‘The truth is not easy to tell’: The story of Palestinian women in Israel

19:18 Jun 19 2011 Jerusalem

by Eleanor Kilroy

Fatma Kassem was required to delete the word Nakba from her Ph.D. research proposal by Professor Yigal Ronen, former dean of the Krietman School of Advanced Graduate Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Israel; he also sent it to the university’s legal advisor for an opinion. It was only when the new dean convened an examination committee to consider the proposal that it was accepted without this erasure of the history of Palestinian women – the subject of her doctoral research. “When a Jewish Israeli scholar makes a critique of Zionist history, contemporary state policy or ideology, s/he is practising the freedom of research as evidence of Israeli democracy. However, a Palestinian researcher who addresses similar topics is accused of being a traitor or an anti-Semite”, writes Kassem in the book based on her research, Palestinian Women: Narrative histories and gendered memory (Zed Books, 2011). Her experience has also taught her that Palestinian women scholars are less valued than their male counterparts.

In a chapter, ‘The researcher’s story’, Kassem describes in detail the approval process for her proposal entitled ‘Between Private and Collective Memory: The Case of Palestinian Women from Lyd and Ramleh’. After initial approval by her supervisor, it was sent to the Krietman School, headed by Professor Ronen. In a meeting with Kassem, Ronen raised four main objections, the first of which was to the term she had used to define the purpose of her research: “he ‘could not accept that an Israeli citizen refer to our Independence Day as the Nakba’.... Professor Ronen reproduces in the Israeli academy the same denial of responsibility exhibited at the official state level in Israeli society for what happened to the Palestinians in 1948, especially those who became Israeli citizens.” The second objection was to her use of the term, ‘Hebraizing’ for the names of cities and villages after the creation of Israel in 1948; he insisted that all the names go "back to their Jewish origins" and if she refused to change the term, she should erase any sentences referring to this theme. Towards the end of the meeting, Ronen assured Kassem that he was “left wing politically”.

One 70 year-old potential interviewee responded by phone to Kassem that she would not tell her own story and, giving the author the name and contact details of women and men from Lyd and Ramleh, warned her: “you should know that they won’t tell you the truth. The truth is not easy to tell”. Another elderly woman said, “What is there to tell, about the huge extortion that happened to us. I’ll give you a clue if you understand: we used to say Yaffa-Tel Aviv, now we say Tel Aviv-Yaffa.” The women feared their 'dangerous knowledge' of 1948 might cause them trouble as Palestinian citizens of Israel. The researcher found that another factor that silences women is the view of people that the independent voice of a woman is not perceived as deserving of academic inquiry. One interviewee, Um Fathi said: “I don’t have a life story. I don’t know how to talk like my husband. I only want to tell you the story of when we got lost.” When the Israelis expelled the Palestinians from Ramleh in 1948, Um Fathi and her 8 year-old brother became separated from their family and slept in wheat fields for a week until they were found and expelled to Khan Younis.

Ramleh appears on the road sign in both Arabic and Hebrew as ‘Ramla’, which is its Hebrew spelling, but this form has not been assimilated in the language of the city’s residents, according to Kassem. In a June 2006 article in Haaretz, the mayor of Ramleh, Yoel Lavie, proposed to change the name of the city to a Hebrew name. He argued: “The root of the word ‘Ramleh’ means sand… This name does not mean anything to the 12,000 immigrants from the Soviet Union and the 5,000 Ethiopians living in the city. It also means nothing to the large population of Ashkenazi Jews in this city. The name has no value, no uniqueness.” Palestinian resident (and director of the New Israel Fund Shatil’s Mixed Cities project), Buthaina Dabita, claimed at the time that, “The name change proves that Lavie feels he has not finished the occupation of Ramleh yet.”

