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Women Wage Peace: Israeli and Palestinian women march for peace, 2017
© Women Wage Peace

The Resistance from Within: Rethinking the Role of Women in the Contest of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Author: Giulia Martini (2021)

Giulia Martini holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance from the University of Padova. This in Focus article is an excerpt from her master thesis discussed, in October 2020, under the supervision of Prof. Pietro De Perini.


The Middle East is characterised by one of the most lasting conflicts between identities (which history and politics have brought to conflict) that the contemporary world knows, that between Israelis and Palestinians, between the state of Israel and the state in statu nascendi of Palestine, two peoples which fight to control the same land.

The long Arab-Israeli conflict of which it seems impossible to imagine a peace has caused, among the numerous violence, a deterioration in the condition of women. In fact, in this complex context women, belonging to two completely different realities - that of the oppressed and that of the oppressors -, represent the most vulnerable actors. A situation which, according to a report published by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women has had a direct impact on the lack of gender equality: women are victims of military occupation by Israel, an unstable policy in Palestine and a general patriarchal context.

Women’s civil society role in the Arab-Israeli conflict

The history of women’s movements in Israel and Palestine is undeniably anchored in the history of a conflict that has troubled the Middle East for more than sixty years. While the prolonged conflict has had a negative impact on all parties involved, it has particularly affected women. Repeated cycles of tension, wars and conflicts marginalise women and cause multiple gender abuse cases in daily life, root physical, economic, social and political insecurity, and reduce democratic values of freedom, equity and mutual tolerance. Women have been systematically relegated to the margins of conflict. However, despite the difficult climate, women’s civil society has over the years assumed an increasingly important role in the peaceful struggle for the recognition of fundamental rights, including active participation in the political life of the country. The conflict, in fact, became an opportunity for women’s empowerment due to changes in their traditional roles and new responsibilities that they must assume. Women activists have demonstrated their ability, strength and determination to become active participants of the struggle, as well as motivating people from different backgrounds and different political opinions to join in their actions.

At the international level, some important steps forward in recognition of women’s rights, such as the resolution 1325 (2000), which addresses the impact of war on women and the importance of women’s full and equal participation in conflict resolution, have produced significant political commitments to women’s human rights and equality. Women in Palestine and Israel become aware of their opportunities and start to try more consistently to acquire a new role within civil societies.

The first Intifada “Uprising”(1987-1993), which represents the first major concrete Palestinian mass mobilisation, is considered the real turning point in the history of women’s movements, because the process of resistance of women’s organisation against the occupation has shaken and exposed Palestinian society from within, resulting in the process of a dynamic revaluation of tradition social, economic and political structures. Several feminist associations developed with the desire, expressed by some activists, to catch the opportunity offered by this unprecedented mobilisation to promote women’s liberation. In the course of this involvement, women learned crucial skills, which prompted them to challenge the exclusion of women from the official decision-making levels in the political arena. The Intifada lead to the emergence of numerous female peace groups that took many initiatives inspired by this new wave of solidarity and feminism. For the first time, Palestinian and Israeli women engaged in a series of international peace conferences.

Women Leaders of First Intifada

(Foto: Peter Turnley, Credit: Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Despite the escalation of the political conflict, women on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide have made considerable gains. Through their activism, many women have grown more confident, have developed feminist consciousness and an overarching political perspective. As a result, these women now constitute a critical mass that is likely to continue to impact the course of the conflict and shape its aftermath. In addition, by exposing the gendered dimensions of the conflict and bringing this analysis into the media and popular culture, women activists have begun to transform the cultures of their respective collectivities, trying to ensure gender equality.

Arab and Israeli women’s civil society, starting from that moment on, have tried for the first time to cooperate and to create a meeting point. They have established a dialogue and tried to obtain recognition at a representative political level.

These joint projects by women carried out the following activities:

  • development of solidarity between Jewish and Palestinian girls;
  • the creation of future Jewish and Palestinian women community leaders;
  • joint protest activity calling to end the occupation, for equal rights and the abolition of discrimination;
  • generating partnership with women in the Occupied Territories and providing assistance for them with food, medicine and more.

