relevant to the needs of Palestinian women struggling against patriarchy and occupation.
Lastly, Palestinian women living under occupation have the responsibility of fighting for recognition of the link between patriarchy and occupation, and to resist the temptation of international funding that depoliticizes their agendas. This is of course very hard given the dire economical situation in the Occupied Territories, particularly in the Gaza Strip where financial support is so desperately needed. For example, many Palestinian women’s organizations write several different funding proposals and then set their agenda depending on which proposal receives funding from international donors. How can Palestinian women’s organizations maintain a coherent women’s movement that defends the interests of Palestinian women when their agenda is determined by international funders who seek to depolicize?
Local Palestinian women’s groups must continue resisting depoliticiziation, and demand funding that actually has the ability to change the oppressive realities under which Palestinian women live- the realities of patriarchy and occupation combined. The dream of gender equality and a Palestinian state will never be realized if the priorities of our struggle are forgotten, that is, if we divorce politics from the personal.
We all have to face these challenges together, but in doing this we must realize that we have different responsibilities and roles to play.
Where can readers go online for more information?
The Jerusalem Centre for Women www.j-c-w.org/
Bat Shalom of the Jerusalem Link www.batshalom.org/
Jennifer Plyler is an activist based in Toronto.