Note: This excellent essay by Reham Alhelsi about the role of Palestinian women in the liberation struggle not only fills in some missing history but provides a lot of the context, the back story, for the ethnic cleansing that is ongoing in Palestine today and for the resistance to it. It is also posted at the author's web site, My Palestine.
The Women of Palestine and the Struggle for Liberation
Hayat Al-Balbisi had always wanted to be a teacher. But her father was dead, her mother paralyzed and sick at home, her sister blind, leaving the family with no supporter. So Hayat, a student at the Teachers College in Jerusalem, decided to search for a job to support her family and support her education. And although she was lucky enough to find a job at the Palestinian radio in Jerusalem, her dream of teaching children never faded. So, when she heard that the school of Deir Yassin was in need of teachers, and despite knowing that the village was surrounded by 6 Zionist colonies, Hayat didn‘t think twice: she was going to teach the children of Deir Yassin. Deir Yassin was a beautiful prosperous village at the outskirts of Jerusalem, a peaceful village with a population of 750 residents.
Zionist terror gangs, who had stolen all the land surrounding Deir Yassin and built illegal colonies everywhere, had their eyes set on Deir Yassin because of its wealth and its position. Deir Yassin was known as a peaceful village, and some even report that its residents had prevented Palestinian fighters from staying in the village or using its land as an area from which to fight the Zionist terrorists. In March 1948, the leaders of the 6 Zionists colonies surrounding Deir Yassin met with the heads of the village and suggested a peace pact, a non-aggression treaty with Deir Yassin. Most probably, because the village was surrounded by several Zionists colonists, was besieged and continuously threatened by them and because the villagers had little means to protect themselves in case of an attack, Deir Yassin agreed to the pact with the Zionist colonists. Now we know that the agreement was in fact nothing but a pretext, a smokescreen to trick the peaceful residents of Deir Yassin in believing they were safe from Zionists terrorism. For in fact, the terror gangs Irgun and Lehi were planning a wide-scale attack on Deir Yassin, an attack that will delete the village from the map and a massacre that will wipe out the indigenous people of Deir Yassin, an attack that would set an example to all Palestinian villages. The Zionists chose the people who signed a “non-aggression” treaty and as a “thank you” massacred them, raped their mothers, wives and daughters, paraded their children naked before executing them.
In the early hours of Friday, the 09th of April, 1948, and in a joint operation coded “Operation Unity” the 3 terrorist gangs Irgun, Lehi (Stern) and the Haganah (later Zionist terrorist army) attacked the peaceful village of Deir Yassin with the aim of killing as many Palestinians as possible and to force the rest out of their homes and lands.
This operation was part of the “Plan Dalet”, the master military plan of the Zionists for the systematic expulsion of as many Palestinians as possible and grabbing as much Palestinian land as possible before the British Mandate was over. “Plan Dalet” lasted from 01.04.1948 to 15.05.1948, consisted of 8 major military operations against Palestinian communities and gave Zionist terror gangs a green light to massacre Palestinians and destroy their villages and towns. This Plan and its operations caused the ethnic cleansing of 213 Palestinian villages (40% of all Palestinian villages) and made 413,794 Palestinians refugees (54% of the Nakba refugees) making it the main plan behind the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
The Irgun attacked the village from the south east, Stern attacked it from the east while the Haganah bombarded the village with mortars. Around 80 Palestinian villagers fought heroically and tried to protect the residents and the village from the over 1000 Zionist terrorists, but, with few guns and limited ammunition, they had little chance against fully-armed terror gangs. In this three-front battle, the Zionists used all sort of automatic weapons, missiles, cannons and tanks.
The fighting continued until around 15:30 afternoon when the Palestinians ran out of ammunition. The Zionists opened fire at whoever they caught trying to escape, and then moved into the village and started their “clean up”: they moved from one house to the other, torturing civilians before killing them, executing the injured, raping women, slaughtering children.
