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"They Took our Milk and Blood": Palestinian Women & War

"They took our milk and blood and left us here!" shouted Um Ali at the mention of the peace accord between Palestinians and Israel. She is the mother of six sons, five of whom along with her husband were lined up and shot by rightist Christian militiamen in 1982 at Chatila Camp, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Bejrut. They allowed her to keep her youngest son but both were forced to witness the killings. She was railing against the recent peace accords, which leave out the refugees in Lebanon, in a way that underscores her notion of women's contribution to the struggle. The "mothers of the martyrs," as they are commonly known, are bitter about the sacrifices of their sons and daughters and phrase it in terms of bodily substances. These are the women who have been left behind after nearly 17 years of continuous war, a war that shattered the Palestinian refugee community.

Palestinians in Lebanon have faced nearly two decades of uncertainty and daily violence. Refugees since 1948, most have been born in an exile that has involved successive uprooting from one camp to another as an escape from violence or as part of transfer policies to contain Palestinian resistance and fragment a large, once politically powerful community. While the Palestinian resistance movement, headquartered in Beirut, drew many younger activist women into its ranks, older women did participate. What distinguished older women's participation from that of the younger women activists was domesticity. Older women, often mothers of younger activists, endowed domesticity with a political content and put it at the service of the resistance movement. Thus their dismay and anger over exclusion is easily expressed in terms that evoke that mobilization of domesticity for the public domain.

In 1993, I returned to Chatila after a hiatus of nearly eleven years. Masses of rubble marked the perimeter of a camp populated largely by women and children. The huge tangled piles of cement and steel cables were not the only marker of the camp's perihery; checkpoints and armed guards were posted at entrance ways. The residents of the camp lived as virtual prisoners-allowed to come and go only at the mercy of the guards. At these checkpoints, men would often face beatings, theft of personal belongings, detention or disappearance. While certainly not immune from insults and beatings, women crossed with less trepidation than men did. This was one situation in which Arab women clearly had more mobility than men. For years they had tended to outside affairs and the daily shopping to keep their families running and protect husbands and sons from possible harm.

In the summer of 1982, when Beirut was under an Israeli siege for nearly three months, food, water and medicine were scarce items. The Palestinian refugee women I had worked with for the previous two years in Chatila Camp were displaced, squatting in unfinished high rise buildings, desperately searching for food, and hauling water in plastic buckets often from distances of a mile or more, up eight to ten flights of stairs. Among middle class circles, food was plentiful on the black market and late night parties featured fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat. One of the most salient markers of social location in war and the one that clearly colors one's ability to survive is who can leave and who is consigned to stay. In war, the elite rush to leave and leave behind those who cannot afford to leave. Large sectors of the middle class and the intelligentsia, however, make calculated choices to remain as a political stand. War also makes for a new kind of widow - the temporary one. Her husbands leaves during the war to work abroad and support his family. The women left behind, whether from the elite or from the poor, find themselves virtually single mothers in a war zone. In short, in some ways gender makes little difference in how one experiences war, in other ways it makes all the difference in one's experiences.

In the Middle East, those who have lived the longest in a prolonged state of conflict are Palestinian women, particularly those in Lebanon and those under occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Since 1948 when they streamed across the border into Lebanon, Palestinian refugees have led lives of insecurity, war, massacres, disappearances, sieges and displacement. Now numbering around 400,000, these refugees have been denied the right to return to their homes and lands. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been occupied for over 25 years; the intifada (uprising) erupted in 1987 and has had contradictory meanings for women, mobilizing them for struggle yet being the grounds on which a debate rages between secularists and an Islamic movement.

Chatila Camp is a name that resonates with meaning for Palestinians in all places in the diaspora. It symbolizes exile and resistance, but more ominously, massacre and siege. I had worked in Chatila Camp for nearly two years (1980-82). Chatila entered the vocabulary of the Middle East and beyond as the site of a three-day, Israeli-sponsored massacre that residents claim took over 3,000 lives in 1982. In the mid 1980s Chatila and neighboring Bourj al-Barajneh Camp withstood nearly three years of siege and bombardment by the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, Amal, supported by Syria. In short, Chatila, along with other refugee camps in Lebanon, has suffered prolonged and sustained conflict. The attacks against Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, whether by Syrian, Lebanese or Israeli forces, have a common denominator: to reduce or eliminate the Palestinians' will and potential to contest politically their status as refugees and to seek their return home.

