Gendering al-Nakba

Guest contribution by Bayan Abusneineh

May 15, 2014 marks the 66th year of al-Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe. Palestinians are united around the world through the collective memory of this date. This date to commemorates the displacement of over 750,000 Palestinians following the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. Since its declaration, the State of Israel has used Palestinian women’s bodies to execute blatantly racist imperial policies in an attempt to control the Palestinian land, people, and culture. These tactics of state violence aim to not only instill fear in the entire population – both men and women – but to destroy their bodies, their culture, and their humanity.

This piece places Palestinian women at the center of analysis to see how the State of Israel perpetuates both race-based and gender-based violence. Sexual violence cannot be confined to individual acts of rape, but rather how such violence encompasses a broad range of strategies to not only destroy Palestinian bodies, but to weaken the strength of their ties to their native land.[1] Similarly, the Israeli occupation is inscribed on the bodies of Palestinians, particularly those of Palestinian women. Histories of land confiscation, expulsion, and sexual exploitation by the Zionist settler-colonial project are marked on each of their bodies.

The Rape of Deir Yassin

The atrocities of the Zionist project are vividly manifested in the tragedy of Deir Yassin, a Palestinian village near Jerusalem. The village was located outside of the area that the United Nations had recommended be included in a future Jewish state. Though Deir Yassin had reached a non-aggression pact with the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization, in Jerusalem, Plan Dalet, a well-constructed project, designated an outright attack on the Palestinian village.[2] On the early morning of Friday, April 9, 1948, Zionist paramilitary groups Irgun and Stern Gang attacked Deir Yassin, slaughtering over 100 people, half of them women and children. Fahim Zaydan, a Palestinian who was 12 years old at the time his village was attacked, recalled the murder of his family:

“They took us out one after the other; shot an old man and when one of his daughters cried, she was shot too. Then they called my brother Muhammad, and shot him in front of us, and when my mother yelled, bending over him – carrying my little sister Huda in her hands, still breastfeeding her – they shot her too.”[3]

Before Jewish troops exited the village, rows of Palestinian children were lined up against a wall and shot by a firing squad. Zaydan was among the children shot, but fortunately survived his wounds.

Palestinian women were not exempted from the atrocities. In traditional Arab culture, norms of honor circumscribe the behavior of men toward women. Historically, any man who abused women sexually knew that he would face revenge and punishment against him and his tribe.[4] However, because European Jews were not part of the Arab and Palestinian culture, they were exempted from such codes and thus exploited women, fully aware of how the Palestinian population would react. Zionist gangs raped and butchered young girls and women, cut open the stomachs of pregnant women and ripped out the fetuses before killing them.[5] They stripped the survivors, mostly males, naked and took them in open trucks through the streets of Jerusalem for Jewish settlers to taunt and humiliate them. Another twenty-five male villagers were loaded into the trucks and taken to the Zakhron Yosef quarter in Jerusalem where they were shot to death. The remaining residents of Deir Yassin were driven out of their village and into Arab East Jerusalem to make room for Jewish settlements. Reporting of rape and sexual assault were limited to protect women, the land, and their “honor”.

On April 13, 1948, the New York Times reported that approximately 254 Palestinians were found dead as a result of the massacre.[6] In addition to the number of people killed, over 10 houses were destroyed, the village cemetery was bulldozed, and Deir Yassin was completed wiped off the map. Current research on the Deir Yassin massacre suggests that Israeli officials reduced the official body count as a means to downplay the outcome of their attack. However, at the time, the Jewish leadership publicized the massacre of Deir Yassin as “a warning to all Palestinians that a similar fate awaited them if they refused to abandon their homes and take flight”.[7]

The bloodshed at Deir Yassin was thus used as a mechanism to instill fear and scare off the surplus Palestinian population. Incidents of rape and sexual violence instilled deep fear in Palestinian women, forcing many families to flee to protect their wives and daughters. The decision to migrate was an act of survival, in order to protect their families and preserve the “honor” of their women and families.[8] Fear of rape and sexual assault created more restrictions on Palestinian women. In addition, for those who experienced instances of rape and sexual violence, it became difficult to rebuild and rehabilitate once they returned to their families. In their collective memory of Deir Yassin, many women recount the massacre through the “body and through bodily expression and images,” such as the ways in which Jewish settlers “cut their bellies, to take the children out of their bellies”.[9] Because Deir Yassin was viewed as an “enemy base,” all Palestinians were “legitimate targets” of destruction and expulsion, rather than humans.[10]

