Palestinian Arab women in the Intifada: The “ultimate Trojan horse.”
Palestinian Arab women in the Intifada: The “ultimate Trojan horse.”

“Naila and the Uprising,” a controversial film produced by Just Vision, is about the role ostensibly played by Palestinian Arab women in the first intifada. According to the producers, who are “a team of human rights advocates, journalists, and filmmakers,” their goal  “is to contribute to fostering peace and an end to the occupation by rendering Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders more visible, valued and influential in their efforts.”

In reality, the film is another attempt to defame Israel as the aggressor and an occupier of Arab lands. In contrast, the objective of the article below is to briefly outline the role of Palestinian Arab women as suicide bombers, and their position during the first intifada.

Women have been involved in terrorist activities in a number of countries including Algiers, Germany, Italy, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Nigeria, West Africa, Lebanon, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Peru, Jordan, Pakistan, Japan, Syria, Russia and Turkey. Terrorist organizations, including ISIS, began using women once they realized they were far better able to evade detection than men.

Palestinian Arabs believed women would be less likely to be stopped at checkpoints or be subjected to meticulous security searches, and their participation increased the ability of terrorist organizations to succeed in mounting an attack. [1] In an attempt to deceive the Israeli military, some terrorists initially used fake ID cards, particularly Red Crescent ID’s. [2]

The young terrorists did whatever is required “to blend in” to get near to as many people as possible to blow them up or maim them. From a description of the first intifada:

Some suicide bombers wear soldier’s uniforms, dress in Orthodox Jewish garb and even pose as party girls. A few women have attempted to conceal bombs by securing them to their stomachs to fake pregnancy. In response, female soldiers have been deployed to search Palestinian Arab women. [3]

The use of women is a deliberate effort to "embarrass the Israeli regime and show that things are so desperate that women are fighting instead of men," according to Hala Mustafa, an analyst for the Al-Ahram Newspaper Group in Egypt. [4]. “The Israelis have women in their army,” rationalized one Palestinian Arab teacher. “We don’t have F-16s, rockets or tanks. But these girls are our rockets. It’s Ok for our girls to fight the Jews.” [5]

Sana Mekhaidali, who became known as “The bride of the south,” was the first woman homicide bomber in the Middle East. She was dispatched in 1985 by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP/PPS) to attack an IDF convoy in Lebanon, murdering five soldiers.  Five other women followed in Lebanon on behalf of a secular pro-Syrian agenda. [6] During earlier outbreaks of hostilities in Israel, Palestinian Arab men were the principal attackers.

First Intifada

The role of women changed during the four-year Palestinian Arab Intifada that began in 1987 according Palestinian journalists Diaa Hadid and Rami Nazzal. Hadid, formerly a member of the anti-Israel organization Ittijah and then a New York Times reporter, and Nazzal, who founded “Beyond Borders Tour of the West Bank,” to gain “exposure to the daily lives of the Palestinian people,” reported women assumed a leading role in coordinating marches, managing food cooperatives organizing first aid economic boycotts and labor strikes. [7]

Palestinian Arab leaders urged mothers, sisters and daughters to become “mothers of the nation,” by producing men for the struggle. Described as men- generating factories, their wombs were in a sense being “nationalized” as a “military womb.” As Article 17 of the Hamas Covenant of August 18, 1988 affirms: “The Moslem woman has a role no less important than that of the Moslem man in the battle of liberation. She is the maker of men.” [8]

A woman’s support in the national struggle was now calculated by her ability to produce males. Women who abstained from having children were viewed as hurting their people. Consigning women to the home to raise and educate their offspring, precluded them from participating in what was considered the supreme contribution to the nation: armed combat against the enemy, which might result in her death. Her womb would then no longer be in service to fulfill the needs of her nation. [9]

Though the nature of their own involvement was determined for them, Palestinian Arab mothers were strongly encouraged to sacrifice their own sons with poise, self-control and even elation.  For this act of supreme self-sacrifice, they were recognized as the “Mother of the Shahid.”  Official leaflets proclaimed: “We salute the Mother of the Shahid and we stand at attention to the sound of the joyful ululation (zaghalit) emitted from her mouth, which she will ululate twice: once on the day that her son leaves to fight and to fall and become a shahid, and the day on which the [Palestinian] state will be declared.” [10]

Yet, the women were no longer content to assume these roles noted Joost R. Hiltermann, Program Director, Middle East and North Africa (MENA). There were “striking images’ of Palestinian Arab women marching in the streets, teenage girls throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, older women hauling baskets of stones on their heads to provide the younger protestors with more ammunition, and women clashing with Israeli officials to force them to release an arrested boy.