Women march for peace

(Women Wage Peace: Israeli and Palestinian women march for peace, 2017)

The main challenges to women’s movements peace activities and to their cooperation

While women continue to try to demonstrate to the entire world that they are an active member of the society, in which their contribution is fundamental and despite the great potential of these organisations that decide to work together to end the conflict in the name of women’s rights, women’s movements in this extremely complicated context have to face several challenges. At the same time, challenges can represent an obstacle to the cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian women’s movements and organisations resulting in the end of the initiatives between Palestinian-Arab women and Israeli-Jewish women.

In other words, even if the conflict represents an opportunity for changing the role of women, it does not always translate into actual change. In many post-conflict scenarios, once men return from conflict, they want to go back to the previous status quo, and women tend to go back to their previous roles as mothers, wives and home keepers.

The following challenges represent the major causes of the failure of women’s movements and the consequent unsuccessful active participation of women’s movement in the management of the conflict and to their strategic cooperation:

  • Societal challenge: in Palestine and Israel, social organisations are dominated by classic patriarchy, which gives absolute priority to men and to some extent, limits women’s human rights. Part of the idea of “patriarchy” is that this oppression of women is multilayered. It operates through inequalities at the level of the law and the state, but also through the home and the workplace. It is upheld by powerful cultural norms and supported by tradition, education and religion. It reproduces itself endlessly through these norms and structures, which are themselves patriarchal in nature, and thus it has a way of seeming natural or inevitable.
  • Political challenge: the new millennium brought with it another cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The Israeli colonisation and its occupation policies of territorial and political fragmentation, mobility restrictions and spatial separation have systematically dispossessed, occupied and destroyed Palestinian living spaces, breaking up Palestinian territory into several unconnected and isolated cantons. In particular, Palestinian women suffer from direct physical and structural political violence enforced by the occupation, while Israeli women are prohibited from cooperating with the “oppressed”.
  • Economic challenge: in Israel and Palestine, women are not economically independent because of the patriarchal society and the political regime, which discriminate against women restricting them to the private sphere. Women, in particular, have difficulty in obtaining funding, finding business partners, accessing information, and are constrained by a scarcity of possible projects and businesses, particularly non-traditional ones. A possible alternative solution, under these conditions, consists of the support provided by the international community. In other words, funds from international donors who represent the hope for the movements intervene. However, very often, they are the main cause of the end of joint-peace programs between women’s Palestinian and Israeli movements or organisations, since they do not respond to the real need of the population. Too often, donors constrain the investment of funds in specific projects and areas that they believe are problematic. This leads women’s movements to deal with issues inherent for the majority of gender-based violence, the recognition of women’s rights within the country. As a consequence, women are obliged to adopt a political agenda that concerns the local level limiting any possibility of collaboration.


While it is possible to reflect on future developments, as things stand today, the situation of Palestinian and Israeli women’s movements appears much less than favourable. The current political context in Israel and Palestine does not seem to offer moments of real openness to negotiation with the other. It seems that the new dynamics of the conflict, illustrated among other things by the increasingly militarised context, the Palestinian patriarchal society and the depressed economic situation have not only served to marginalise the rights of women from the national agenda, but also to limit the reach and influence of civil society as a whole.

Despite a wave of optimism regarding those activities and initiatives carried out by years in which the reality of joint activism in Israel and Palestine emerged, as a fragmented phenomenon, but which seemed to face a unitary trajectory, driven by the desire to build peace, what emerges is that starting from the new millennium, such joint and non-joint movements between Israeli and Palestinian women were really weak and not effective.

The experience of joint activism between Palestinian and Israeli women’s movements shows that civil society can flourish and generate change if it is able to respond to the needs of the population and therefore have a solid social base, to evolve with the context in which it operates and whether it is capable of seizing social, economic and political opportunities to promote peace and human rights.

Several existing womens movements in Palestine and Israel continue to stand for the recognition of their rights and continue to work and employ numerous efforts, although these do not always translate into concrete changes for society.

Naila Ayesh, leader of the Palestinian resistance who played a key role in the fight of the Palestinian people and a key figure in the First Intifada, which forced the world to recognise the Palestinian right to self-determination for the first time, stated during our interview:

“I want to continue focusing on women, and the role we can play in bringing people back together. I want to see younger women playing an even bigger role in society. Our struggle is not over,

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