How Palestinian women led successful non-violent resistance

Two women share their stories of how they peacefully protested during both Intifadas and challenged Israel's occupation.

Naila Ayyash (left) at a demonstration during the First Intifada in the late 1980s [Luisa Morgantini/Just Vision] Ramallah, occupied West Bank - Movements that welcome women into leadership positions are more likely to achieve their goals. This is because their use of non-violent tactics is almost 100 percent more likely to be successful than violent campaigns.

These are the findings of a study of 323 major political conflicts from 1900-2006.

Non-violent movements were less likely to cause physical harm and typically lead to more peaceful and democratic societies.

The greatest predictor of a movement's decision to adopt non-violence is its ideology regarding the role of women. When a movement includes gender equality in its discourse, it dramatically increases the chances it will adopt non-violence, and the likelihood it will succeed.

Two Palestinian women shared with Al Jazeera their stories of how they led successful non-violent protests against the Israeli occupation during the First and Second Intifada.

First Intifada 1987-1993

After two decades of Israeli military occupation, it was an Israeli truck that collided with a civilian car in Gaza - killing four Palestinians - that proved to be the last straw.

People were enraged and protests erupted and spread to the West Bank - an uprising had ignited.

Naila Ayyash, was in her mid-20s at the time and soon saw leaflets being distributed in Ramallah, which listed Palestinians' demands and directives. Ayyash and her husband printed the leaflets and travelled to Gaza to distribute them.

"There was some preparation for this intifada. The situation on the ground, especially in Gaza, it was moving day by day," Ayyash told Al Jazeera.

"All the political parties agreed to be under the unity of the intifada. At that time all the political parties were very strong, but especially the women's movement inside the parties."

Every major Palestinian faction formed a women's committee, disguised as a homemaking group. Since it was illegal to be a member of any political party and student union, these women's committees called for knitting, sewing and cooking meet-ups in public, but secretly their meetings consisted of planning the intifada.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had left a leadership void since many were exiled in Tunis after being ousted in Lebanon. Countless Palestinian men had either been deported, killed or imprisoned. The women filled this gap and formed the backbone for the uprising.

This marked the first time that people were taking action without waiting for directions from the PLO abroad. It was the women who organised mass civil strikes and medical teams to provide healthcare, visited families of those killed for support, and organised alternative locations for universities and schools when Israeli authorities shut them down. If there was any problem at the governmental level, the women addressed it.

They organised a successful mass boycott of Israeli goods that eventually forced the Israeli government to negotiate after Israeli firms suffered declines in sales. It reached such a low point that then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres warned the economy was "in danger."

Up until then, the Palestinian economy depended on Israeli goods, but the women organised farming cooperatives and taught women how to grow their own food in their backyard.

"We worked with women to empower them in society, economically, to support their families. They learned how to knit, sew and work on any traditional project that would help them earn an income. We tried to change the traditional picture of women, especially in Gaza," Ayyash said.

Being a woman in a time of unrest was an advantage. Unlike men, women could move more freely during curfew hours. They went from one location to another, distributing the communiques hidden in breadbaskets. The Israeli authorities never placed them under suspicion.

"The mentality of the Israelis was that only men participate [in the intifada]," Ayyash explained. "They didn't think that these women were active."

In their eyes, liberation was on the horizon. Women had made great strides and were sure they were about to get an independent state of Palestine.  

Several women formed the Palestinian delegation that participated in the Madrid conference in 1991, where they demanded an end to settlements as a precondition for negotiations.

However, simultaneously and unbeknown to them, the PLO was signing a secret deal with Israel in Norway, a deal that allowed the occupation to continue and brought far less than what they negotiated for in Madrid.

Their tough negotiating in Madrid came to a halt with the Oslo Accords in 1993, with the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which usurped their grassroots resistance.

Occupation not only continued, it worsened with more checkpoints and a 140-percent increase in illegal Israeli settlers.

Furthermore, women would now require a guardian in order to apply for a Palestinian Authority passport.

Despite the deteriorating situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, Ayyash said liberation is inevitable.

"Civilian resistance is powerful because it makes problems for Israelis. It makes noise for them," Ayyash explained.

