During the popular resistance demonstrations in the West Bank, it is common to see both men and women ranging from different ages chanting and clapping their hands side by side.
Sometimes a group of women would separate from the core group in order to march and chant as close to the soldiers as possible. What are the stories of these courageous women, although they would never identify themselves being brave? This feature tells the stories of five Palestinian women.
Demonstrations alone won’t end the occupation
These women all share the same drive and motivation to participate in the popular resistance demonstrations regularly. Some of them attended their first protests with a relative during the Second Intifada, between the years of 2000-2003. Their experiences from their first demonstration differ a lot from their current experiences, in that protests back then were more violent than today.
Ashira is 27 years and was born in Jerusalem and divides her time between there and Ramallah. At her office in Ramallah she talks about her first experience from protesting when she was 16 years old.
“The protests were completely different, it was with live ammunition, it was much more hardcore and a very few women participated,” she says.
22 year old Hurriyah Ziada studies sociology at Birzeit University and is reminded how back in the Second Intifada, protesters would defy the curfew imposed by the Israeli occupation army.
“I remember that in most of the demonstrations, during curfew time in Ramallah, we used to walk with a lot of people while the tanks were directed on us. A lot of people got killed very close to my home,” Hurriyah recalls.
At the age of sixteen or seventeen most of the women decided to attend demonstrations on their own. At first it was mostly to express their anger at the Israeli occupation and the restrictions they experience on a daily basis, but now it is less about their emotions and more about their convictions on resisting the occupation.
Rana Nazzal is 20 years old, and the youngest of the interviewees. Rana grew up in Syria and Canada, and every summer she spends a few months in Palestine. As soon as she finishes her human rights studies in Canada, she plans to reside in the West Bank.
“I don’t have illusions that a demonstration alone will end the occupation,” she explains, “but I think if we don’t go it is much worse. It is important to show the occupier that we are not sitting down and continue to have civil disobedience.”
Weekly demonstrations directed at the Israeli occupation often take place outside the West Bank cities and in small villages which are located near the Apartheid Wall or Israeli settlements. The group of women attending these demonstrations often organize with each other to attend together. While chanting, singing and clapping they try to get to the targeted locations or Israeli soldiers as close as possible, where they would look the Israeli soldiers in the eye and yell out chants right in their faces. Sometimes they succeed, other times they are stopped by teargas canisters flying in their direction and rubber bullets.
Tasneem is a 22 year old high school English teacher who recognizes that the relationships between herself and the other protesting women is different from any normal friendship.
“The group of women know each other from the events we go to and the funny thing is we don’t see each other than going to these demonstrations usually,” she explains. “I feel like I know them my whole life and I would give my life for them. There is a bond that forms; you go through all these things together, you form like an iron-bound bond.”
Unity, lack of organization, and internal pressure
The women agree that unity among Palestinians will be more effective, and will reflect its efficacy in demonstrations. Nowadays different political parties carry their own flags and claim success/attention over other parties.
“I would love to see all the different political parties thrown aside,” discloses Tasneem, “and that everybody would carry one flag which we can’t disagree on; the Palestinian flag.”
The nonexistence of unity among Palestinians is not the only criticism they have on the conduct of demonstrations. The organization of demonstrations lacks creativity. Week in week out the demonstrations happen in the same manner without surprising the occupying forces.
“Every week the Israeli soldiers have a new strategy and we’re walking down the road and always do the exact same things,” Hurriyah points out. “After all these years we still don’t know how to stop or prevent ourselves from the toxic gases the Israeli army uses against us.”
However, the organization of such demonstrations is not an easy task.
“We are not operating in a liberated area,” elaborates Ashira. “We have to deal with the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, so for the youth to organize something, we’re dealing with three blocks in front of us. If groups in Gaza want to protest, they are stopped, beaten up and interrogated by Hamas, and the PA is not different in the West Bank.”
Although the women try to come up with alternative ways to demonstrate against the occupation, such as blocking a road that leads to one of the almost 200 illegal settlements in the West Bank, it is not easy. In order to not be stopped by their own authorities, the organization of such events has to be done clandestinely, using secret names and calling on people and giving instructions at the last minute.
