Three days before Hamas committed the bloodiest attack on Israeli civilians in that country’s history, four days before the Israel Defense Forces responded with the most devastating collective punishment of Palestinian civilians in a long history of collective punishment, Palestinian and Israeli feminists gathered to demand peace.
On October 4, hundreds of them, dressed in white and turquoise, in hijabs and sun hats, met at the wall between West Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank (many Palestinian women missed the event because they could not get authorization to cross). Under a canopy of white umbrellas, they walked to the Tolerance Monument in Jerusalem for a rally, then rode to the Dead Sea. On the beach around a symbolic negotiating table, alongside diplomats and other public figures, they read a “mothers’ call” for a nonviolent resolution to the conflict.
Written jointly by the Israeli organization Women Wage Peace and the Palestinian Women of the Sun, the declaration begins: “We, Palestinian and Israeli mothers, are determined to stop the vicious cycle of bloodshed and to change the reality of the difficult conflict between both nations, for the benefit of our children.”
Or, as Huda Abu Arqoub, director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, put it: “We want our kids to be alive rather than dead.”
Calling the document a “mothers’ call” is both heartfelt and strategic. “Women and children,” especially “mothers and children,” is both powerful and pernicious. For the press, it is convenient shorthand for “human.” For propagandists, it raises any stakes. Hamas is “a murderous terror group, responsible for the murders and kidnappings of babies, women, children and the elderly,” declares the IDF. For some feminists, it signals that the biological capacity to give birth makes women naturally pacific and confers a unique responsibility to oppose violence.
At the same time, the trope “women and children” infantilizes women. It’s worse to kill a woman than a man because women, like children, are defenseless, passive, innocent. This is ironic in Israel, a nation that prides itself on gender equality as a founding principle and mandates military service for all adult Israeli citizens (except Arab Israelis and Orthodox Jews). It is insulting in a conflict where women, both Israeli and Palestinian, are the boldest peacemakers.
Should women speak as women against war? It’s a point of perpetual feminist debate. But this much is indisputable: Feminists should, and must, speak as feminists against this war, against Israel’s occupation and its current pummeling of Gaza. Said the veteran Israeli feminist Hannah Safran: “How can you ask freedom for yourself if you don’t ask it for other people?”
In fact, as the guardians of everyday life, women are disproportionately affected by war and occupation. A 2022 statement from the director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, a feminist human rights organization in the West Bank city of Ramallah, describes how Israeli policies such as home demolition, movement restrictions, night raids, and child arrests increase the burdens of family and household, reinforcing women’s “traditional roles within the Palestinian patriarchal society.” Coupled with discriminatory laws pertaining to family reunification and marriage and cultural policing by radical Islamists, these policies exaggerate male domination and female dependency and trap women in abusive relationships.
Women are also differently affected: Violence is gendered. “In conflict settings, rape and sexual violence are used as strategic, systematic, and calculated tools of war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide,” write the authors of a recently published study of wartime rape in Ethiopia. They cite some rough prevalence rates: 39 percent of women raped during the Rwandan genocide, 25 percent in Azerbaijan, 33.5 percent in Liberia. Rape, they write, may also be “a final act of humiliation before killing the victim.” Those who survive often become social pariahs, their children banished from the community as spawns of the enemy.
But if this specificity of experience inspires women to speak as women against war, it is the embrace of universal human rights that has mobilized contemporary feminist movements for Palestinian liberation and nonviolent reconciliation.
For Palestinian feminists both in the Middle East and the diaspora, the connections between male domination and colonial oppression are self-evident. The U.S.-based Palestinian Feminist Collective, for instance, describes itself as “a body of Palestinian and Arab feminists committed to Palestinian social and political liberation by confronting systemic gendered, sexual, and colonial violence, oppression, and dispossession.” The Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling bridges “the need to address discrimination and violence against women within Palestinian society, and the need to support the national struggle for freedom and independence from Israeli occupation.”
Filastiniyat, which supports female journalists, particularly from Gaza, and publishes their work on the NAWA Online Women Media Network, also advocates “on issues related to freedoms, media development, women’s rights, and human rights.” Lest anyone think this media organization is a neutral platform, its hashtag is #GazaGenocide.
It took Israeli feminists a while to connect the dots. “In the past we would say we are feminist to struggle for women’s rights and to go to the army, and it had no relationship to the situation of Palestine,” Safran told the journalist Peter Beinart. The Israel Women’s Network, founded in 1984 by the recently deceased second-wave leader Alice Shalvi, has long advocated for women’s equal participation in every aspect of Israeli public life, including the military.
But not every second-wave feminist wanted in on everything Israeli men were doing. Marcia Freedman, a U.S.-born left-wing feminist who was the first openly lesbian member of the Knesset, was early to champion a two-state solution. The IDF’s rhetoric about protecting women and children notwithstanding, she saw the link between militarism and violence against women. In 1976, Freedman introduced the issue of domestic violence to the governing body, where she was ridiculed and dismissed.
The Israel Women’s Network “were fighting for women to be pilots. [They believed] we have to be in every place where there is decision-making power,” said Safran. In Israel, a high military rank is almost a prerequisite for high political office. “We did not support women” — or anybody — “joining the army.”
