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Palestinian women's unique struggle against occupation: MEMO in Conversation with Amani Mustafa

The prolonged nature of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land has meant women have to make life altering decisions from a very early age, the country director for Women for Women International in Palestine tells MEMO, their struggle is unique but women have been instrumental in rebuilding and healing their communities.

June 5, 2024 at 4:00 pm



“Every time there’s a crisis, you will find women carrying the whole family on their shoulders. They are constantly building and rebuilding to change lives and nurture a new generation full of hope,” says Amani Mustafa, the Country Director for Women for Women International (WfWI) in Palestine.

As Israel continues its military onslaught against the besieged Gaza Strip, women and children make up the majority of the death toll – at least 56 percent, according to the UN.

Palestinian women are also being deliberately targeted in the West Bank, where their stories largely remain untold. Mustafa explains that these women navigate daily challenges, from military checkpoints to societal pressures, all while striving to protect and provide for their families.

Growing up in the Occupied West Bank, Mustafa experienced first-hand the impact of conflict on women and children. “The fear of raids and detentions by Israeli soldiers was a constant presence during my childhood,” she recalls. “This volatile and militarised environment shaped my understanding of the importance of supporting women in conflict zones because I deeply understand the fear and anxiety it creates.”

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This understanding led her to join WfWI, an organisation dedicated to supporting women survivors of war and conflict in some of the world’s most affected countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Palestine is the organisation’s newest focus, with initiatives aimed at addressing the unique challenges faced by Palestinian women.

“The context in Palestine is highly volatile. I’ve been in close contact with women in Gaza since the early days of the latest escalation,” Mustafa says. “Many moments left me feeling paralysed, unable to imagine how anyone could live without basic necessities, like washrooms. Women have been queuing for hours just to use bathrooms, often in makeshift tents packed with over 30 people.”

Violence in the West Bank has also escalated, yet often seems to be overlooked. “More than 200,000 Palestinians have lost their livelihoods, particularly those working in Israeli construction and farming, leaving them unable to access basic necessities like food and medical care,” Mustafa says. “In areas like Hebron H2, which is under complete lockdown, the situation is particularly severe.”

Nightly raids have become even more frequent and are now taking place in broad daylight, targeting young Palestinian who throw stones, bystanders and anyone who resists the Israeli military’s attacks.

At least 505 Palestinians have been killed in the Occupied West Bank since the 7 October attacks on Israel, according to data confirmed by the UN.

This escalating violence has forced WfWI to adapt its approach to meet the urgent needs of Palestinian women by working closely with local partners to provide vocational training, psychosocial and legal aid and essential services like help lines and shelters for survivors of violence.

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Those familiar with Palestinian history know that women have historically led Palestinian society. It has been a very progressive society where women are educated and have played leading roles, even as farmers or shepherds, noted Mustafa.

However, the escalation of violence imposed by Israel, including the expansion of settlements, increased settler attacks on Palestinian families and farmers, and the rising number of checkpoints have significantly affected daily life. As a result, it is fostering a more conservative society.

In an attempt to protect women, there is an over-protectiveness that is denying them the right to live freely, limiting their access to proper education, the liberty to go to the market, seek employment or marry as they wish.

One poignant story shared with WfWI illustrates the damaging impact of Israel’s long-term Occupation, often leading to conservative societal shifts as families seek to protect their daughters, sometimes resorting to early marriages as a means of protection.

“A woman from Hebron H2 area shared how her daughter faces daily harassment at checkpoints, preventing her from accessing education and basic freedoms,” Mustafa recounts. “She told me not to talk of any women rights, etc., as it was safer to get their daughters married at an early age because it is better than having their daughter go to university and being harassed at a checkpoint.”

Recognising the importance of respecting cultural contexts while striving to empower women and girls, Mustafa emphasises, “We support communities in finding better solutions that protect women without causing harm. Our approach is about understanding and building on the power of women.”

The organisation’s work in Palestine is not just about immediate relief, but also about long-term empowerment and change.

In Gaza too, Israel’s weaponisation of basic needs, like food and hygiene, is a cruel tactic in its war against the region. Thousands of trucks of food, water and medical supplies remain stranded on the Egyptian side of the Crossing, awaiting Israel’s approval to enter the besieged Strip to help alleviate the crises facing Palestinian civilians, including pregnant women.

Babies are being born in tents, with umbilical cords cut using whatever sharp objects are available. Caesareans, which are painful even under normal conditions, are being performed without any anaesthesia by surgeons who lack even basic supplies like water for washing their hands or antibiotics to prevent infections.

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In some cases, as reported by The Washington Post, caesareans have been performed on women post-mortem.

The details are unfathomable, states Mustafa. Community kitchens provide some relief, but the food is insufficient. “Women skip meals to save food for their children, leading to severe malnutrition, especially among pregnant women,” notes Mustafa. The lack of privacy and hygiene exacerbates their plight. “Women reported using fabric scraps ripped from the tent as sanitary pads and bleeding in front of others. This physical and psychological trauma leaves indelible scars on their hearts and minds,” Mustafa explains. “Women tell me they look in the mirror and no longer recognise themselves,” she adds.

Moreover, forced displacement has pushed over a million Palestinians out of Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, mostly into tent camps that have arisen across central and southern Gaza.

“Women reported walking for hours, carrying their belongings, unable to find any form of transport. Even when they reached a destination, they often had to continue walking, unable to find shelter,” says Mustafa.

Despite their exhaustion, these women continue to care for their children, many of whom are now orphans due to the war. Comparing the situation in Gaza to other conflict zones worldwide, Mustafa highlights that, while women’s stories might seem similar, the Palestinian experience is distinct due to the prolonged nature and magnitude of the conflict.

“This is the last Occupation in the world,” she says. “Palestinian women face bereavement, imprisonment, torture and daily attacks. The blockade and military Occupation create unparalleled hardships.”

Even if the war ends, the road to recovery will be long and arduous. “Rebuilding Gaza and the healing process will take decades,” she notes. “Women will have to navigate life as widows and bereaved mothers. With infrastructure destroyed, what future awaits them?”

Israeli bombardments and ground operations in Gaza have killed more than 36,000 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry.

Despite the bleak reality, Mustafa remains hopeful. “In times of crisis, anxiety about the future is natural, but we must believe that tomorrow can be better,” she says. “We cannot afford to lose hope. When it’s time to rebuild Gaza, it will be the Palestinian woman at the forefront.”

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