“There is much more pressure on Palestinian activists in the West Bank and Gaza from the PA and Hamas than people think,” Ashira continues, “whether it is from arrests, harassment, destroying their livelihood and monitoring all kinds of activities. They became a roadblock in our aim and ability to work against the Israeli occupation .”
24 year old Diana Alzeer recently moved abroad to obtain her Master’s degree. She believes that in order for the Palestinians to demand their rights from the oppressors, popular resistance should be a widespread call.
“More people should believe and join the popular resistance, and I hope that at some point it will spread so that it’s not only limited to the popular resistance villages like Nabi Saleh and Bil’in. By going to a protest in the popular resistance villages, I’m demanding justice, equality and freedom for Palestine.”
The women agree that their presence makes the men at the front line stronger because it makes them feel like they also have something to give more, especially with their direct confrontational acts.
“We have no weapons but at the same time we have the strongest weapon, our voice, which can break an Israeli soldier standing in front of me,” Ashira states. “It happened so many times in front of me that an Israeli soldier ended up crying.”
Minor injuries, psychological trauma, and the strive for freedom
Preparing to go to a demonstration has its own different rituals for the women, other than bringing a flag or wearing a kuffiyah (Palestinian scarf). Some are preparing a story to tell their families, who recognize the risks their daughters face and are not happy with them protesting. Performing their prayers and eating a good meal in case they get arrested is another form of preparation. They all think about the worst case scenario the day before, and death is not an exception.
Tasneem sometimes asks herself that very question: “Am I ready to die? If I’m going to die today am I ready? Do I need to call my mom to tell her something one last time?”
Others are more scared to get seriously or permanently injured. While fear is an emotion they all have to deal with, it is not something that they are used to, but it does make them stronger in a way.
“When I’m far away from the soldiers I do feel scared but when I’m close to them I don’t feel scared at all,” Hurriyah says. “On the contrary, I feel very strong.”
“I don’t let an Israeli soldier ever see fear in my eyes,” Ashira reveals. “Even when I got beaten up in Nabi Saleh I looked at the soldier and told him to hit me more because it doesn’t make a difference.”
These women saw people die in front of their eyes or people getting seriously injured. They themselves have been injured by rubber bullets, are exposed to large amounts of teargas, got pepper sprayed in their faces and beaten up by soldiers. The women view these as just minor injuries. Mental problems on the other hand are harder to deal with. The women suffer from nightmares about being chased or arrested by Israeli soldiers.
Hurriyah admits to moments of panicking, which oddly happens when she’s close to her home. “Sometimes when I cross the street to reach my house, I don’t know why, but I feel scared, and then I keep running until I get to the door.”
“The worst problem is recovering from the concept that you can’t do anything, the feeling of powerlessness,” says Ashira. “It is important to keep the [Israeli soldiers] away from occupying your mind because it is much more dangerous when they occupy your mind than when they occupy your country.”
“Some people say there is no way you can keep going, but my mom has been like this her whole live, and she is still so strong,” Rana adds.
Participating in demonstrations is a form to express their disobedience, but even in peaceful demonstrations Palestinians are not allowed to express their natural reactions for fear of serious repercussions.
“What I see at demonstrations is that soldiers come and push people away, and these people stand up again and put their hands behind their back. These kinds of peaceful demonstrations prevent us from expressing a natural expression that any human being on earth would express,” explains Hurriyah. A normal reaction would be to push the soldiers away but if that happens it’s suddenly not a normal behavior and then the person will be arrested.”
Experiencing freedom strengthens resolve
All of these women have spent some time outside of Palestine; some grew up abroad while others studied in Europe or the USA. They have experienced how it is like to live in freedom, a life without any restrictions, soldiers, apartheid, and checkpoints. Enjoying living a life in freedom ironically only motivates them to go back home and consciously decide to live in the West Bank. The experience of freedom strengthens them to continue their fight against the occupation.
“Once you know how that feels you don’t want to go back to occupation, you want to be free,” Ashira says simply.
Despite the desire of their families to shield them from protesting, the risk of getting injured and the mental problems they’re facing, they stand firm. They continue to demonstrate without hesitating to bring themselves in a vulnerable position to look a solider in the eye while shouting for their right of freedom and justice, for this is exactly what these women are striving for.