An old village school in what used to be Deir Yassin today serves as a mental hospital for the western Jewish neighborhood that expanded over the demolished village. This is significant for many reasons. First, the massacre of Deir Yassin produced anxiety, fear, distress, and general psychological anguish for all Palestinians. This created fear in neighboring Palestinian villages and forced them to flee for safety. Second, many survivors of this particular massacre were children at the time and witnessed their own families being raped and killed, which constitutes a distinct form of material violence. Third, the four million Palestinian refugees dispersed all over the world reflect on Deir Yassin as a vital moment in which their homeland was taken from them by brutal force. Although Deir Yassin was not the largest massacre in terms of the scale of destruction or number of casualties, it stood out as an early warning. What came next resulted in the calculated depopulation of over 400 Arab villages and cities, as well as the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian inhabitants to make room for Holocaust survivors and other Jews from all around Europe. Perpetual silence from the western world and international community produced the notion that Jewish lives were more valuable than Palestinian lives.

Palestinian Women’s Bodies as Palestinian Land

Early Jewish settlers perceived Palestine as a “virgin territory,” essentially asking to be “fertilized” by a more racially pristine entity.[11] The desire of Jewish settlers to possess Palestinian territory led them to imbue it with feminine characteristics. The land was either depicted “as the lover to be conquered and fertilized” or “the mother giving birth to a new ‘masculine’ people”.[12] Jewish settlers constituted the “masculine” group, using sexual violence to reassert white supremacist norms of patriarchy. The metaphoric representation of a nation as a woman and the female reproducer of an “abject people” justified political control over Palestinian territory by framing it within the familiar rhetoric of masculine dominance over the female body and female sexuality. The invasion into national territory is equivalent to the invasion into women’s bodies. During the stages of occupation, Palestinian women’s bodies became a battlefield, vulnerable to intrusion and violation by foreign forces. For example, when a foreign invader rapes a woman, this act of “contamination” is understood as the entire nation being “contaminated”.[13] Sexual violence and rape have often been used as weapons of war in various historical contexts. Effects of these tactics include:

[F]orced dispersal of populations as they flee feared atrocity; submission of an invaded community through fear of reprisal rape; intensification of bonding among perpetrators through commission of brutal acts; demoralization of an entire people through violence against their women; genetic subversion through impregnation of women; and destruction of a social fabric by attacking women whose denigration or death often destroys the entire family unit.

Zillah Eisenstein argues that “rape articulate[s] the violence encoded in gender; in wartime it reinscribes the continuity of gender inscription of woman as victim rather than act. Yet… men are demasculinized by the rape of their daughters or wives. Everyone is shamed in this process”.[14] Because common discourse depicted Palestinian women as backwards, illiterate, and “uncivilized,” the project of colonial sexual violence “establishes the ideology that [Palestinian] bodies are inherently violable – and by extension, that Native lands are also inherently violable”.[15] Rape, murder of pregnant women, and slaughter of fetuses in the Deir Yassin massacre were committed purposefully, in order to disempower and humiliate Palestinian men. Since Palestinian men assumed their roles as “protectors” of their nation, including its women and territory, their inability to protect both showered shame and humiliation over the entire population.

The brutal violence against Palestinian pregnant women, such as the piercing of their stomachs, is also a genocidal act – a means to eliminate future generations of Palestinians. Since women symbolized fertility as the carriers of future generations through reproduction, their bodies were targets of rape, sexual violence, and slaughter. Sexual violence has historically been utilized as a tool of colonial domination and simultaneously served as an extension of the patriarchal white power structure.[16] Therefore, acts of gender-based violence against Palestinian women are ways for Zionists to exert control over Palestinian women’s reproductive abilities, as the “destruction of women and children is necessary to destroy a people”.[17] Therefore, Palestinian women were not only violated for being women, but also for their identification as Palestinians.