Those who weren’t killed by machine guns or grenades were slaughtered with knives. Whole families were lined up against the wall of their homes and executed. Pregnant women were bayoneted and the bodies of children were mutilated. Money and jewellery were snatched from the bodies of victims and other personal belongings were stolen before houses were burnt.
Of the 144 houses of Deir Yassin, at least 15 were blown up over the heads of their inhabitants by the Zionist terror gangs. Most sources put the number of martyrs at 254, some up to 360, including 25 pregnant women who were bayoneted and 52 children who were maimed in front of their mothers before being beheaded and the mothers slain, and 60 other women and girls were also killed and their bodies mutilated. The bodies were found in houses and under the rabble of the destroyed homes, including the maimed bodies and parts of bodies of 150 women, children and elderly and many were scattered along the streets of the village.
In addition to those butchered in their homes, 25 Palestinian men were rounded up by the Zionist terrorists, loaded onto a truck and paraded through Jerusalem in a sort of “victory tour” before being executed at a nearby quarry and buried in a mass grave. Also, around 150 women and children who survived the massacre were uploaded into trucks and paraded naked through the Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, where Jewish residents mocked, insulted and attacked them, some even took photographs, after which some were returned to the village and executed, others “dumped” in Jerusalem.
During the battle and the massacre, some residents of Deir Yassin managed to escape from the western entrance of the village and ran to nearby Ein Karim. There, they asked the stationed Arab soldiers to help Deir Yassin, but the soldiers declined saying that they had orders not to interfere. (More on the Deir Yassin Massacre)
After her son and husband were killed while defending their village from Zionist terrorists, Hilwa Zeidan grabbed her son’s gun and fought in defence of her home until she was killed. She wasn’t the only one: the women of Deir Yassin stood side by side with their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. They cared for the wounded, provided food and water and dug trenches to prevent Zionists advancement into the village.
Other women risked their lives to save the wounded. Using a ladder, Thiba Aqel, Rabi’a Aqel, Jamila Salah and others carried the wounded to Ein Karim. Hayat Al-Balbisi was in Jerusalem that day, it was a Friday – a holiday, but the minute she heard news of an attack on Deir Yassin, she rushed to help. Deir Yassin had become her home, the people of Deir Yassin had become her family and the children of Deir Yassin had become her children. She was a Red Cross worker, having previously attended first aid courses.
In Deir Yassin, 15 girls and boys took refuge at the school with Hayat. She turned the school to a rescue centre and placed the sign of the Red Cross on the door of the small house, thinking that this way she was protecting the children and the wounded and that the Zionists would respect humanitarian law and not attack a Red Cross centre. She helped the injured as much as she could, and when the village fell in the hands of the Zionist usurpers, and as these terrorists were entering Palestinian homes one after and the other and killing whoever was inside, many were forced to leave their homes to save their children’s lives and theirs.
And as Hayat was leaving with the others, she heard the moans of someone calling for help. She went back to check, and near one house, she found a man, moaning and bleeding from his wounds. Despite the advancing Zionist killers, she remained by the injured’s side, comforting him and providing whatever help she could. Her emergency supplies had run out and she only had her headscarf with which to tie his wound, she had the Red Cross sign on her arm to show her mission. But the sign didn’t help her. 18 years old Hayat, who always wanted to be a teacher, was shot dead by Zionist terrorists while helping an injured Palestinian.
Fifty-five children who survived the massacre, after being uploaded in trucks and paraded in Jewish neighbourhoods like war trophies, were dumped near the Old City, where they were found by 32 years old Hind Al-Husseini. She scolded the children and told them to go home because the roads were dangerous. Hours later, when she found the children still standing in the same spot, she asked them about their homes, and the eldest child told her that they were from Deir Yassin and had no home, they had lost their parents in the massacre. She took them to her family’s mansion “Dar Al-Husseini”, built by her great grandfather in 1790, which she renamed into “Dar Al-Tifl Al-Arabi” (Home of the Arab Child).