Women look with nostalgia to the era when the Palestinian resistance movement was a strong military and political force in Lebanon (1968-82). Conflict was endemic; bombardments and sieges were everyday events. Yet a high level of internal community autonomy and self-sufficiency, organized around the resistance movement, and a pervasive ethos of national liberation and social progress gave women space in which to organize and make their demands heard. Women activists themselves were quite aware of the historic and creative opportunities made possible by conflict.

National liberation movements, the women's movement they often spawn and yet constrain, and a wartime situation can have contradictory effects for women. Gesturing with her hand to indicate a lock turning in a keyhole, Mayada, a leader of the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW), said, "They used to lock us in. But with the revolution and the Women's Movement things changed. Now we go where we want." While conflict suspends many cultural norms that circumscribe women's mobility and mobilizes them for communal defense, it can also confine them to what are considered female domains of activity such as social work, nursing, and domestic work in the service of the revolution.

In 1990, I spent a year in the West Bank. At this time, the intifada was the dominant force in everyday life. For every Palestinian, not one aspect of daily life was immune from the uprising-from the daily general strike to the stone-throwing and barricade building. Women were active in the neighborhood committees that emerged to organize local communities to resist and survive the prolonged curfews, late night raids, arrests and detention, schools closures, and public beatings that were the staples of everyday life in the occupied territories. Miriam, a community organizer and activist in the intifada, pointed out that "even though we should celebrate and look upon as progress women's participation in neighborhood committees, we have to question whether this kind of activism keeps women confined to domestic roles under the guise of nationalism."

The international media helped to spread the image of the Palestinian mother in the intifada trying to prevent soldiers from beating young boys in the public displays of violence. Calling themselves "mothers of all youth," they would rush to the scene of these public beatings to scold and harangue soldiers beating unarmed young boys. Their behavior not only was a form of direct intervention, or witnessed the public displays of violence would re-tell these scenes to their hushed and horrified audiences of neighbors and relatives.

One of the more interesting cultural facets of new spatial arenas of activism, occasioned by conflict and nationalist activism, is that some women expend even more energy than usual on a self-imposed, public display of modest behavior. Activists often became exemplars of modest behavior. While certainly a strategic move to ward off criticism of activism leading to loosening of morals, for many to women activism was not always conflated with a desire for an individuated, Western-defined form of liberation. Conflict and activism have a multiplicity of meanings for women. Thus political and community activism and wartime mobilization can give some women space to play with gender roles and expectations and challenge both their families' and society's notions of proper female comportment; for others, particularly the "mothers of all youth," activism extended domesticity to a public domain.

In Chatila Camp, the era of autonomy and communal self-sufficiency ended with the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the massacre of September 1982. Palestinians in Lebanon became vulnerable to rampant discrimination in employment as well as exceedingly vulnerable to physical attack. What followed in the late 1980s was thee years of siege by the Shi'ite militia, Amal. No one was allowed in or out of the camp and food and medical supplies were also not allowed to circulate. How did people survive in a tightly besieged camp around the size of a square kilometer for three years with daily bombardment and sniping, a high death toll and the absence of supplies? What role did women play? Women are the first to tell you that bombs and bullets do not discriminate among men, women, and children. In such a prolonged, death-provoking siege, all had a part to play.

I asked several women what they did during the years of siege. Fayha, a young woman now in her twenties, told me, "We built the trenches that linked all parts of the camp." With laughter triggered by bitterness, she said, "Don's you know - they called us rats because we lived underground for so many years. We stayed in the shelters all day and at night we had to move around so we did via trenches." Women were often very involved in baking bread and distributing rations of foodstuff. In the first rounds of fighting, the camp's perimeter was destroyed and the interior was exposed to sniper fire. Trenches were the solution to the problem of mobility under intense sniping and artillery fire. Dug at night with simple hand-held tools, the trenches were crucial not only for moving fighters and critical rations but also the wounded.

