The role of women in the Intifada: The “Ultimate Trojan Horse.”

Part II of a two part series. Arab women hoped that their participation in the intifada would advance their social, educational and the legal status - but it did not.

Tags: Intifada
Dr. Alex Grobman

OpEds Arab rioter in Jerusalem's 'silent intifada'
Arab rioter in Jerusalem's 'silent intifada'
Arutz 7

Part II of a two-part series. For part one, click here.

For years, the Palestinian Arab women involved in terrorist activities avoided the interference of the Israeli military administration, because their work was perceived to be of a social nature, not political activism.  After the younger generation established their own political organizations, their elders feared this might cause the Israeli military to re-evaluate their charitable work, leading to a disruption of their lifelong activities. [18]  

Their genuine misgivings were justified, for the leadership of the Palestinian Women’s Committees Movement had spent time in Israel prisons. As a “member of an enemy organization,” they were often interrogated at the Russian Compound Interrogation Center and Prison in Jerusalem, the Central Prison in Nablus and the women’s prison in Neve Tirza in Ramla. [19]

Women’s increased visibility did result in more activists being detained and interrogated. Some of their programs were assailed and were either disrupted or shut down. [20]

Hiltermann found it remarkable that given the “prominence” of women who actively participated in the demonstrations, marches and sit-ins and erecting barricades, they sustained comparatively few casualties. [21] The reason for this is that although women comprised more than 50 percent of the members of most committees, they were not permitted to participate in the “striking force,” which threw stones and fire bombs at soldiers, built barriers, burnt tires, organized demonstrations and marches, brandished knives and axes, assaulted collaborators and punished those who did not obey the directives of the leaders of the intifada. [22].

Women were involved in the protests as participants and as defenders of the men when the IDF tried to arrest them. They would position themselves between the soldiers and the young Arab men when the soldiers attempted to seize them. [23]

After Israeli soldiers arrested a young Palestinian Arab boy throwing stones at them at Jebalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, a mob hurled stones at them from nearby rooftops. His family then began struggling to extricate him by force from his captors. Two older women attacked the soldier with a pipe and a stick as others scrambled to free him.

When another young Palestinian young boy hurled a brick at one of the soldiers, landing on his back, shots were fired in the air to drive the Arabs away. This did not deter one youngster from grabbing the barrel of one of the soldier’s rifle. Only gunfire forced him abandon his attempt to seize the weapon, and flee. [24]

Women were so successful in being able to protect the men that Professor Munir Fasheh of Birzeit University concluded that, “it has become dangerous for men to participate in demonstrations or marches in the absence of women.” [25]  

In 1989 and 1990 there were smaller and less impromptu protests. Instead, young people, including women, organized demonstrations where they covered their faces with keffiyehs, traditionally worn by men, to avoid arrest. At a 1989 march in Birzeit, commemorating the founding of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, young women and men wore keffiyehs or hoods with the colors of the Palestinian Arab flag. [26]  

Not surprisingly, the level of women’s involvement differed according to location. In religious and conservative cities such as Hebron, if 100 women attended, it was viewed as good. In Ramallah, a city with less inhabitants, having 500 to 1,000 women participate was the norm Hiltermann noted.  During the early months of the uprising, many families were adamantly opposed to their young daughters participating in demonstrations. In rural areas in particular, some women initially would lie about their involvement in popular committees and protests. [27]

Even in more conservative villages, teenagers, including girls, “turned viciously on their fathers,” according to Ze’ev Schiff, an Israeli journalist and former military correspondent for Haaretz and Ehud Ya'ari, an Israeli journalist, and political commentator. In one case, “a group of girls stoned their own parents” for attempting to prevent them from protesting.

“Masses” of girls sought violent confrontations with the soldiers without fearing the repercussions they might face for compromising their ‘feminine modesty.’” Their very presence in a hostile environment was designed to provoke and incite. Under these conditions, it is not surprising they were among the dozens of random of gunfire. During the first three months of the intifada, approximately one fifth of those wounded were women and girls. [28]  

Deifying conventional norms could come at a price. Siham Abdullah, a women in her twenties from the Old City in Nablus and a graduate of al-Najah University, explained the concern about young women becoming activists. The physical danger of being injured or sent to prison would significantly lessen, if not negate, her chances to wed. If she were incarcerated, many would view her as a “fallen” woman. The community would dissuade even a divorcee or a widower from marrying her by saying, “This girl must be an instigator of trouble since she joined demonstrations with other men.” [29]

A young girl exposes herself to damaging her reputation in another way as well. While participating in one of the early demonstrations together with many other young women, Siham heard one of the boys from her community say, “Look at the sluts. They are joining the demonstration in order to show themselves off and to meet men.” One should not easily dismiss this insult, Siham said, since this perception affects how a young women is viewed her entire life. [30]

A woman’s honor in Islam is determined by the modest and respectable manner in which she dresses, remaining a virgin until marriage, having a temperate disposition and maintaining her distance from male society. If she fails to abide by any one of these strictures, she forfeits her honor forever. [31]

Advancing Social Agenda

The hope that their participation in the intifada would advance their social, educational and the legal status would be addressed yielded minimal results. Azza, a student a Hebron University, found that most men recognized that women’s participation is a necessity and is an essential national act. Some even understood that without the emancipation of women, the country will not be liberated. Yet on a personal level, they refused to have their own sisters or fiancés participate in street protests. They undertook that responsibility on themselves. [32]

Khawla, a teacher from the village of Tamoun, close to eight miles northeast of Nablus, believed that women paid dearly for having actively participated in the intifada. Though on television and in the media their activities are celebrated, their efforts were not respected in the neighborhoods. She estimated that approximately 30 to 40 percent of the general Palestinian Arab population is politically mature; the rest, including the younger generation of male university students, have not altered their values. [33]