Hind Al-Husseini dedicated her whole life to the orphans of Deir Yassin and other Palestinian children, cared for them and provided them with an education. Today, the mansion houses a school, a museum for Palestinian folklore and art, and a library on Islamic research and the Arab heritage of Jerusalem.
Hayat Al-Balbisi and Hind Al-Husseini are only two examples out of thousands and thousands. Palestinian women have always been an integral part of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and liberation. Palestinian women have always been men’s partners in resistance and in fighting Zionist occupation and colonization, whether as villagers, as workers, as teachers, as activists or as freedom fighters. The Palestinian history of resistance is full of names of heroes, activists who refused to remain silent or inactive while Palestine was being usurped. But in addition to the many names that are recorded in Palestinian history, there are the thousands and thousands of unnamed heroes, the activists and the fighters whose names we will never know, but who will always be part of us because they are our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters, our friends and comrades.
The first recorded political action organized and carried out by Palestinian women was a protest that took place in 1893 in Al-Affouleh against the building of the first Zionist colony and against Zionist theft of Palestinian land. Palestinian women increased their activism during the British Mandate over Palestine: conferences were held in Palestine and abroad to warn of Zionist colonization, popular protests were organized in protest of Zionism and the British mandate policies against Palestinians and demanding the rights of the Palestinian indigenous people. Various popular and medical committees were formed by women, which in addition to calling for civil disobedience, provided aid to those wounded in protests and confrontations with British mandate police and Zionist terror gangs, and distributed food rations to the needy. During these protests and activities, some women were killed and others imprisoned by the mandate police. And cases are reported where Palestinian women would be brought to morgues to identify Palestinian protesters or revolutionaries killed by the mandate police, and because the families of the martyrs were often harassed and collectively punished, these relatives would look at the faces of their loved ones, lying on a cold table covered in their blood, would walk out of the morgues with their head raised, hold back the tears, and deny any knowledge of the killed person‘s identity to protect their families. Not only did many Palestinian women sell their scarce jewellery so their husband can buy a gun to defend their homes and homeland, but others sold their belongings to help the revolutionaries, while others toured towns collecting donations for the revolutionaries.
In 1921, Emilia As-Sakakini and Zalikha Ash-Shihabi established the first Palestinian Arab Women’s Union. It organized protests against the British mandate, Zionist colonization and the Belfour declaration. Famous female activists at the time include Maryam Izz-Iddin Al-Qassam, Nabiha Nasir and Aqilah Al-Budeiri.
1929 was a turning point for women activism in Palestine: during Al-Buraq Uprising in August 1929, women went to streets of Palestine to protest, clashed with British mandate police and helped the wounded. Among the 116 martyrs who fell in the Uprising, 9 were women: Aisha Abu Hasan (one of the female leaders of the Uprising, from ‘Atara, Jerusalem), ‘Izziyyeh Salamah (one of the female leaders of the Uprising, from Qalonia, Jerusalem), Jamila Al-Az’ar (from Sur Bahir, Jerusalem), Tashawil Hussein (from Beit Safafa, Jerusalem), Mariam Mahmoud (from Yafa), Halima Al-Ghandour (from Yafa), Fatma Haj Mohammad (from Beit Daris), and two women from Arab Al-‘Resiyyeh who were killed together with 12 Palestinian men in the north of Palestine. Many others were wounded or beaten. Among the 900 Palestinians detained by the British mandate police at the time, 3 were executed: the heroes Mohammad Jamjoum , Ata Az-Zir and Fouad Hjazi.
