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The Second Intifada : The Women’s Movement at a Crossroads

In the midst of building civil society institutions, far from achieving any progress in the national struggle against the occupation, the outbreak of the Second Intifada put major questions about the relationship between nationalism and democracy before women’s institutions and committees. [1] The Second Intifada of 2000 and afterwards, as well as the Israeli invasion of Palestinian Authority (PA) territories in 2002, uncovered the crisis of the Palestinian national movement, the Palestinian Authority in general and, in particular, the women’s movement. Popular resistance and the oppression of the occupation pushed the national agenda to the forefront.

While the women’s committees maintained their social support programs, non-governmental women’s institutions were forced to reassess their agenda, especially in terms of their relationship with political parties and the national struggle. We cannot be sure of any results of those changes. However, there were hints of a revivifi cation of the women’s movement noted through the growing role of women inside political parties and organizations. This is indicated by the results in the Palestinian local elections in their first and second stages, as they included a larger percentage of women in local councils ; women’s affiliation with the various movements, especially Islamic parties, and also the rise in the number of Palestinian women political prisoners. The PA eventually created the Women’s Affairs Ministry in response to these developments.

Women’s Affairs Ministry

The Women’s Affairs Ministry was established on March 11, 2004 with the appointment of Zahira Kamal as minister. Part of the impetus for its establishment came from the pressure of donors and women’s organizations to grant women more effective decision-making power in the Palestinian Authority. On February 5, 2005 the minister said to Al Quds newspaper that “this ministry was established in appreciation of the major role Palestinian women played in the struggle and in order to develop government action towards social issues. It was also created to advance the situation of women in social and political life and to work towards achieving equality between men and women through formulating a general policy that seeks to narrow the gap between them.”

Previously, the PA had women’s departments in its various ministries. This was often a way of disregarding and further marginalizing women, rather than a way of including them in decision making within the PA.

Regardless of the reasons behind the creation of the Women’s Affairs Ministry, women’s committees and institutions looked eagerly towards it as a tool to ratify legislation that includes women in the national plan to advance women’s status and integrates women into the state building and decision making processes. They looked to the ministry as a tool to monitor women’s situations in the various government jobs and as a link between the nongovernmental women’s institutions and committees and the PA. This enthusiasm turned into confusion when Hamas took over the PA and appointed an Islamic-affiliated minister. Hamas was backed into a corner by the ministry and, thus, changed their stance on women’s involvement in politics. This was illustrated when they changed their slogan to “Yes to a women’s ministry, but !”, leaving the women’s committees dumbfounded.

Palestinian Women Prisoners : A Return to Political Parties

Since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000, over 300 Palestinian women and girls have been arrested as part of the struggle against the occupation. Today, approximately 126 women prisoners remain incarcerated, including 12 children (under the age of 18). This number reflects a significant rise in the participation of Palestinian women in the national struggle.

Ninety percent of the female prisoners are affiliated with one or other Palestinian political faction. This is a new phenomenon ; during the First Intifada only three percent of the women arrested resisting the occupation had a factional affiliation. It is also notable that some of the affiliated women prisoners were members of their faction’s military wings. They took part in activities that exceeded merely aiding resistance fighters ; this had never happened before. Finally, the majority of these prisoners, approximately 70 percent, are affiliated with Islamic organizations (Hamas, Islamic Jihad) indicating that the Islamic movements were able to incorporate women in the resistance. This was non-existent in the past among the Islamic movements.

The Elections : A Venue for Being in Decision-Making Positions

These developments reflect a clear growth of the Islamic movement, though at the expense of the nationalists and the left. This growth was manifested in the Legislative Council election results. The movement showed its powerful infi ltration of the Palestinian street, and the women’s sector in particular ; women were highly effective and skilled in organizing and working for Hamas. If we see the elections as an opportunity for women’s democratic action, we can say that the Palestinian local council elections, which began their first round at the end of 2004 and were the second Palestinian local elections (the first were in 1976 under direct Israeli occupation), resulted in achievements by women.

Women’s committees and institutions successfully lobbied governing bodies, especially the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), to ratify a quota system that secures minimum representation for women in the local councils. The PLC ratified a quota of 20% minimum representation for women in its fi rst reading, rejected it in its second reading, and finally adopted it in the third.

