|Women and war - The story so far in Palestine|
Hamida had to cross a checkpoint to get to the hospital when she went into labour. Her village is near Bethlehem, about a ten-minute drive along a picturesque valley with a monastery and a pine forest. A checkpoint for Palestinians, though, is not a place where you just queue up and are searched and pass through; a checkpoint is where the Israeli soldier stands with a gun and is master of the situation. If he does not feel like letting anyone through his particular bit of road, there is no option but to wait. Sometimes, this wait can last for hours, and hours and hours. For Hamida, the wait was too long for her baby, who could not wait to come out into this beautiful world. But it was an unjust and terrifying world and he died.
Hamida is not consoled or supported but blamed for her tragedy. She should have managed to find a way to keep her baby from being born until she reached the hospital. It is all her fault.
Rana, who had the good fortune to have a healthy baby boy of nine months, was sitting nursing him near the window so she could enjoy the view of the peaceful and empty street (it was curfew, so no one was out of doors). She had managed to keep going in spite of marriage and motherhood: she had just got a degree in law, was starting work and even taking a course in active nonviolence and empowerment of women. She was looking forward to a happy and productive future.
She was shot through the window of her home as she nursed her baby boy. She died instantly. Her baby was seriously injured and is still in hospital.
The city of Nablus (the ancient Neapolis) has been under curfew almost continuously since June last year and the inhabitants of this once thriving business and cultural centre, renowned for its delicious sweets, are becoming disoriented and losing track of time.
In Nablus, Rabiha had gone with her mother-in-law and her husband in his taxi to visit her brother in hospital. They thought the curfew had been lifted. Suddenly, a tank charged at them at full speed, and while they were trying to reverse to avoid being crushed, the soldiers opened fire. All three of them were wounded, but Rabiha was very badly hurt and clearly in need of urgent medical attention. A shopkeeper who witnessed the attack and tried to help her was prevented by the soldiers, who commented as she died: "She should have known better than to break the curfew."
It is the Palestinian women who bear the brunt of the tension and the hatred. Although in the years after 1993, after the Oslo peace agreement had been signed, there was considerable cultural development and the beginnings of an infrastructure and a State — not an easy process after thirty-five years of hostile occupation — Israel remained firmly in control of every aspect of Palestinian life, including, most importantly, freedom of movement.
Judy wanted to get home; she had been counselling the inmates of a refugee camp a mere five kilometres from her home. But this camp is where the Israelis have chosen to place one of their many checkpoints, a maze of massive concrete walling, between Ramallah and Jerusalem. There were hundreds of others like her, waiting hour after hour in the heat of the sun to be checked by the young Israeli soldiers. She decided to take another route. All the roads were blocked, either by soldiers or religious fanatics (so-called ‘settlers’) or by impassable mounds of earth and dug-up asphalt. Luckily, she found an acquaintance she could stay with overnight and by the following day, most of the crowd were allowed through the checkpoint. Her home, though, is hardly the safe place it should be. It is in the street that backs onto the compound where President Arafat is under constant siege. Her home is usually without electricity and is constantly rocked by the bombs that are dropped in the presidential compound. Where does she get the strength to help others with counselling and crisis management when this nightmare is her daily reality?
Huda had recently set up a business in one of the smart new buildings that shot up during the boom of the peace years, when Ramallah seemed set to become the commercial centre of the West Bank. Her shop was destroyed in the shelling during the incursions in April.
The biggest obstacle to a return to negotiations, even more than the violence at this moment, is lack of trust; at least between the men who are fighting and governing on both sides. As sisters in suffering, the women can hear each other better, and if they are given more chances to be heard, could help to rebuild this trust and be reminders of shared values and shared humanity.
The women, who have been the unsung heroes throughout this conflict, both in the wars and in the peace, and who are paying the highest price, are perhaps the ones who can reach across to each other, and who can take action and encourage others to take their future into their hands and start to act. There are issues that unite women even across a conflict, such as the difficulty of coping and helping others to cope, and the general problems of their gender. Perhaps it is because women are all too used to being dominated that they are not only generally able to cope in these appalling conditions, albeit with problems of physical and mental health, but are also able to overcome the hatred and dehumanisation brought out by the violence and the domination of the Israelis. It is often women who recognise their commonalities and common suffering and are willing to put pride and hatred aside in order to work together.
In being able to recognise each other’s humanity, women can be the bridge to peace in this conflict. The women of Palestine only need to be heard.
Lucy Nusseibeh is Director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND), which works with people
and societies affected by conflict. She lives in Palestine