Following the Uprising, the first Palestinian Arab Women’s Conference, one of the largest women gatherings in Palestine, took place in Jerusalem from the 26th to the 29th of October, 1929. The main aim of the conference was to organize the Palestinian women movement and widen the scope of its activities in face of the political situation and increased Zionist colonisation. The over 300 participants agreed on boycotting British products, the establishment of a media centre to inform the world of what is happening in Palestine and organizing more protests. The conference concluded with a delegation of 14 women sent to meet the British High Commissioner and present him the demands of the conference which included the cancellation of the Balfour declaration, halting Jewish immigration to Palestine and the replacement of the Jewish attorney general because he was known for his prejudice.
After the meeting with the High Commissioner, the 14 women rejoined the rest of the conference participants and went on a 100-car protest that paraded the streets of Jerusalem in protest of the British mandate policy towards the indigenous Palestinians. The women made a protest stop in front of foreign embassies.
Female activists from this period include Andalib Al-Amad, Milia As-Sakakini, Ni’mati Al-Alami, Katrin Siksik from Jerusalem, Adele Azar from Yafa, Mariam Khalil and Sathij Nassar from Haifa, Nabiha Mansi and Ruqaya Al-Karmin from Acca.
During the 1930s, the struggle of Palestinian villages against Palestinian land theft by the Jewish immigrants spread widely and became stronger, making many Palestinian villages the centre of resistance against Zionist colonization. While in cities, such as Jerusalem, women from elite Palestinian families concentrated their activism on organizing protest marches, writing petitions, providing relief, collecting donations for martyrs‘ families and following up the conditions of Palestinian prisoners, in villages on the other hand, women were more connected to resistance work on the ground, and had duties such as building roadblocks and trenches, transporting food, supplies and weapons to the fighters in the mountains, scouting and monitoring the locations and movements of the enemy and fighting in defence of their villages in any means available to them such as by throwing stones at British soldiers from roof tops.
On 15.04.1933, Palestinian women from all over Palestine marched to Jerusalem‘s holy sites in protest of general Allenby‘s visit. Tarab Abdel Hadai, a Muslim Palestinian, marched to the church of Holy Sepulchre and addressed those present there, while Matiel Mogannam, a Christian Palestinian, marched towards the mosque of the Dome of the Rock and addressed those present there. Both women warned of the Zionist immigration and the plans for the replacement of the indigenous Palestinian population with Zionist colonists.
During the 1936 revolution which lasted 6 months, women’s role was also significant. 600 female students held a conference on 04.05.1936 in Jerusalem and declared a strike until the demands of the Palestinians are met. In ‘Akka female students organized a large protest during which they were attacked by the British mandate police.
In Nablus female students and women went to the streets in protest as well. Women committees collected funds for the families of martyrs and prisoners, held secret meetings in homes, sew clothes for the Palestinian fighters, collected jewellery to sell and buy guns for the fighters. Others watched the movements of the British soldiers and reported to Palestinian fighters, transported food, water, material and weapons to the fighters, and even hand-clashed with British soldiers to free fighters.
Many Palestinian women in villages learned using the gun, and some fought next to their husbands to defend their homes and villages. One example is 50 years old Fatma Ghazal who was killed on 26.06.1936 during the battle of ‘Azzun between British soldiers and Palestinian resistance fighters. Some reports say that Fatma was killed by British snipers while transporting food and water to a group fighters who were taking refuge under an olive tree, other reports say she was killed while fighting side by side with the men and defending the village.
During Bal’a battle in 1936, when the British mandate forces besieged the village, Palestinian women provided the fighters with water, food and weapons, and while the men were defending the village and fighting the British soldiers, the women encouraged them through national songs and zaghareet, until the fighters gained victory.
Fatma Khaskiyyeh Abu Dayyeh, born in At-Tirah in 1902, is one example of Palestinian women who were active in the armed resistance during the 1930s, the 1940s and during the Nakba. She was well-trained in the use of many types of weapons and often fought side by side with her husband. In an interview before her death, Fatma recalls how during the Ottoman rule, she caught one Ottoman soldier stealing her family’s harvest. She beat him before taking him to his superior who punished him for the theft.