Before and after the Zionist invasion of Ramleh and Lyd, many Palestinians sent female family members away or hid them in their homes. In a chapter entitled ‘The Body’, Kassem recounts that some women testified to covering their bodies with dirt or animal excrement to avoid being raped by Jewish soldiers. An interviewee, Um Usif, insisted to her, “You’ve heard about the village Deir Yassin, where there were lots of bad incidents. Rape. Murder of a child in his mother’s lap… I heard about Deir Yassin before we migrated. That’s why our mother pressured our father to migrate. If my mother could have, she would have gone much further than Ramleh.” In the same chapter, the author states that today Palestinian women’s bodies continue to be oppressed and discriminated against in two ways: “First, Palestinian patriarchy seeks to actively control and supervise women’s bodies, and women consequently experience a range of violence, including ‘honour killings’. Second, their bodies are regarded as a source of the demographic threat that increasingly concerns Israeli authorities – that is their capacity to reproduce represents a threat in itself.”

Many women Kassem interviewed moved rapidly back and forth between contemporary reality, events of 1948 and the ‘Day of the Arabs’, which pre-dates 1948. Most stories include the demolition of either their family home or those of relatives. Salma recounts that following the earthquake in 1927, families who could afford to built new homes outside the old city, which meant the houses were relatively new in 1948: “They didn’t allow us to come back to our homes. We lived in the house of other Arabs, and Jews took our house. [Later] they destroyed it… I don’t understand why they destroyed the houses! They were new and in good condition… They [Israelis] left us nothing in the house near the mosque… Until this day, we did not go back to it.” Those Palestinians who did not leave, and those who returned, were never allowed to live in their original family homes. Their struggles for entitlement to their homes continue to this day, with women commonly describing living in the 'ghettos' of Lyd and Ramleh.

Kassem cites Israel academic, Haim Yacobi’s research into the origins of the term ‘ghetto’ amongst Palestinians, “originally used by Jews to mark out Palestinian territory in the city and simultaneously clear it of its ‘primitive’ Palestinian past in order to turn the space into a ‘modern’ Jewish city.” Salma describes her life in the ghetto to the author: “The people lived in the old houses and they [Jews] put a wire around them. They were not allowed to go out from this area… If they wanted to bury a dead person they needed a permit… And there were old men [allowed to go out to bury the dead], so it was hard for them to carry the corpse a long distance, so they would bury them [in the nearby cemetery]… After two or three years, they [Palestinians] started to go out to buy and sell… If a man collected olives, they imprisoned him and hit him. They did not allow us to collect our own olives… The Jews patrolled with tractors on the land… What can we do? [We were stealing] from our own olive groves.” Another interviewee describes the Palestinians' initial unfamiliarity with the term 'ghetto', and her eventual knowledge that historically in Europe ghettos were used by the Nazis to enclose, control and humiliate the Jewish people.

Language is important: when Kassem started writing up her research, the Hebrew editor kept changing the way she wrote 'Palestinian' to 'Philistine'; Bible stories describe the Philistines as barbaric invaders of the land of Israel: "Reference to Palestinians as Philistines is also present in academic articles, Israeli television subtitles, and popular forms of writing". It is a shame that the English editors of this edition did not ask an Arabic speaker to read the final proofs – where the original language of a term is included, the script is broken and back to front.

Palestinian Women by Fatma Kassem is a powerful historical document of the Nakba; her book examines the narratives of ordinary women who became involuntary citizens of Israel after witnessing the events of 1948, and whose subversive accounts have often not been heard outside the home. The women survived the expulsion from their homes during the Nakba, but continue to endure miserable circumstances. Recent demolitions of seven homes of the Abu Eid family in Lyd left over 50 members homeless. Alex Kane reported in January that during the December 2010 demolitions, Israeli police brutalized the family: “Police hit them with batons and kicked women and children, including a pregnant woman". In April, the Electronic Intifada attended the weekly demonstration against the demolitions and spoke to Suhad Bishara, senior attorney with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, who said “what’s happening in Lydd and Dhammash is similar to building restrictions imposed on Palestinian neighborhoods across Israel and in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The process of obtaining building permits is very difficult. People are trapped, because they need to build homes, but the authorities won’t give them permits. All claims related to the history of these families who have been in the area... it almost doesn’t play a role [in the legal procedures],” she said.
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