As a Palestinian woman living in East Jerusalem, I often find myself with the same group of women when participating in activities related to peacebuilding and Track II negotiations. I often ask myself, why it is that in one of the most contested cities in the world, those who are most affected by the political realities are also the most marginalized and least represented. I refer, not only to the more than 350,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem but rather, more specifically, to the women who make up almost 50% of that number.
In this article, I will examine the reasons behind that marginalization and lack of representation, despite the fact that both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli government have ratified United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which addresses how women and girls are disproportionally impacted by violent conflict and war and recognizes the critical role that women can — and already do — play in peacebuilding efforts. Resolution 1325 affirms that peace and security efforts are more sustainable when women are equal partners in the prevention of violent conflict, the delivery of relief and recovery efforts, and the forging of lasting peace.
In order to answer the question about marginalization and lack of representation, one must first look at the unique situation in which the residents of East Jerusalem live at the political level compared with their situation before the annexation in 1967 and dig deeper into the social context to understand how those factors have affected the reality of and opportunities for Palestinian women in the city.
Early Years of Women’s Activism in Jerusalem
Historically, since the beginning of the 20th century, Palestinian women have participated in political and social activities. Women’s charitable institutions, such as orphanages and senior centers, were the main core of their effective participation, which helped integrate Palestinian women into the social issues of the Palestinian community. The political circumstances in Palestine from the British Mandate to the Israeli occupation, however, helped crystalize the political direction of Palestinian women’s participation, as represented in demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, and protest petitions.
One notable event in which women not only from Jerusalem but from across historical Palestine participated was in 1929, when Palestinian women launched a movement whose inaugural event was the convening in Jerusalem of the Palestine Arab Women’s Congress. More than 200 women attended the Congress, which passed resolutions addressing the national problem and pledged to “support all resolutions, decisions, and demands of the Arab Executive.” At the end of the discussion, the women held a concluding session in which an Arab Women’s Executive Committee (AWE) was elected to execute and administer the Congress’s resolutions. Although the resolutions of the AWE’s subsequent activities focused primarily on the national issue, the movement clearly situated gender at the forefront of its political consciousness.
Between 1948 and 1967, Palestinian society witnessed the Nakba (catastrophe) and its terrible effects on political, economic, and social aspects. Women’s organizations played a huge role in enhancing social life by providing social care services at orphanages and delivering humanitarian and aid relief, such as food, water, housing, and clothing, to affected families. In addition, women, including those from Jerusalem, participated in many international conferences, such as the Asian-African convention held in Cairo in 1961, where Palestinian women were able to influence the convention to announce that “Israel is a colonial entity” and gain support for Palestinians’ rights, especially the right of return.
Activism Following Unilateral Annexation
In June of 1967, Israel conquered East Jerusalem and the West Bank (in addition to the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gaza Strip). Later that month, Israel unilaterally — and in contravention of international law — annexed the 7 square kilometers of East Jerusalem and over 60 square kilometers of the West Bank that surrounds it. These areas were incorporated into one unit named East Jerusalem and made subject to the Jerusalem Municipality and to Israeli law.
Once annexed, the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were not invited to join the Israeli political entity; rather, they were merely granted the status of “permanent resident” — a status significantly lesser than that of citizen and one that is also subject to revocation. As a result of annexation, the Palestinians — many of whom were multi-generation Jerusalemites — suddenly became stateless residents lacking political rights and sentenced to constant uncertainty and impermanence. Permanent residents are not eligible to vote, nor can they run as candidates in Knesset elections. Palestinians in East Jerusalem may not freely organize or engage with their political leadership, physically and socially develop their communities, or choose where they live without running the risk of having their residency status revoked.
Nevertheless, and despite the restrictions imposed by the Israeli government, the Palestinian women in East Jerusalem remained active, especially through the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the charitable associations, and the Women’s Union. The qualitative change for women took place in 1978, when Palestinian political parties decided to frame women’s political participation and involve women from rural and urban areas and refugee camps in political parties. Women have been active in various spheres of life: political, social, cultural, health, and national. When the first intifada began in 1987, Palestinian women in East Jerusalem emerged clearly in their struggle through demonstrations, imprisonment, and participation in armed resistance; women’s leaders, such as Zahira Kamal; Sama Aweidah, who is now director of the Women’s Studies Center in Jerusalem; and many others, appeared in a number of left-wing parties and as members of other parties.
It is important to note that some women faced social backlash for political participation. For example, although many women who were imprisoned were glorified during their incarceration, soon after their release they often faced social obstacles, including not being able to marry or find employment. Furthermore, women were still often defined in relation to men, such as mothers and wives, as demonstrated by many political posters from the period.1
Palestinian women in East Jerusalem were also involved in the political sphere through different Palestinian Institutions in Jerusalem, such as the Orient House. An activist who now lives in Ramallah testifies how the Orient House was the hub for political activism, serving not only East Jerusalem but the Palestinian cause in general. Another explains how she, together with both men and women colleagues, were equal in terms of tasks, roles, and responsibilities within specific political parties. Kamal, a Jerusalemite, was also one of three women who were involved in the peace negotiations in the 1990s.
The Oslo Period
Following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, most Palestinian political activity shifted to Ramallah, and during the second intifada, the Israeli government shut down the city’s remaining Palestinian institutions, such as Orient House and the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce. Consequently, Palestinian economic power bases also shifted to Ramallah at the expense of East Jerusalem.