This unusual public demonstrations prompted some pundits to describe the intifada as not merely shedding military control, but a social rebellion. The younger generation disobeyed their leaders, those protesting in the street were defying the authority of the PLO, and women were challenging their conventional role in the Arab patriarchal society. [11]  

What distinguished women’s involvement is this uprising from earlier periods, is that women of all ages and from all segments of society, particularly women from villages and refugee camps, chose an active part, not just students and seasoned dissenters. They were motivated by a national emergency. “Because our program [before the uprising] was explicitly political, economic, and cultural, women were afraid to join," one Nablus activist explained. "But during the uprising, our program began to address reality.  Now women are more eager to join, because they want to address problems in their real lives." [12]

During the early phase of the uprising, the proportion of response by women (mainly students) under age 18 surpassed that of males over 40 years old.  [13] Part of this response was spontaneous, and part as a result of the four women's committees that formed the women’s resistance movement in Judea and Samaria. These committees evolved into Women’s Work Committee in the late 1970s as high school and college students began enlisting other segments of the Arab population in assuming a more active role in the resistance.  Some of the organizers had graduated from Bir Zeit University, a public university in Birzeit, near Ramallah, who had fought with Israeli soldiers in demonstrations beginning in early to mid-1970s. [14]

By the early 1980s, the Women's Work Committee divided into four committees, representing the different ideologies within the Palestinian Arab national movement. During the intifada, each committee focused on providing support in areas of their expertise: hours at child care centers were extended to assist women involved in the protests; first aid courses were arranged so they could tend to the wounded; “solidarity visits” were made to the families of those detained or killed; clothing drives provided clothes for the incarcerated; financial assistance was offered whenever necessary; and orchestrate prison visits through the Red Cross. [15]

The leadership of women who grew up in the 60s and 70s were not content with the charitable activities of their mothers’ generation, which they deemed elitist, with little possibility of changing the intolerable position of Arab women. [16]

This next generation of women leaders created their own organizations including societies focused on political action, while remaining respectful of those women who preceded them. “This is something we cannot ignore,” declared Maha Nassar, who headed the Palestinian Women’s Committees. “They gave and sacrificed and still do; they are part of the women’s movement.”  [17]


1.Edna Erez and Anat Berko, “Palestinian Women in Terrorism: Protectors or Protected?” Journal of National Defense Studies, Number 6, (May 2008): 83-84;“Father shocked by teenage daughter suicide bombing,” The Jerusalem Post (September 22, 2004); Russ Read, “ISIS Uses Women To Fight On The Front Lines After Suffering Heavy Losses,” The Daily Caller (May 28, 2017); Abigail R. Esman, “Women Form A Growing Threat To West In New ISS Strategy,” Investigative Project on Terrorism,” (December 10, 2016); Jack Moore, “Female Jihadis Give ISIS New Avenues for Attacks” Newsweek (October 31, 2016); Brenda Stoter, “As IS loses power, will group tap women jihadis to fight?” Al-Monitor (November 16, 2016); Soeren Kern, “Germany: Surge in Stabbings and Knife Crimes,” Gatestone (June 6, 2017); Amy Waldman, “Masters of Suicide Bombing: Tamil Guerrillas of Sri Lanka,” The New York Times, (January 14, 2003). In an attempt to deceive the Israeli military, some terrorists initially used fake ID cards, particularly Red Crescent IDs.

2.Amos Harel and Arnon Regular, “Bomber, 18, volunteered for suicide attack,” Haaretz (September 23, 2004).

3.Kevin Toolis, “Where Suicide is a Cult,” The Observer (London), (December 16, 2001); Bruce Hoffman, “The Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 291, Number 5 (June 2003).

4.Phillip Smucker, “Arab women take to the streets Pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Arab nations this week have included more women,” Christian Science Monitor (April 16, 2002).

5.Kevin Toolis, “Where Suicide is a Cult” The Observer (London), December 16, 2001); Joel Brinkley, “MIDEAST TURMOIL: GAZA; Arabs' Grief in Bethlehem, Bombers' Gloating in Gaza,” The New York Times (April 4, 2002).

6.Yoram Schweitzer, “Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality?” The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS) Memorandum Number. 84 (August 2006); Jessica Stern, “When Bombers are Women,” The Washington Post (December 18, 2003).

7.Diaa Hadid and Rami Nazzal, “Young Palestinian Women Adopt Unfamiliar Role in Seeking to Become Killers,” The New York Times (December 1, 2015); Sarah Aziza, “Palestine’s First Intifada Is Still a Model for Grassroots Resistance,” The Nation (December 8, 2017); Gene Sharp, “The Intifadah and Nonviolent Struggle,” Journal of Palestine Studies Volume 19, Number 1 (autumn, 1989): 3; for a guide to the background of how the Intifada developed and the issues it raised for Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, please see Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari, Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising-Israel's Third Front (New York: Simon Schuster, 1989).

8.Mira Tzoreff, “The Palestinian Shahida: National Patriotism, Islamic Feminism, or Social Crisis,” in Schweitzer, “Female Suicide Bombers,” op.cit:13- 14; (

9.Tzoreff, op.cit14.


11.Joost R. Hiltermann, “The Women's Movement During the Uprising,” Institute for Palestine Studies Volume 20 Number 3 (1990/91).

12.Ibid; Rita Giacaman, “Palestinian Women in the Uprising: From Followers to Leaders,” Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 2, Issue 1, (January 1989): 139–146.

13.Islah Jad, “Patterns of Relations within the Palestinian Family during the Intifada,” Palestinian Women of Gaza and the West Bank, Suha Sabbagh, Ed. (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998), 54.

14.Hiltermann, op.cit.


16.Amal Kawar, Daughters of Palestine Leading Women of the Palestinian National Movement (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), 103.