On this point, liberal feminism won the day. Thanks to decades of lawsuits and legislative battles, women’s presence in the IDF has steadily increased in every function and at every rank. But a thoroughly militarized society like Israel’s — basic training “turns civilians into soldiers,” boasts the IDF — is a masculinist society. And that means women must be feminized, even while carrying guns. Women are exempted from service when they start doing womanly things, like marrying and having children. They are rarely called up as reservists, 360,000 of whom have been mobilized to fight in Gaza. And while women have risen in the ranks, male soldiers keep them in their place. A 2021 government report found that over a third of women serving in the armed forces had been sexually harassed.
The public demonstration by Israelis of the conviction that a movement for women’s full citizenship must be for everyone’s full citizenship was a first step toward collaboration across the checkpoints. During the Second Intifada, the leaderless Women in Black began vigils every Friday against the occupation. Soon, Arab Israelis joined the demonstrations, and Women in Black spread to Palestine and around the world.
Eventually, some liberal feminists came around too. In 1991, after more than a decade directing an experimental school in Jerusalem for Orthodox girls, Shalvi was forced to resign. It was not because she instituted controversial programs, like classes in family planning and conflict resolution, but because she invited Arab girls to those classes, participated in dialogues with Palestinian women, and supported the Israel–Palestine peace process.
If not every feminist, whether Palestinian or Israeli, makes these links among women’s, Palestinians’, and human rights, their enemies certainly do. The situations are not exactly parallel, but feminists in both Israel and the Palestinian territories are under attack by the most tribalist elements of their societies, each of which envisions its own version of a “pure” society, whose achievement requires the modesty, piety, and subservience of women.
In forming a coalition between his own Likud and the extreme-right Religious Zionists, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu created the most radically nationalist and religiously influenced government in Israel’s history. Among its targets for destruction are women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. It turned the formerly independent Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women into a politically appointed body. It rescinded support for the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and weakened anti-discrimination laws and enforcement of protection orders against domestic abusers — even as femicide is reportedly rising, with most of the murders committed by male partners or family members.
The messianic Zionists who want to expand Jewish ownership to every inch of territory from the Jordan River to the sea are equally eager to erase women from every inch of public life. The effort to kneecap the Supreme Court is coupled by efforts to fortify the rabbinic courts and, indeed, transform Israel into a theocracy where civil, criminal, and personal life conforms to rigid halachic, or religious Jewish, law. One of the goals of the religious parties is to end gender integration in the army and finally get women out altogether. Women’s job is to make and raise as many Jewish babies as possible.
In Netanyahu’s administration, only nine of 64 positions are occupied by women. Perhaps the most cynical appointment is May Golan as minister for the advancement of women. A virulent hawk and self-proclaimed “proud racist,” Golan is also no friend of feminist peaceniks, to say the least. “I’ve never seen so many feminists being silent at the same time,” she told a sycophantic interviewer on TalkTV last week. “The only time they’re silent is when a Jewish woman or an Israeli woman is being raped or murdered.” During a 20-minute rant, she invoked her bona fides “as a woman and as the minister for the advancement of women” to legitimize her conviction that Palestinians in Gaza, all of them, deserve no mercy. “I know the situation of Arab women around the world,” she declared. “This is a dark, dark culture. … The difference between us and them [is] between good and evil.”
Meanwhile, in Gaza and the West Bank, radical Islamists including Hamas are growing increasingly repressive and aggressive. At mosques and on social media, campaigns against child marriage and gender-based violence, and for safe abortion, gender equality within the marriage, LGBTQ+ rights, and sexual freedoms are denounced as corrupting “foreign agendas” in violation of Shariah law. Attacks on feminists, journalists, LGBTQ+ people, and human rights advocates are constant, and sometimes fatal. These are not the acts of rogue terrorists. The Ministry of Education in the West Bank, for instance, is cracking down on women’s studies and eliminating many secular, rights-based programs in public schools.
According to Amnesty International, “Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip continued to heavily restrict freedom of expression, association, and assembly. They also held scores of people in arbitrary detention and subjected many to torture and other ill-treatment.” Twenty-nine killings of women and girls by family members were reported in the occupied territories in 2022, but the courts impeded complaints of domestic violence. In July of that year, “security forces stood by and watched as a mob beat youths and children participating in a parade … in Ramallah that included rainbow flags.”
Religious fundamentalists on both sides accuse feminists of fomenting chaos by undermining gender and the patriarchal family. Ultranationalists condemn feminist human rights advocates for muddying the lines of battle by insisting on the equal value of every life. These accusers are right.
Feminism is, at heart, a movement against domination. It is feminist to demand an end to Israeli apartheid and occupation of Palestinian lands. Feminism is a movement against violence. It is feminist to denounce barbarity, no matter how enormous the crimes that motivate it. To oppose domination and violence, feminists — not as women or mothers, Israelis or Palestinians — must demand an immediate ceasefire and end to the siege, an arms embargo from the Western powers, and the implementation of a massive humanitarian operation in Gaza.
Feminism is a movement built on the possibility of profound human transformation. That means sustaining a belief in the possibility of a negotiated solution in Israel–Palestine, whether one state or two, with freedom and democratic rights for all.