Some women might have been included in the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), a partnership of Palestinian Arab leaders [Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular For the Liberation of Palestine, and the Communist Party, but not Hamas, which was frequently consulted] that rallied popular support for the uprising, though men were the dominant decision makers. This is reflected in their indifference to women's issues and the “traditional, patriarchal, and condescending,” attitude they displayed toward those who participated in the intifada.  [34]

The women’s leadership in Judea and Samaria attempted to advance their agenda in a proposal entitled “Draft Document of Principles of Women’s Rights,” alternatively called “Draft Document,” at a press conference on August 3, 1994 held in Jerusalem. After detailing their extensive contributions and sacrifices in the fight for liberation, the document urged that action be taken:

“The Palestinian women's struggle has been depicted over the decades of the Palestinian national struggle as an immeasurable contribution in all spheres: women were martyred and thousands imprisoned. Palestinian women also played a vital role in the preservation of the unity of the Palestinian family as a social base to support individuals in the absence of the Palestinian national authority. Palestinian women were forced to delay many tasks associated with their social position and instead focused all their attention toward issues of the national and political struggle. It is now the time to affirm that the issue of women's legal rights in all aspects is a cornerstone for building a democratic Palestinian society.” [35]

In other words, the Palestinian woman had “proven herself” and now insisted on to being afforded equality in civic, political, economic, social and cultural rights. [36] For a traditional society, these demands were considered too extreme and too bold. Furthermore, there were no mechanisms in place to enforce them.  [37]

This why Islamic scholar Professor Abdullahi An-Na'im’s urge for caution had merited serious consideration: " is irresponsible and inhumane to encourage these women to move too fast, too soon and to repudiate many of the established norms of their culture or religious law without due regard to the full implications of such action.”  He believed that de facto equality could be attained not only through de jure reforms but as a result of a change in attitudes and perceptions of Palestinian Arabs. [38]

Nevertheless, as Rita Giacaman, a professor of public health at the Institute of Community and Public Health, Birzeit University, opines, were it not for the “emergence of a feminist consciousness,” the ”intifada could not have not have continued as it did.” The women’s experience “contributed to their sense of belonging to the struggle.” Previously, their perception of belonging “was limited to family, it was now extended to the neighborhood, the block, and even the city as a whole. Their expanded horizon found them the focal point in the street and at the forefront of the struggle.” [39]  


18. Ibid. 103-104.

19, Ibid.

 20. Ibid.113.

21. Ibid.

22.Jad, op.cit.59; Shaul Mishal and Reuben Aharoni, Speaking Stones: Communiques from the Intifada Underground (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994), 37-38, 46,115, 116; Wendy Perlman, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 106-109.

23. Philippa Strum, “West Bank Women and the Intifada: Revolution within the Revolution,” in Palestinian Women of Gaza and the West Bank, op.cit.65-66.; Penny Johnson and Eileen Kuttab “Where Have All the Women (and Men) Gone? Reflections on Gender and the Second Palestinian Intifada,” Feminist Review Issue 1 Volume 69 (November 2001): 37.

24.Schiff, op.cit.20-21.

25.Strum, op.cit.65-66.

26. Ibid.66.

27. Ibid .69.

28. Schiff, op cit. 118-119, 126-127.

29.Sahar Khalifeh, “Comments by Five Women Activists: Siham Abdullah, Amal Kharisha Barghouthi, Rita Giacaman, May Mistakmel Nassar, Amal Wahdan,” in Palestinian Women of Gaza and the West Bank, op.cit. 193-195.


31.Raphael Israeli, Palestinians between Nationalism and Islam (Portland, Oregon: Valentine Mitchell, 2008), 172-173; Nir Gontarz, "The Koran According to the Israeli Army: A Good Palestinian Woman Stays Away From Protests," Haaretz (April 13, 2018).

32.Sahar Khalifeh, op.cit.194.


34. Ibid; Jad, op.cit. 59-60; Halim Barakat, The Arab World, Society, Culture, and State (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1993), 105; Strum, op.cit. 70-74; Ilham Abu Ghazaleh, “Gender in the Poetry of the Intifada,” in West Bank Women and the Intifada op. cit.92-113; John Collins, Occupied by Memory: The Intifada Generation and the Palestinian State of Emergency (New York: New York university Press, 2004); Joe Stork, op.cit, 73-77; Israeli, op cit. 172; Kawar, op.cit 112.

35.Kawar, op.cit.124-125.

36.ibid, 125.

37.Adrien Katherine Wing and, Shobhana Ragunathan Kasturi, "Palestinian Women: Beyond the Basic Law," Third World Legal Studies Volume 13, Article 6. (1995), 161-168); Kawar, op.cit. 127-128.

38.Adrien Katherine Wing and, Shobhana Ragunathan Kasturi, "Palestinian Women: Beyond the Basic Law," Third World Legal Studies Volume 13, Article 6. (1995), 166.

39.“Dr. Rita Giacaman,” in West Bank Women and the Intifada op.cit, 203; Rema Hammami, “Women, the Hijab and the Intifada,” Middle East Report, Number 164/165, Intifada Year Three (May - Aug., 1990): 24-28; Cheryl A. Rubenberg, Palestinian Women: Patriarchy and Resistance in the West Bank (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001): 209-262.

Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, has written extensively on the Shoah and Israel including: License to Murder: The Enduring Threat of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened, and Why Do They Say It? with Michael Shermer; Battling For Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe; Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust; BDS: The Movement To Destroy Israel.; Nations United: How The UN Undermines Israel and West. He is a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).