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Lucy Nusseibeh

Oil on canvas by ARPANA CAUR

Women are both the strength and the weakness in the conflict that is tearing people to shreds in the Middle East. It has involved and affected Palestinian women from the beginning, and they draw on seemingly limitless resources to keep on coping and to retain their humanity and dignity, however unliveable life may become.

The conflict itself has gone through many stages, even in its most recent and most violent outburst, which has been raging for more than two years. It is currently at a stage where the majority of Palestinians are being denied their basic human rights concerning freedom of movement, education, health, security, and even the most basic humanitarian aid. Life has become so impossible that most Palestinians are simply longing for a way back to a normal, livable existence. So are most Israelis, as they suffer from fears of suicide bombings and a deteriorating economy. The majority on both sides even believe, in general, in the same two-state solution, yet a sad combination of mistrust and extremist violent action, with the fear, anger and pain that this causes, prevents any return to peace talks or negotiations. The conflict is at a stage, therefore, where many people are really ready for such negotiations, and would be relieved and happy to see them take place, but are locked in a cycle of violence. The balance of military and political power is entirely and overwhelmingly with Israel, but this can only give the Israelis control — it will never bring peace as long as it is used so cruelly against the Palestinians. The peace camps on both sides are small, but they do exist, and there are increasing numbers of Palestinians who are speaking out against all forms of violence and who are embracing nonviolent action as the only way forward. On the other hand, the starkness and sheer brutality of the Israeli military actions over the past two years has finally pushed the issues of the Palestinians into a much clearer focus for most Israelis than ever before. Previously, especially during the years of the peace process, the vast majority of Israelis had perceived the problem only in terms of emotions: "We need to see each other as human beings, otherwise everything is all right"; "the only problem is that we don’t know each other; if we meet for dialogue, all will be fine", etc.

Now, there is an unavoidable awareness that there are real human rights problems that need to be solved, epitomised by Israel’s total control over every aspect of Palestinian life, down to the finest detail. At least, that is glaringly obvious now, and in fact it opens up the possibility for those Israelis who are willing to use their eyes and ears to get a clear understanding of the problem, and it also tends to make them want to do something about it. So the country could be on the brink of a real and lasting peace, even while it is hurtling towards the horrors of mass population transfer, starvation and widespread sickness, whether under cover of a war with Iraq or incrementally, as is happening already.

< Judy used to work in Jerusalem. Now, she can only get there by climbing over mountains of earth at the risk of her life, although it is only a ten-minute drive from Ramallah, where she lives. She is lucky, nevertheless, to have a job and to be allowed to work by her family.

< Sana’ and her three boys were taken by surprise by the prolonged curfew that was imposed by the Israelis, and ran out of food, as the curfew remained in place day and night with no respite. Only the Israeli army shouting out death threats to anyone who tried to move, the tremendously loud noise of the bombs and the tanks rumbling and crunching past their home. They were lucky: the children had just got some pet rabbits and chickens. They would do for food.

< Hamida was lucky. She had waited six years for a baby and been to so many clinics for help; she was finally expecting her first child, a son. But she lived on the wrong side of an Israeli checkpoint which she had to pass to reach the maternity hospital in Bethlehem.

< Rana, too, was lucky. She had recently married, had just graduated, and what’s more, she had a beautiful baby boy (girls are still sometimes a cause for condolences rather than congratulations).

< Hajje Zahira is lucky: she has a job, unlike the rest of her extended family.

Palestine is a tiny area about the size of Wales, at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, with a rapidly growing population that currently numbers about five million (four million in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and another million who are Israeli citizens. Sometimes referred to as the ‘small continent’, the land is immensely varied. It includes lush fertile plains once covered with orange groves, ancient limestone hills with typically Mediterranean olive trees and wild herbs and flowers, dramatic deserts, pine-covered mountains and the timeless, semi-tropical rift valley oases of Jericho and the Dead Sea. Jericho is the oldest town in the world, ten thousand years old. This tiny country is one of the places where civilisation began, and this is where Palestinians have lived since time immemorial. History seeps through every stone.

