As a baby, she was left to die on a rubbish dump. Now, she is determined to help others for as long as she can.
One of Azza Qasem’s earliest memories is of Israeli soldiers breaking into her family’s home in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, at night, and arresting her father and uncles. It was 1967 and she was four years old.
Like many other Palestinian men at the time, her father was deported – to Egypt. And like many other Palestinian women, her mother and grandmother responded by becoming the main breadwinners for their family, opening the first clothes shop in Beit Hanoun.
“They became the main breadwinners for our family,” says Qasem (who is also known by her family name, Azza al-Kafarna) and is now a journalist and women’s rights activist.
“I can’t forget my mother’s attempts to hide her tears every day, facing the huge responsibility of raising seven children. But, I was surrounded by strong women, whose characters deeply influenced me. They made me a rebel.”
Eleven years after he was expelled from his home, the Israeli authorities granted Qasem’s father a 40-day permit to visit his family. Qasem was 15 at the time and says: “I remember those days. They were my first chance to meet my father properly.”
But, just 18 days into his visit, her father died of a heart attack. He was in his early 40s.
A couple of years later, Qasem started studying at Birzeit University near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. It was there that she first discovered the works of revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919).
A Polish Jew with a limp as a result of a childhood ailment, Luxemburg was very much a second-class citizen in Russian-occupied Poland. Qasem immediately identified with her.
“I was deeply influenced by her writings,” she says. They marked a “quantum leap”, she explains, in her ideological thinking.
Qasem became a student activist and was arrested several times by the Israeli authorities.
“I spent six years at the university because of the continual closure of the campus due to the students’ activities,” she says.
At that time, political resistance to the Israeli occupation was at its peak. Qasem joined the General Union of Palestinian Women which was affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
“Rosa’s writings gave me answers to my questions about linking social and economic conditions,” she explains.
These days, Qasem works as a trainer and professional counsellor in women’s advocacy. She has worked extensively with women’s rights groups in the Gaza Strip, in particular, focusing on initiatives to promote women’s political and economic participation.
Among those she works with is Filistaniyat, a non-governmental media organisation that trains women to work as journalists reporting on women’s rights.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Qasem helped shape laws that equalised inheritance for women and men, raised the age of marriage for girls and outlawed polygamy. Much of this work was done through the Palestinian Model Parliament, which she helped found in 1991 in order to examine laws and regulations regarding many aspects of life in Palestine.
What Qasem says she particularly values about Luxemburg’s work is that she clearly understood different women had different experiences: “Rosa didn’t put all women in one mould.”
“Luxemburg talked about commitment to the socialist organisation; she argued for a working women’s organisation independent of the bourgeois women’s movement,” Qasem explains.
That felt particularly pertinent to Palestinian women confronted with the violence of occupation – arrests, food shortages, checkpoints – and a patriarchal society.
To Qasem, it seems “strange that anyone would generalise about women’s rights as if women live the same reality everywhere”.
Bringing Rosa to Gaza
When she was younger, Qasem wanted to share the ideas in Luxemburg’s 1899 book, Social Reform or Revolution, with other women around her. So, in 1987, at the beginning of the second Intifada, she obtained a copy in the West Bank.
“I decided to print the book and distribute it to people. I did a fundraising campaign to print the book and distribute it for free in Gaza,” she explains.
Volunteers helped distribute 200 copies across the Gaza Strip to anyone who was interested.
She also began to hold seminars and meetings – on the streets and in kindergartens – about Luxemburg’s ideas on social reform and women’s rights.
“I was trying to tell them that we are able to change our reality through these concepts,” she says. Because her ideas linked directly to the daily struggle against occupation, Palestinian women showed great enthusiasm for them, Qasem adds.
The Israeli authorities, however, did not share the sentiment – they banned distribution of the book – calling it “incitement to resistance” – and anyone found with it faced six months in prison.
“This was common at that time – to get arrested for cultural matters. All books related to changing thought, culture and talking about concepts of freedom, were immediately confiscated and banned by the Israeli occupation,” Qasem explains.
Harassed by the Israeli authorities
It was not the first or last time Qasem received unwanted attention from the Israeli authorities.