While some young women did fight, the bulk of women's actions went into sustaining the population. Sustaining the population takes on a heightened connotation in a prolonged siege, easily collapsing notions of a private/public split. Women's domestic tasks are put to the service of all in a life-sustaining venture. War dilutes the boundaries between men's work and women's work, but mainly it is women who, in addition to domestic tasks, cross the divide to take on men's work such as digging trenches. Talking to both men and women in the camps, one gets a sense of how vital a domestic component was in sustaining the whole camp during the sieges. A siege situation is fought on multiple levels - not just militarily; morale has to be high and besieged ares have to be brought under strict internal control in order to ration exceedingly limited supplies of food and fuel. Everyone in the besieged community has to be mobilized to work to maintain communications, transport, and the new provisioning of water, foodstuffs, an medical supplies. Without this support system sieges cannot be resisted, and it is women who often are the backbone of such work.

Women in Bourj al-Barajneh Camp, a neighboring camp besieged along with Chatila, explained that their ability to move from the camp into the surrounding Lebanese areas was hardly fixed. It fluctuated dramatically with transformations in the relations between the Lebanese and Palestinian communities. As the camps came under increasing siege, the checkpoints tightened their control. The checkpoints signaled a generalized sense of danger for all Palestinians, but the danger was different for women and men. While men faced a certain death and disappearance during the height of the sieges, women faced a variety of dangers, some predictable others not. Relying on cultural notions of the relative immunity of women in war, women risked existing from the camps to purchase food for their hungry families. Sniper fire was the primary danger. I would enter Bourj al-Barajneh Camp, where I also worked in the summer of 1993, from either of two entry points. After passing the main Syrian checkpoint, I would choose between two points of entry, one facing west, the other north. To enter the camp, I had to cross an open, dusty space of about fifty meters. During the siege, women who tried to exit from the narrow alleyways of the camp were often targets of snipers positioned in the four - and five-story buildings which surrounded this empty perimeter. Many women were killed by Amal sniper fire which took aim at anything that moved. Their bodies would lie in the empty spaces until someone could run out and drag them back inside the camp. These death zones dotted the camp's perimeter.

When women did manage to cross the dangerous perimeter to reach the checkpoint manned by Syrians or Amal, they would often be denied exit. Sometimes after being allowed out to purchase food, however, they would have everything taken from them at the checkpoint. Beatings and sexual molestation were not uncommon. Others were insulted in ways that conflated gender and national identity. Um Khalid told me of an incident which underscored their vulnerability as Palestinian women. Once a group of women from Chatila and she, desperate for food for their families, went to the checkpoint to try to reach the market surrounding the camp. The Amal gunman asked to see their identity cards. He took one woman's card, threw it on the ground, and spat on it, screaming, "Those without land have no honor!" He meant that since Palestinian women have dubious claims to honor (because they possess neither land nor citizenship) they are vulnerable to sexual predation. His comment was a warning of the dangers of being stateless and lacking honor. In a sense, he was announcing publicly his power to do anything he wanted since they had no protection.

Certain kinds of behavior toward women were meant to publicly humiliate Palestinians. At Bourj al-Barajneh women still talk in hushed tones of incidents of public head-shaving at the checkpoints. Groups of women would have their hair shorn by soldiers as crowds gathered to jeer and taunt. Old women were made to dance while soldiers shot around their feet. Others were made to insult Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian people. The exposure of women to such assaults and insults strained family ties. If a family was to eat, it was women who had to brave these checkpoints. Fathers and brothers had to endure the humiliation as well as the intense fear for their mothers, sisters and daughters if they were to ear.

The Shi'ite-Syrian war on the Palestinians was meant to bring about, at the minimum, their dispersal and the destruction of their camps and, at a maximum, a diminishment of their numbers such that they would never be able to regain politically in Lebanon. These attacks on women encoded a message that peace was impossible-there could be no reconciliation. The Shi'ite Militia did not see itself bound by cultural notions of warfare that granted protection to women. And once women were targeted, particularly as objects, reconciliation became more and more remote.