During the 1936-1939 revolution, Fatma was in charge of the weapons’ storage place of the revolutionaries, used to transport not only water and food, but also weapons to the fighters and help fighters escape British soldiers. During the Nakba of 1948, Fatma was in charge of a 100 fighters. She warned them not to waste the scarce bullets, and threatened that for every wasted bullet a fine of 10 piasters will be paid.
In one incident, a fighter borrowed a gun to fight the Zionist gangs in 1948 and returned it damaged. Fatma scolded him, reminding him that there was scarcity in weapons available for Palestinian fighters and one should take good care of them. She ordered him to repair the gun before bringing it back.
During the fighting around her village, she was stationed in a trench and wore a kuffiyyeh like her fellow fighters. In the interview, she recalled the inaction of one Iraqi officer who was stationed close to where the fighting was taking place, and how he was crying and saying that they had orders not to fight. But another Iraqi officer and his soldiers disobeyed the orders and fought side by side with the Palestinians.
Between the 15th and the 18th of October 1938, the first Arab Women Conference took place in Cairo in support of Palestine. Delegations attending came from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. The Palestinian delegation with its 27 participants was the largest, and called for the support of the Palestinian revolution, the release of Palestinian political prisoners and the boycott of British products. The conference declared its support to Palestinians demands of cancellation of the Belfour, stopping Jewish immigration to Palestine and stopping the illegal transfer of Arab lands to Jews. It also condemned the brutal and repressive British policy against the indigenous Palestinians.
As Zionist land theft and attacks of Zionist terror gangs increased, more women became active in the fight against Zionist colonization. On one hand, efforts increased to inform Palestinians, Arabs and the world of Zionist plans for Palestine and to refute Zionist propaganda and lies: Letters were sent to Arab leaders asking for support, and to British leadership denouncing the mandate actions in support of Zionism, and demanding the release of Palestinian political prisoners and the return of those deported.
On the other hand, this period witnessed the birth of some prominent and active Palestinian women groups such as „Zahrat Al-Uqhuwan“ (the Chrysanthemum), a secret group founded in Yafa in 1947 as a charity to help poor Palestinian students, but turned to direct military work after one of its founders, Muhiba Khorsheed, witnessed the killing of a Palestinian child. The group supported and fought alongside Palestinian revolutionaries, provided them with food and weapons, nursed the wounded and provided training for women in first aid and using weapons.
In Haifa, another group, “the Sisters of Al-Qassam”, became active, and its members fought next to Palestinian revolutionaries. Other groups include the “Land” secret group with the aim of helping the wounded, transporting food and water to Palestinian fighters, digging trenches and fortifications. Several groups and committees collected donations to help the families of the martyrs and prisoners and to support Palestinian revolutionaries.
Another group was “Mala’ikat Al-Rahma” (Angels of Mercy), which was a medical group active in Nablus and Jerusalem. Among its activists were Fatma Abul Huda, Hidaya Mar’ashly, Lamya Hijab, ‘Afaf Al-Khammash, Lamya ‘Arafat, Abla Nabulsi and In’am Tbeileh.
Adlah Fatayer from Nablus used in the 1930s and the 1940s to transport food to the fighters and watch the movement of British soldiers in the streets and alleys of Nablus and warn the revolutionaries. In addition to her experience in the use of weapons, Adlah was trained in first aid.
When the fighting intensified in 1947, Andalib Al-Amad established a small hospital in Nablus called ‘Ash-Shahba’’, some 100 women volunteered, including Adlah, to help and take care of the wounded. They used to grind sugar and treat the wounds with it. Some used to prepare food at home and bring it to the hospital for the wounded every day.
