RAMALLAH—Najla Al-Shawa has lived through four wars in twelve years. The Gaza-based humanitarian worker and mother of two children says this particular round of fighting has been the most terrifying.
“Bombings have come to define our lives,” says Al-Shawa. “Last night, I held my two girls as they clung onto each other. They told me: ‘Please put your hands on my ears. I can’t hear this anymore.’”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said airstrikes on Gaza would “continue as long as necessary to restore peace to all Israeli citizens” and US President Joe Biden has said he hopes for a “sustainable calm,” according to a White House press secretary.
But the status-quo is unjust, many Palestinians say.
“When this is over, and if we are still alive, we cannot go back to square one,” says Al-Shawa. “The human lives lost cannot go in vain.”
The crippling reality of life for Gazans like Al-Shawa has fueled protests and demands — many of which are led by women — across the West Bank and inside Israel proper, for not just a halt to hostilities, but an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and years-long blockade of Gaza, as well as the persistence of the Palestinian political stalemate.
Whether behind the scenes or at the forefront of mass protests, Palestinian women are speaking out, amplifying their voices on platforms like TikTok, Twitter and Facebook, defending those who have been detained and arrested in demonstrations, and attending hearings at Israeli courts.
In recent weeks, tensions first surfaced in the predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, demonstrations and riots are taking place to protest the looming eviction of Palestinian families to make way for Israeli settlers, who say the land is rightfully theirs. Human Rights Watch has slammed the evictions as a “reality of apartheid” while Israel’s Foreign Ministry has said it is simply a private “real estate dispute.”
Hostilities quickly escalated when Israeli forces raided Al-Aqsa mosque in early May, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, leading to further protests by Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. On May 10, Hamas militants began firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel from Gaza, which the group said was in retaliation for Israel’s raid on Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. Israeli forces pummeled the besieged strip in response.
Since then, Israeli airstrikes and shelling have leveled over a hundred buildings, media offices, clinics and homes in Gaza, displacing an estimated 58,000 people and killing at least 219 people, many of whom Palestinians say are civilians, including 63 children. Hamas long-range rockets – most of which have been intercepted by the US-funded Iron Dome system – have rained down on Israel, killing at least 12 Israeli residents and citizens, including two children.
One young outspoken woman is Muna El-Kurd, who, along with her brother Mahmoud El-Kurd, have become de facto spokespeople for the Sheikh Jarrah movement, supporting the families facing eviction and documenting the Israeli security force’s use of “skunk water,” water cannons and stun grenades against protesters. Muna and her brother’s social media presence is a central source for journalists reporting on the situation, chronicling the nightly vigils and iftar — the Ramadan meal eaten by Muslims after sunset – that were held in front of their house.
“In Israel, [Palestinian] women are very active,” says Ines Abdel Razek, an advocacy director for the Ramallah-based Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy. “You have the movement Tal’at (which roughly translates in Arabic to rising up) and other grass-roots movements where you can see women leading and that’s amazing that women are much more present.”
Tal’at is a self-identifying Palestinian political feminist movement who say they aim to end femicide, domestic violence, sexism and exploitation against Palestinian women, while affirming that the path to Palestinians’ liberation from Israel’s militarily-enforced occupation must include women.
Women are seen on the front lines daily on social media platforms, posting videos under the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah or going live on Facebook or Instagram.
“Women have a use of social media that has been critical in getting the word out and getting the outreach that some of these movements, protests and popular resistance has had in the past few weeks,” says Abdel Razek.
Meanwhile, residents inside mixed Palestinian-Jewish cities speak of rising fear of civil war as rival mobs attack Jewish and Palestinian people, homes, cars and businesses. Several recorded incidents have surfaced on social media, prompting outrage.
One shows a mob attacking a popular Palestinian-owned ice cream parlor in Bat Yam, a coastal city just south of Tel Aviv, then quickly turning to a driver, believed to be Arab, and attacking him. In another attack, in Mahane Yehuda, a popular market in Jerusalem, a Jewish mob reportedly stabbed a Palestinian man, seriously wounding him. Israeli media has reported that Jewish mobs have been roaming the streets of Haifa and Tiberias, chanting, “death to Arabs.”
A Jewish man suffered a head wound in Acre after a group of Palestinians pelted him with rocks and sticks, according to media reports. In another incident, in Lod, an assailant stabbed an Israeli man near a mosque while he was on his way to a synagogue.
In Sheikh Jarrah, in the vicinity of Damascus Gate and across the West Bank, Israeli forces have detained dozens of mostly young men as protests flare. Israeli forces shot and killed four Palestinian protesters this week, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, including a 16-year-old.
On Tuesday, young Palestinian women and men, along with other civil society groups, held a general strike throughout Israel and the occupied West Bank. The strike, which has not been held on both sides of the Green Line simultaneously in decades, has broken the prevalent political and geographical fragmentation, building up unity between Palestinians across various spaces.
On social media platforms, photographs and short videos are circulating widely showing Israeli forces shoving female Palestinian activists to the ground, and in one case, dragging a female protester, Miriam Afifi, by her hijab down the street.
“[On May 13] alone, the Israelis arrested 38 Palestinians and more than half of the attorneys representing them from Adalah [a legal center in Israel] are Palestinian women, so they’re [present and active] on the organizing level, on the leading level and on the defending level,” says Diana Buttu, a lawyer from Haifa and a former legal advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, an umbrella group that includes most Palestinian political parties.
Buttu, who is also a mother of a seven-year-old boy, spoke of living in fear in Haifa, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, where she says Palestinian houses have been marked by mobs by day only to be attacked at night. At least two friends have recently survived home-invasion style attacks inside their homes, she says.
“[My son is] asking what’s going on and I’m too scared to tell him,” Buttu says. “He hears the videos that I’m watching – he understands them obviously so it’s too scary for me to tell him what’s going on. I don’t know what to say.”
Buttu’s fear is that these attacks will continue into the foreseeable future, especially on women who are easily identified as Palestinian. “I’m terrified for women who are wearing hijab,” she says. “What about…when some of these women have to return to jobs in Israeli towns? What’s going to happen to them?”
Despite the violence, young women and girls have managed to overcome political obstacles, denouncing both Fatah and Hamas, the political parties ruling in the West Bank and Gaza respectively, says Nour Odeh, a Ramallah-based communications specialist and founding member of the Democratic National Assembly, a new Palestinian political movement.
“They are in a different place from where this calcified Palestinian politics is,” Odeh says. “You see young women hand in hand with young men on the streets across the occupied West Bank and they are articulate, they are strong. They know exactly what they want and what needs to happen to bring justice to their people.”