The Modern Nakba

While Israelis hold festivities to celebrate their Independence Day, Palestinians around the world commemorate al-Nakba. Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including occupied and illegally annexed East Jerusalem, continue to endure violence, displacement, and dispossession as a result of the prolonged Israeli occupation. This history is crucial to interrogate because it demonstrates how the State of Israel continues to use both racial and gendered tactics of violence to disempower Palestinians. Some of these tactics include forcing women to give birth at military checkpoints, rape and sexual violence in Israeli prisons, and the denial of proper medical care for pregnant Palestinian women. Furthermore, the shackling and strict surveillance of Palestinian women during childbirth in prisons and the negligence of women in labor at the checkpoints are expressions of occupation through the control over Palestinian women’s fertility and reproductivity, reflecting early Zionist practices.

In addition, home demolitions and Israeli settlements play a central role in Israel’s attempts to dispossess the non-Jewish Palestinian population. From 1967 to late 2012, Israel established approximately 125 settlements in the West Bank, with over 531,000 Jewish settlers living in these communities as of 2014. Although these settlements violate Palestinian human rights and international law, the Israeli government provides financial incentives to encourage Israeli citizens to move to settlements, while prohibiting Palestinian refugees from returning to these lands. Al Nakba, therefore, is not an event that occurred on a specific date, but is an ongoing catastrophe, that has taken a new form through Jewish settlements, administrative detention, and control over Palestinian women’s fertility and reproduction. Israel’s “deeply gendered character of punishment both reflects and further entrenches the gendered structure(s) of the larger society.”[18]

Despite the ongoing systematic subjugation of Palestinians, Palestinians refuse to give up. It is vital that Palestinians are not perceived as damaged subjects, but rather, as a people who have resisted the threat of colonialism long before Israel was ever formally pronounced as a state. Furthermore, the lack of analysis around Palestinian women and their participation within the global resistance movement reinforces Orientalist images of Arab women as docile and passive. Such depictions ignore the social, political and economic contributions that Palestinian women have made to their communities and to the larger Palestinian anti-colonial movement. Palestinian women have participated in various realms of the Palestinian freedom movement, including armed struggle, non-violent demonstrations against the apartheid wall, and art and literature. As importantly, Palestinian self-determination is connected to gender equality, and therefore, Palestinian liberation is contingent on their liberation as women. It is vital that Palestinian women are not constructed as oppressed, but rather, as strong women who have been critical to the political struggle for self-determination. Shifting the Palestinian collective memory to include this narrative will force us to reexamine structures of patriarchy, occupation, and gender to move towards more comprehensive visions of freedom.

[1] Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005.
[2] Pappé, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.
[3] Ibid., 90.
[4] Peteet, Julie Marie. Gender in Crisis: Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
[5] Ibid., 59.
[6] Ibid., 60.
[7] Pappé, 91.
[8] Kassem, Fatma. Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memory. London: Zed Books, 2011.
[9] Ibid.,164.
[10] Pappé, 92.
[11] McClintock, Anne. Imperial leather: race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial contest. New York: Routledge, 1995.
[12] Kandiyoti, Deniz. Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perspectives. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996.
[13] Ibid., 22.
[14] Eisenstein, Zillah R.. Against empire: feminisms, racism, and the West. London: Zed Books, 2004.
[15] Smith, 12.
[16] Ibid., 8.
[17] Ibid., 79.
[18] Davis, Angela Y. “How Gender Structures the Prison System.” In Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003. 60-83.

Bayan Abusneineh

Bayan Abusneineh graduated from UCLA in 2013 in Political Science and Gender Studies. She will be entering the Ethnic Studies Ph.D. program in Fall 2014 where she plans to study Palestinian and Black women’s social movements, state and gender violence, and transnationalism.


There is one comment

  1. tim74836

    So the original plan was to totally terrorize a few villages in hopes that the rest would evacuate out of fear. Is that right? I guess despite the completely satanic mentality of the oppressor the Palestinians, like the Bedouins one uped them by standing their ground. True bravery against true evil. Thank you for the article.

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