Some of the women like Adlah Fatayer, Fatma Abul Huda and Yusra Touqan joined the revolutionaries in the battlefields. In an interview, Adlah Fatayer described how she moved with the revolutionaries from one battlefield to the next, from Ar-Ramah to ‘Arraba to Ash-Shajara to Tarshiha, providing medical help to the wounded and supporting the fighters. And during the exodus, many Palestinians were forced into south Lebanon. On the way, they were continuously bombed by Israeli planes and because the supplies ran out, Adlah and her colleagues had to use tree leaves to treat and bandage wounds and branches to stabilize broken bones. The number of dead and injured was so high, that the injured had to be laid on top of the dead and transported in trucks.
On 23.04.1948 and while providing medical aid to the wounded during the attack on Haifa, 19 years old Juliette Nayif Zaka, was killed by Zionists gangs.
During the Nakba, women transported messages and news to the fighters, hid revolutionaries in barns and storage rooms, smuggled food and weapons to the fighters, monitored the movements on the roads, provided medical help and fought next to men defending their villages.
On 11.06.1948, Zionist terror gangs occupied Al-Birweh. About 2 weeks later, on 23.06.1948, more than 200 Palestinian men and women marched to liberate the village. On the way, they passed a group of Arab soldiers, and asked them to join. The soldiers refused, saying they had orders not to interfere. Only 96 of the villagers were armed with guns and had some 30 to 45 bullets, and the rest had sticks, axes and shovels. Despite being poorly armed, the villagers defeated the well-armed Zionist usurpers and liberated Al-Birweh. The Arab soldiers who had previously refused to lend help entered the village after its liberation, forced the Palestinian fighters to leave, claiming they were better equipped to protect the village from another Zionist attack. The next day, Zionist terror gangs attacked the village and defeated the Arab soldiers and reoccupied the village.
Palestinian women’s role in the struggle for freedom and liberation continued after the Nakba. And today, they continue to organize and provide education and health services in villages and refugee camps. They build homes for the children orphaned by Zionist terrorism. They protect and promote Palestinian cultural heritage. They defy the curfew, the closure and the bullets. They make cheese and bread and lead the boycott of the Zionist entity. They knit clothes for the prisoners and organize sit-ins and marches demanding the release of their children, brothers and fathers from Israeli prisons. They care for their homes and provide for their children when their husbands are imprisoned or martyred. They go to the streets to protest the brutality of the Israeli military occupation, they fight for the liberation of Palestine, resist the occupier and refuse to remain silent. Palestinian women are the teachers, the nurses, the builders, the farmers, the workers, the mothers, the sisters, the protectors, the supporters, the activists, the comrades, the freedom fighters, the prisoners, the martyrs.
Their weapon is the gun, the stone, the axe and the shovel, the olive sapling, the song, the tale, the flag, the thob. They are Leila Khaled who wrote the name Palestine high in the sky. They are Muntaha Hourani who planted the land with red poppies. They are Dalal Al-Mughrabi who painted Palestine from the River to the Sea. They are Wajiha Rabay’a who sacrificed her life to prevent the soldiers from kidnapping her son. They are Lina An-Nabulsi who fell, but never stopped singing for Palestine. They are Hana’ Ash-Shalabi, hunger-striking for freedom and justice.
They are every woman planting the fields, every woman defending the land. They are the thousands and thousands of heroes, the thousands and thousands of Palestinian women steadfast despite oppression and the Zionist terror. They are the thousands and thousands of Palestinian women dreaming of the return and marching towards Palestine. They are the fighters who never rest, the prisoners who defeat death, the martyrs who pave the way to Jerusalem. They are the partners in resistance, the guardians of the revolution, and the symbol of steadfastness. They are the daughters of Palestine.
PS: Palestinian women don’t need to be lectured on resistance, armed or popular, nor do they need to be “taught” how to resist the occupation. “Activists” who claim in interviews that they are “bringing” popular resistance to Palestinian villages and “teaching” resistance to Palestinian women should first read the history of popular resistance in the villages they are supposedly bringing popular resistance to, and secondly should read about Palestinian women and their role in resistance and the struggle for liberation.