"Everyone is a case now," Um Khalid states matter-of-factly as we walk through Chatila in the late afternoon stopping in to say hello and inquiring about sick children, money late to arrive, medicines needed, jobs sought but not found. What Um Khalid meant was that in the days of the revolution, there was a fairly well-developed PLO infra-structure that provided access to health care, education and welfare services. The mothers or wives of martyrs received a monthly indemnity. Although small it helped ease the margins of poverty and the loss of a breadwinner. Now the number of women left behind has reached astounding proportions. Nearly every family has lost one, but often several members. With the evacuation of the resistance movement from Lebanon and the limitations put on its political and social presence in Lebanon, the safety net is no longer there. In addition, the PLO has faced financial troubles in the wake of the Gulf War. Women complained bitterly that indemnities are no longer being paid: neither are salaries of the few employees left behind.

For women, this means stretching very meager resources even further. Some of the most vocal and unrestrained critiques come from the mothers of martyrs. They see it as their right to criticize since they paid a heavy price all these years. Um Ali gave a vitriolic critique of the Palestinian leadership outside Lebanon, punctuated with statements such as they "took our blood and left" (meaning the blood of their sons). It is the extreme poverty in these camps, especially for widows with children, that dominates daily discussions. There are families in which children go to bed hungry. Since 1948 women have had to be masters of the ration system. As during the sieges, women have to juggle meager supplies of food to feed their children. Many women assert that the hardest part of the sieges were the hungry cries of their children. Hungry themselves and at times de-moralized and expecting death, they fed their children water with sugar to soothe their hunger pangs. While the shooting has stopped, the war is not over; the hunger of the siege has been replaced by the hunger of poverty.

The latest plan in a nearly 45-year campaign to fragment Palestinians in Lebanon and prevent them from organizing to return calls for the dismantlement of the Beirut camps and the dispersal of their population within Lebanon and other countries. The post war re-construction of Beirut poses new threats to women. By slating the camp areas to be sites for sports arenas and shopping malls, places of consumption and leisure, it disrupts women's ability to run their families and forces women to once again contemplate packing up and moving to a new place. Re-location means the disruption of close social and emotional ties between people who have survived the unimaginable for nearly two decades. Um Khalid sighed and commented, "How can we sleep at night wondering where we will be next year? The camp has just started to come to life. People are returning and rebuilding." During a research visit in the summer of 1994, I noted that the roadblocks had been removed and people were moving in and out freely. CArs were allowed in, which eased the burdens of carrying in building supplies. The rural atmosphere that permeated post-siege Chatila-people had been tending goats and chickens in the camp - has eased. Men were to be seen in increasing numbers and the sounds of construction reveberated through the camp. At dusk, people gathered on their roofs or in the front of their houses to drink tea and talk. Sitting on Um Khalid's roof one evening with her family and mine, Um Khalid said poignantly, "You see, Chatila is our home... I know all these people, we were through the sieges together. We are of one hand. It is like a Palestinian village here. How can we be dispersed again?"

I ask members of this once militant community of women how they plan to respond to the talk of dispersal and the erasure of the camp. Their response is muted; my questions are avoided. Is it because the questions are so painful to acknowledge or perhaps because there is no longer room for effective protest?

The Palestinian-Israeli peace accords carry a different meaning for women depending on location in the diaspora. With the guns silenced for Palestinians in Lebanon and the intifada winding down, women are shifting their work to other fronts. In the occupied territories, they are concerned with issues of legal rights and representation in the emergent Palestinian authority as well as with the continued autonomy of their grass roots organizations. In post-war Lebanon, the refugees are in a wait-and-see position; reconstruction does not bode well for women in camps on the targeted periphery of war-shattered Beirut. But for women simply to stay put and manage their families in a situation of extreme poverty and legalized discrimination (some 50 categories of employment are officially closed to Palestinians) is cast by women themselves as a form of struggle.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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