It’s a crisp December morning in As Samu’, a small village in the South Hebron Hills. Huddled together over a pot of freshly brewed, beautifully strong Arabic coffee, a group of Palestinian women have gathered to work on their brightly coloured knitwear, part of a micro-business operation which they have started together with support from ActionAid. Chatting about this and that, from the art of brewing the perfect coffee, where the thin layer of light brown foam is just right, to book keeping, to the most recent home search by Israeli soldiers, it’s business as usual for the women in this sleepy West Bank village only few kilometres from the Separation Wall.
Business as usual, maybe. But what the Palestinian people endure on a daily basis is far from what may ever be considered ‘normal’. All over the territory, an intricate system of permits and army-controlled checkpoints severely limits people’s ability to lead a normal life. Palestinians report that nightly house searches by the Israeli military, demolition orders for family homes to make room for illegal Israeli settlements, arrests and administrative detentions without trial have become the fabric of everyday life.Everyone over the age of 10 has experienced the trauma of armed conflict. The recent bombing in Gaza and flare-up of violence and protests in the West Bank, brought to the surface many vivid memories of war carried around by every Palestinian. Fearing the military would once again close the checkpoints between cities in response to the protests, shop owners would close their stores early and rush home to be with their families. When visiting our communities in the villages around Hebron, we found that the members of our women’s groups had stayed at home, in fear over what they might have to face outside. Yet even on a day like today, where the roads are quiet once again and the tumultuous events of the past few weeks have become but one more on a long list of unpleasant memories, in the most marginalised communities the freedom to leave the homes and attend a women’s group meeting is still something many women can only dream of.
Finding the strength within
In a situation of prolonged military occupation and oppression, civil rights – especially women’s rights – are often the first to be sacrificed. Ironically, the challenges posed by the occupation can start to reinforce or become excuses for rights violations in the home. This is why we’re here. ActionAid’s programs in the West Bank are designed to strengthen and protect these basic rights, by empowering even the most marginalised people to claim them.
With less than equitable gender relations, women in particular have to work extra hard to enjoy their freedoms and claim their rights. The oppression they face comes from two fronts, the external threats due to the conflict, and the power-relations in the home. The right to move around in her own village – to attend a women’s group, pursue an education, take a job – is thus not only up to the current security situation, it is also a question of goodwill from her husband, sons, father and brothers-in-law. ActionAid helps women organise themselves, for example to take out loans to start their own small-scale businesses. Creating and working with these women’s groups, giving the women a space to meet and talk or knit or drink coffee is thus about much more than just socialising or helping them achieve economic security. It is about networking and solidarity building, about creating an environment where the women’s confidence about claiming their rights can grow, while enhancing their resilience in the face of economic and social hardship resulting from the occupation.
Not surprisingly, after 45 years of oppression and the lack of a legitimate government, the right to be heard by and to influence the decision-makers is also not something Palestinians can take for granted. This is why we also work with local community organisations: to ensure from a grassroots level and upwards, that despite the ongoing occupation, the voices of the community – men and women, rich and poor – get a fair and equal hearing on matters that affect their lives.
Looking beyond occupation
Last week, after the world media turned their attention from the burning buildings of Gaza to the imposing hall of the United Nations General Assembly, the people of Palestine finally got a small taste of what it is like to be heard: with a 138-9 vote in favour of Palestine, the United Nations showed its support for the Palestinians’ claiming the right to be citizens in their own state, a right that the rest of the world takes for granted but which has been denied to Palestinians for decades. Not yet a game-changer, but an important step in the right direction.
Now, as both the protests and celebrations have quieted down, a sobered tranquillity has descended over the West Bank. Last week’s flash of hope has given way to cautious optimism, mixed with an experienced portion of apprehension. Political resolutions have been signed before, yet barely changing the temperature of the conflict, nor the situation on the ground. Palestinian State or not, for the women in As Samu’, military occupation is still a fact of life. It is a long road yet before we can rest in the knowledge that the life lived by Palestinians is finally ‘normal’.