The women of Palestine are as varied and many-faceted and rich in history as the country itself, and the Israeli occupation and the current conflict affect each and every one of them. A hundred years ago, the society was primarily agricultural, with a mixture of large feudal farms and villages, with many bustling market towns and a thriving international trade, especially in citrus fruit. Above all, there was an open and tolerant society, where Muslims, Christians, Jews, Bahais and others went about their lives and practised their faiths in peace and without interfering with or being bothered by anyone else’s religion or traditions. In fact, they joined in each other’s festivities when they felt like it, and there were intermarriages and friendships, because here, the space in which both friendships and hostilities happen is very small and intense.

But since then, there have been several short wars and a continuing struggle for the land, as a result of which the Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) have been dispossessed and either driven out or occupied. The state of Israel has been established and even in the occupied territories, there are new towns, even cities, with modern facilities and resources; a vast network of major roads (often euphemistically referred to as ‘by-pass roads’) with swimming pools and sports centres, while the Palestinians are denied basic human rights, access to water for their crops, access to the roads, access to their places of worship, and to their capital city, Jerusalem.

Palestinian women have grown used to living with conflict. From the very beginning of the Palestinians’ struggle to hold on to their ancestral land, women have played an active role. It was Palestinian women who, as soon as they perceived the threat from incremental land purchases, appealed to the British government to stop or at least limit Jewish immigration. The women held their families together when they became refugees in 1948 and 1967, and knitted socks and sweaters for those fighting for their lands and for those in Israeli prisons. They sheltered and fed the freedom fighters who were on the run from the Israelis. Some of them set up orphanages and schools for abandoned children and refugees. When Israel took over East Jerusalem including the Old City, the women went out on demonstrations, and again, the women held their families and their society together, and did everything in their power to protect their young men from the Israeli soldiers.

In the intifada of 1987, the whole population rose up to try to extricate themselves from the subtle and increasingly pervasive Israeli occupation which was taking over all aspects of life. Women were often at the forefront of the many peaceful demonstrations and rallied as thousands of men were taken off to prison, and took over leading roles in the home and in organisations. This was essentially a nonviolent and empowering uprising, and women shook off some of the traditional domination of men along with that of the Israelis. But in the last two and a half years of conflict, women and men have been disempowered, as the country and its institutions have been de-developed, and the women are bearing the brunt of the damage. Having to work harder and be stronger does not necessarily lead to empowerment, and in a situation of despair, only increases misery. Since women have to appear to be capable, in order to set an example to their families, especially their children, this misery tends to be internalised and somatised, and then manifests itself as illness.

The daily difficulties that affect Palestinians have to be seen to be believed. There are extreme restrictions on movement, whether by the imposition of non-stop, round the clock curfews, by the deliberate destruction of roads, or the blocking of roads by military checkpoints. And there is the ever-present threat — and sometimes the actuality — of Israeli military action by tanks, Apache helicopters, F-16 bombers and snipers. And there is the seizure of land and the destruction of homes, random shooting, looting or kidnapping by the Israeli colonists who are above and beyond the law, and the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment as ‘administrative detainees’ in sub-human conditions for an unlimited period, usually with no visitation rights. In the past two years, the Palestinian economy, which was just beginning to get off the ground, has almost totally collapsed. Unemployment levels have officially crossed 70 per cent and over 85 per cent of businesses have closed down. Now, even more land is being taken for the building of an eight-metre high sheer concrete wall to separate Palestinian population centres from the Israelis. Palestinians are killed on a daily basis, primarily young men, and primarily on the pretext that they are terrorists, sometimes by bombs and targeted assassinations and sometimes by random fire. Women, children and old people are killed as well, nearly all of them by random fire, in their homes, in passing cars, or on their way home from school. For the first time in their history, there are Palestinians suffering from malnutrition and going without shoes. When there is no work, there is usually no money, especially since savings have become totally depleted during the two and a half years of prohibition on normal life and movement. Therefore there is no food, and there is a lot of anger and frustration. When there is curfew, the whole family is confined to the house. This is often an extended family with many children — the average is seven per family. There is no school, only children stuck at home who are frightened, and in many cases suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and who in any case have almost nothing to do and certainly nowhere to go. If there is electricity, there may be television, but the electricity is often cut off, and during the major invasions in April 2002, the Israelis took over the local television stations and broadcast pornography.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

 
 
Lucy Nusseibeh is Director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND), which works with people
and societies affected by conflict. She lives in Palestine