"Palestinians will continue struggling until they have their rights. It's difficult and I don't know after how many years, but in the end the Israelis must know that there is no other option. Either give Palestinians their rights, or continue like this... They have tried all options to force Palestinians to leave, to quit. But Palestinians will continue."

Second Intifada 2000-2005

Iltizam Morrar encouraged women to join in the non-violent campaign against the Israeli separation barrier in her village of Budrus in the occupied West Bank [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera] In 2003, 15-year-old Iltizam Morrar from the village of Budrus heard about a separation wall that was being built in the occupied West Bank for "security" reasons, but she didn't know much else about it as there was no media coverage and she had never heard of any marches taking place against the wall.

Soon enough the wall reached Budrus, stretching some 170km from the northern tip of the West Bank in Jenin.

The planned separation barrier would cut through their village, confiscate about 5,000 acres of their land and uproot 3,000 olive trees, critical for the village's economic survival.

Its residents quickly realised the wall wasn't about security, but rather it would steal a huge part of their property.

Iltizam's father Ayed Morrar formed the Popular Resistance Committee Against the Wall, and they began to organise protests.

As Iltizam grew up listening to stories about how her family participated in the First Intifada, she was eager to contribute to the resistance movement in Budrus and decided to join the protests that consisted of only men at the time.

Many young women were hesitant to join her in an activity perceived to be "just for men". Initially, she managed to muster five female classmates to join her in the protest after school.

But soon she had galvanised more women to join. At the end of their first protest, as the men started to leave, the women continued to protest and chant - they weren't leaving just yet. From then on whenever a future protest was announced, they were sure to say: "Everyone is welcome - men and women."

The movement transformed into a 10-month unarmed struggle led by women. The odds of saving their village were stacked against them, yet they managed to subvert the planned wall that would have destroyed their village and saved 95 percent of their land.

"The more people involved, the bigger the result that you can expect from such a movement," Iltizam explained, while stepping over a tear-gas canister as she walked through a field in Budrus.

"When women began participating, the number doubled, the movement became way bigger.

"If everyone participates, it means less criticising and more encouragement from everybody... When we stand together it shows what people can do when they work together as a community. It was a whole village movement."

The scariest moment for her was when she jumped in front of a bulldozer that was set to destroy hundreds of olive trees. 

That day a cordon of about 200 Israeli soldiers had formed, protecting their bulldozer and blocking the villagers from their olive trees. The bulldozer had already destroyed some 60 olive trees, and as it continued to dig the villagers weren't sure what to do.

"I had never in my life seen so many soldiers," Iltizam said. It was also the first time the villagers experienced tear gas.

Iltizam, however, noticed a space between a cactus tree and the soldiers and pushed through. Suddenly, she found herself in front of the bulldozer and quickly jumped in the hole it was digging - a life-threatening decision. Earlier that year an Israeli bulldozer killed American activist Rachel Corrie in Gaza when she made the same move. 

"I was looking the whole time at [the driver's] face. It was so scary. Any single move from him would kill me, even if it was by mistake," Iltizam said.

"But when you have a goal to stop the bulldozer from confiscating the land, all you see is that goal in front of you... The whole time you're focused on how to get to the bulldozer, how to get to the olive trees, how to get behind the soldiers."

However, the soldiers quickly followed her, breaking off their cordon and the villagers rushed to swarm the bulldozer. The soldiers and their machine were soon forced to retreat.

"It was a huge victory for all of us. Moments ago we were desperate, waiting, standing there, we didn't know what to do... It was a very beautiful feeling," Iltizam said.

The reason for the villagers' success in defending Budrus was they were consistently protesting every day, Iltizam explained.

The moment Israelis began construction, everyone would be instantly notified and within minutes the entire village would rush to the scene to protest until the soldiers retreated.

"The thing about Budrus is that it was constant. We knew what to do, we knew what we wanted, and we fought for it daily," Iltizam said.

"We were so organised. We had a goal to achieve and we achieved that goal... In Budrus our goal wasn't to make clashes; soldiers weren't our goal. Our goal was to protect our land."

It became apparent to Ayed as well that movements that include women have drastically different results than those that do not.

"You must use 100 percent of your power and we know that women are half of our power," Ayed said. "Everybody knows that women make up half of the people, but few of them understand that women are half of our power."

About the Author

Mersiha Gadzo