Women of the Intifadas
Three generations of Palestinian women reflect on how female fighters have always been a part of the resistance.
Raja Mustafa pulls out a tattered issue of Palestinian Revolution magazine. It is from 1993, the last year of the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada.
Inside it is a black and white photograph of Raja taken almost 25 years ago. An Israeli soldier stands in the foreground. Raja is behind him, wearing a striped nightgown. In one hand, she clutches a broomstick. The other is raised high in the air, captured just as it is about to swoop down.
“You can’t see it in the photo, but there was already a soldier on the ground that I had hit,” says the 44-year-old, grinning.
“The soldiers were known for stealing things when they did home raids. One of them stole my gold on my nightstand and wouldn’t give them back. I’d had enough and just started hitting them to get my gold back and to get them out of my house.”
She was also acting as a decoy, she explains, keeping the soldiers occupied while five of her cousins escaped around the side of the house.
Raja was 16 when the first Intifada started, and an active participant from the beginning.
She smiles as she recalls her teenage years, as if the memories are sweet – even though they are tainted by war and loss.
“All the girls my age fought in the first Intifada; we were in the streets throwing rocks and blocking roads and screaming at the protests just like the men,” she says.
“Really, from the start to the finish women were participating,” Raja continues. “But it was different then.”
“There was no Palestine Authority to worry about arrest from your own side, and the Israelis were shooting tear gas and rubber bullets, not killing teenagers with live fire for throwing stones.
“Now it is so much more dangerous than before.”
While Raja is now a grandmother, she still makes her way out to the street during protests every once in a while, taking just a few minutes to watch from the sidelines as the young men and women clash with Israeli soldiers.
During the past few weeks, she has noticed a change in the demographics.
“I was so happy to see the girls coming out; it reminded me of when I was young,” she says. “We lost that during the second Intifada; it was more difficult for women to participate. Because of the militias, [they] weren’t really welcome in that fight.”
The question plaguing Israelis and Palestinians alike is whether the region is witnessing the beginning of a third uprising. There were no such questions during the first and second Intifadas, Raja says. People “just knew”.
“I’ve lived through two Intifadas, and I am not sure if this is the third yet,” she elaborates. “None of us are 100 percent sure this is the third Intifada, but seeing the girls out there, and other small changes from the norm, it could very well be.”
All of Raja’s daughters are married with children, and are not participating in the clashes, but her sons – two of whom are teenagers – were taught to treat the other girls on the street as equals.
“The wonderful thing is it isn’t a question as to why a girl should participate now, or if she can. It’s a given that they can.”
“Our girls attend college now and school is important to this generation, so they are smart, but as Palestinian women, they are also strong.”
“Palestine has always raised strong women because of the hard life they are born into,” she reflects. “With these two things, I think it may be the girls who are the fiercer force, even, not the boys.”
‘It was hard for women during the second Intifada’
Manal Abu Akhar was 12 years old when she was shot in her chest at a funeral march during the first Intifada. After being rushed to hospital, she underwent surgery and spent months in recovery.
But while she was one of those injured in the fighting, she was too young to have been an active participant in the first Intifada, which took place between 1987 and 1993.
When the second Intifada broke out in 2000, she was 25 and married with two small children – but this time, Manal knew that she would find a way to be involved.
“It was hard for women during the second Intifada,” the 40-year-old remembers. “Everything was guns and armed groups fighting. To be a woman involved in that was difficult. Women fighters were really an exception, but the rest of us were still important parts.”
Instead of taking to the streets, Manal used her small home in the Dheisha refugee camp as a refuge for the fighters who had. She also used her body to ‘de-arrest’ those being detained by Israeli forces, a method that is now used by international activist groups throughout the occupied West Bank.
“When [the Israeli army] tried to take someone, we would throw ourselves on the guys and cause chaos so that maybe he could get away,” she explains.
“A few times, I even got inside the jeep with boys they had arrested and refused to get out. The soldiers wouldn’t leave with me in the jeep and that gave time for others to come and help and get the boys free.”
Most of all, she says, the women were organised. She smiles as she recalls a time when she put that organisation to good use. A neighbour had just lost a son in the fighting and Manal wanted to reach their house.
“We supported each other, so I felt I needed to get there to see his family,” she says. “But we weren’t supposed to be outside at night and going to the home of a new martyr was asking for trouble.”
“So I called the girls, and we found a way.”
Residents of each house on the way to the home Manal wanted to reach acted as lookouts – observing the Israeli soldiers in the area. As Manal left her house, the women next door told her when it was clear to cross the alleyway to the next home, and then the next, until she had successfully reached her destination.
While Manal’s family and husband worried about her activism during the second Intifada, they did not interfere. Now she has her own daughter to worry about.
“My youngest daughter is 17 and she is active in the clashes,” she says. “I don’t know if she is throwing rocks – I don’t ask her – but I know that she goes.”
“What can I do?” she asks. “On one side, I want her to be safe. On the other, I understand her actions exactly, and I could not in good conscience try and stop her.”
‘Without hope for a future, any generation would take to the streets’
Sixteen-year-old Nour Hussein was just an infant when the second Intifada began. She can’t recall much from that five-year period.
“I know about the first and second Intifadas only from history books and my family,” she explains. “The same as all of my generation: We are taught our history and what things were like then from our parents.”
Like her mother and aunts before her, Hussein has taken to the streets during this most recent uprising, but she does not call it an Intifada.
“From what I understand of what it means to have an Intifada, this doesn’t seem like it is yet,” she says, her words flowing as rapidly as her hand gestures.
“Like, I think we need something bigger to happen for this to be an Intifada, and I haven’t seen that yet,” she continues.
Nour is one of many young women who have started to show up at the popular protests, which nearly always turn into violent clashes on the streets of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
But before the latest increase in tensions, the clashes were a male space.
“I came out for the first time on the second day of clashes,” she says. “Some people are saying the girls are showing up because it’s an Intifada, and others are saying we are showing up because all of this is over the al-Aqsa Mosque.”
“But personally I think girls are showing up because once one of us did it, others saw they could, too. And from the beginning, all of us have wanted to be out there fighting for our country just like the boys – there just wasn’t an option before.”
Nour laughs when asked whether her generation is different to her mother’s and grandmother’s.
“Look, they want to call us the internet generation, or millennials, or the kids of Oslo – whatever they say, it doesn’t matter,” she explains. “When it comes down to it, they’re all surprised we care. Everyone thought we didn’t care, and they’re all surprised that we are in the streets and we are angry because no one expected that of us. The Israelis thought that, but so did our own people.”
“We are shocking everyone, but what we are doing has always been inside us. Yeah, we are angry, absolutely.”
Nour rejects the label “Oslo Generation”, a term used to describe Palestinian teenagers who have lived most, if not all, their lives under the Oslo Accords, a set of agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Before the recent uprising, it was sometimes suggested that this so-called Oslo Generation was disillusioned with politics and protests.
But she says the agreements, which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said are now null and void, and the defunct peace processes are only a part of why her generation is so angry.
She has dreams of becoming a financial planner, she explains, but cannot imagine doing so in the current economic climate – where the unemployment rate in the occupied Palestinian Territories sits at 39 percent overall, and 62 percent for women.
“We need hope that things have the possibility to get better,” she reflects. “But we don’t see that; – we don’t see anything moving towards the better, and that’s coming from all sides of life.”
“That is why we are angry. Without hope for a future, any generation would take to the streets – man or woman.”