That had devastating effects on the participation of women from East Jerusalem. First, the absence of Palestinian national representation left a leadership void in the city. Increasingly, political Islamic movements started to fill the gap, not by offering women the opportunity to participate in the public sphere but rather by controlling the Palestinian public through women. They claimed that Palestine wouldn’t be liberated unless strict Islamic rules are applied and followed, thereby limiting the space where women could actually participate.
Second, the political parties themselves saw an opportunity in the establishment of the PA. Positions within the political parties were divided according to interest rather than actual activism and given mainly to men. Many women who were very active did not attain high ranks within the political parties, and some even decided to withdraw from any political activity and focus on social activism.
Severing Jerusalem from the West Bank
The construction of the separation wall resulted in migration into the city by Palestinians who were cut off by the wall or who had temporarily left Jerusalem and returned in order not to lose their residency status. At the same time, East Jerusalem residents became increasingly dependent on sources of employment in the Jewish sector or West Jerusalem because of their increasing physical disconnection from the West Bank as well as lack of employment and economic opportunities in East Jerusalem. The economic impact of this disconnect on women’s participation has two components: early marriage into poverty and low educational attainment. As young men drop out of school to work in low-paying jobs in West Jerusalem, by the age of 22 many marry women who are usually between the ages of 17 and 20. Women in these circumstances find themselves obliged to be responsible for a family with low income. Reports produced by Israeli human rights organizations show that the level of poverty in East Jerusalem is as high as 77% — not to mention the gender-based violence, drug abuse, and social restrictions in the most marginalized areas of the city.
One very important element besides the political implications of the Oslo Accords is the decline in educational attainment. Reports show that some 44% of women in East Jerusalem between ages 25 and 64 did not complete 12 years of schooling, and only 2% of them are employed. This lack of education and the absence of any political activity in East Jerusalem make it very difficult for women to be motivated or even aware that they have a role to play in the public sphere. The unique situation of East Jerusalem is such that the Palestinian residents pay their taxes as citizens do but choose not to participate in the municipal elections, either through representation or by casting their vote. One example is a young Palestinian woman who was a member of a group of Palestinians from Jerusalem who wanted to run in the municipal elections in 2018. The members had to withdraw as because of backlash from Palestinians as well as the Israeli right wing. The main dilemma is that even though residents pay taxes, any participation at the political level with the Israeli-run Jerusalem Municipality is regarded as normalization. This also applies to approaching the Israeli police to ask for protection from gender-based violence.
Unique Challenges Create Different Priorities
In an interview, Aweidah she highlighted the connection between lack of participation and the political violence Palestinians face in East Jerusalem. With continued home demolitions, children held in detention, police violence, and poverty, the priority of women living in Jerusalem is very different from other women who don’t face such challenges. The women in East Jerusalem are preoccupied with planning how to protect their children, provide an income, and ensure that they have a roof above their head. Moreover, very few Palestinian women know Hebrew, and all fear being harassed by special army or police patrols or right-wingers. The security situation gives greater force to family objections to participation in the public sphere.
These combined factors only create a more conservative and traditional society compared with that which existed before the Oslo Accords. More restrictions are imposed on women’s movement and life choices, especially by male peers but by other women as well. On different social media outlets, more young men and other women have negatively commented on women who “leave their homes” or dress in a non-Islamic way, asserting that a woman’s role is bearing and raising children. Some political Islamic parties feed into this narrative during the Friday sermons. They heavily criticize any human rights or women’s rights organizations who implement political empowerment projects, especially in East Jerusalem. Ironically, those parties are not allowed to give Friday sermons in the PA-controlled West Bank but are freely spreading their ideology in East Jerusalem with the consent of the Israeli authorities.
Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The question then remains: Can women in East Jerusalem play a role? And can we define participation within the framework of 1325 beyond political participation? I believe that within the given circumstances and based on their very astute understanding of their situation, East Jerusalem women are navigating existing options that allow them to have an impact or at least improve their living situation. MiniActive is such an example. Women from some of the most marginalized neighborhoods in East Jerusalem formed a movement that negotiates with the municipality to improve their neighborhoods. They were able to increase the level of sanitation by demanding their rights as taxpayers, for example; however, they refused to participate in any other activity, such as dialogue with Israeli peers or dealing with the municipality on a wider scale.
Other well-known Palestinian women focus their efforts on civil society-related work that includes women’s economic empowerment, art and culture, and other social issues that are removed from politics. They also refuse to have connections or get grants from Israeli-related entities or the municipality, because this contradicts with their national identity and is considered normalization. Another role which is very specific to the women in the city is the protection of Al-Aqsa mosque by physical presence in the mosque and by delivering religion classes. Many of them were imprisoned by the Israeli forces for their activism in the compound.
In conclusion, women in East Jerusalem are caught between a rock and a hard place, in a cycle that needs to be broken; they suffer equally from the political oppression of occupation in the city and from gender norms that restrict their access to a proper education and employment. The disconnect between them and the PLO political factions, the General Women’s Union, and other women’s rights organizations creates a unique conservative identity that limits their role within the private, the religious, and the social spheres and makes no allowances with regard to political participation and representation. Women who are identified as leaders within East Jerusalem should engage with the PA to start a debate on the special situation of Jerusalem and what is considered normalization. Furthermore, the women in the city should unite to start a movement that aims to not only improve the situation of others in the city but also participate as the Palestinian feminist voice from East Jerusalem within the PA and in the Jerusalem Municipality, because as late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
1 Hawari, Yara. “The Political Marginalization of Palestinian Women,”Al-Shabaka, 2019. https://alshabaka.