In 1987, she tried to establish Intajina Fakharnana (“our production is our pride”) – a society to advocate for the rights of working women – alongside Khaleda Jarrar, who is associated with the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and has been held without charge or trial in an Israeli prison since 2019.
“Israeli occupation authorities shut down the working women’s society and I was interrogated for a long time about it,” Qasem recounts. “I was pregnant, and I used to go to the Israeli prison in Gaza City every day for interrogation due to my activity with the PFLP.”
Luxemburg also experienced several periods of imprisonment, including in 1915 when she was imprisoned for “incitement to disobedience” after delivering an anti-war speech in 1913.
Qasem says during the six years of the first Intifada (1987 to 1993), she and her family were subjected to continuous arrest, interrogation and harassment by Israeli soldiers.
“My two sisters and I were detained for a while after we took part in a demonstration calling for Palestinian people’s rights under occupation.
“Israeli soldiers also raided my family home and arrested my brothers for their involvement in political activism against the Israeli occupation,” she says.
Then, in November 2006, the Israeli army raided her house as part of a six-day ground assault on Beit Hanoun. The house was demolished, along with many others.
Soldiers also arrested both of Qasem’s sons, who were just 14 and 12 at the time.
“I cannot describe my feelings at that moment. It was common for Israeli soldiers to take the young men and torture them before shooting them,” Qasem explains. “At that point, I wholeheartedly wished that they would be shot directly without torture.”
After 24 hours, her children were released but, two months later, the boys were rearrested and held for four days.
“Israeli occupation contributes to the deepening discrimination against women,” she says. “Palestinian women should be able to raise their children on the principles of freedom, victory and resistance against oppression, so limiting women’s roles will undermine that through the generations.
“The occupation has stopped us from achieving real social change by imposing restrictions on our daily lives; it locks people into thinking only of their basic needs.”
And, she argues, it has perpetuated the disenfranchisement of women in Palestine: “There is no free society without free women.”
Always a rebel
But Qasem has not just rebelled against the Israeli occupation. She has also taken on patriarchal attitudes in Palestinian society.
She believes society and the political scene remain deeply conservative.
With the start of the first Intifada in 1987, when most of the male leaders of the PLO were arrested by the Israelis, Qasem was a member of the PLO’s women’s committee that oversaw the health and administrative affairs of the Palestinian people.
“We performed our task to the fullest,” she says.
But when, in 1966, the first elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, were held, Qasem and some of her female colleagues in the PLO called for amendments to civil laws in order to improve women’s rights.
“Unfortunately, our call was heavily attacked,” she explains. “There was a weak representation of women at the time. Only five women were selected out of 88 candidates.”
Qasem did not run in the elections. “I knew that I wouldn’t be elected by people. On the social level, people and Palestinian factions do not particularly like a rebellious character as mine.”
Still, she says, “it was a bitter test for us women who led demonstrations and protests at the time. Our efforts were denied by the very national movement in which we participated.”
Just like Luxemburg, Qasem found she had enemies on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. “We faced an intellectual struggle with the male ideology with both right-wing and left-wing parties, but it was less with leftists. We were always alone in women’s battles with societal culture,” she says.
A high price
In 2010, Qasem was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. She was denied a permit to travel and obtain treatment in the West Bank.
She was able to travel to Jordan for treatment, via the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing. But the onerous travel restrictions and financial burden took a toll and, in 2013, she decided to stop treatment.
“I’ve chosen with my doctor to be treated through changing my lifestyle to a healthier one with good nutrition, to exercise,” she says.
For now, she feels well and she says the doctors are hopeful, but without further specialist care, it is impossible to know the prognosis. She believes, however, that her “past lifestyle” and “the psychological traumas” she endured are one of the reasons “behind the cancer”.
“Anyone who is active and fights for his freedom in this world amid the prevailing of state of oppression, will pay the price,” Qasem says.
“I realise this fact and I don’t care. I put my dignity and freedom ahead of anything else. I paid the price for Israeli occupation … I knew these risks before and I don’t regret anything.”
Luxemburg also paid the ultimate price for her activism. In January 1919, she was shot in the head and her body dumped in the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, where it was found almost four months later.