The system was evident in the new PLC electoral system where electoral lists were required to include at least one woman in the first three seats, a woman in the next four seats and a woman in the next five seats and so on throughout the list. Some believed that the legislative authority gave political factions too much power over the quota system. The parties implemented the quota system in their national lists but failed to implement it in the regional list. Women were not included in the Hamas or Fatah lists ; however, leftist parties nominated some women to district elections.

This raises questions about the rhetoric put forth in regards to women’s involvement, especially among Islamic groups. Were women truly participants in the process or were they merely a tool to gain votes ? The analysis of the composition of the lists and constituencies shows that the second possibility is the more likely in terms of Hamas’ vision of the role of women.

As for local council elections, let us give a brief synopsis of them in their first and second stages where voting was on an individual basis not on lists. This gives us a more accurate idea about the voters’ tendencies in regards to the women candidates as opposed to voting based on the lists : The first phase of elections in the West Bank that included 26 local councils had 139 women candidates and 748 men ; 52 of the women won seats by direct voting while only 19 women won through the quota system compared to 255 male candidates. The second phase included 76 local councils in the West Bank and eight in the Gaza Strip. The number of women candidates was 397 compared to 2124 men. One hundred and fi ve women won through direct voting and 59 won through the quota system ; 748 male candidates won seats.

There are several conclusions regarding the status of women in politics in light of the local elections. Women ran in the elections in relatively high numbers, in proportion to the male candidates, for the first time. This reflects women’s political role and their work to strengthen their position through participating in decision-making.

The percentage of women elected through direct voting was much higher than the number of women elected through the quota system. This shows that women were able to overcome many patriarchal obstacles and societal tendencies that do not give females many opportunities to reach leadership positions.

In some places, women were able to obtain advanced positions in the lists. They even exceeded the quota percentages granted to them by law. For example, in the Doha local council in the Bethlehem district, four out of 13 women won. In Beit Sahour, four women also won and were in second, fourth, fifth and tenth place on the list of 13 local council seats. In terms of factional affi liations, the percentage of women affiliated with parties, movements, and even factional alliances, whether these were national or Islamic in the electoral lists, was also high.

One hundred and eighteen of the 164 women won seats in the second phase of elections. This is an indication of the positive trends among the women’s movement in regards to their historical relationship with political parties, especially after the dismantlement following Oslo. Among the women belonging to factional lists, 39 of them won according to the quota system. This raises the question : Does the public believe that women should be in decision-making positions, or did women’s inclusion only occur under the pressure of the quota system ?

From another aspect of the same question, 29 independent women candidates won without the quota system in the second phase of the elections, this is a positive indicator of women’s potential to reach decision-making positions.

Any discussion of the women’s movement in Palestine cannot be held in isolation of two factors : the occupation and the national resistance.

The resistance expedited social change in favor of women. Women led themselves and formed a women’s movement through their central platform, which is the relationship between the national and the social issues and at certain times, the intensification of the struggle with the occupation.

Women worked their way up in rank and took steps towards developing the Palestinian women’s movement. Nevertheless, the political decline after Oslo created a state of confusion and a split from the national struggle in favor of institutionalization and the building of non-governmental women’s institutions. The women’s movement strongly advocated issues of social liberation in the face of political disintegration.

Today, the women’s movement is at a crossroads in defi ning its work ; the movement has been in a cycle of responding to events, to crises—will the movement remain in this cycle or will it change direction and begin to work to combine national and social issues to create a stronger, more cohesive movement ?


[1Women popular committees were created as the women’s sector of the Palestinian political factions. They worked especially in rural areas and in refugee camps setting up daycare centers and sewing and embroidering projects. They also worked with the families of prisoners and the injured and later took on the role of organizing women towards increasing their awareness and political participation. Women’s institutions were created by leaders of the women committees during the Oslo process as Non-Governmental Organizations independent from political parties but depending on international fi nancial resources (note by NFW).


News From Within, Vol. XXII, No. 11, December 2006, Published by the Alternative Information Center (AIC).

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.