The Meaning of Motherhood during the First Intifada: 1987-1993

M.Phil Thesis in Modern Middle Eastern Studies
By Kanako Mabuchi
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
May 2003

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  I. Introduction  
  II. Gender and Nationalism  
  III. Portrayal of "Mother" and "Motherhood" in the Intifada  
  IV. Changes in Family and Social Structures during the Intifada  
  V. Imagining the Community: Mother's Way  
  VI. Concluding Remarks  

Chapter 1: Introduction


Golda Meir, a former Prime Minister of Israel, once said: “We will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”  Her statement suggests that “Arabs” (i.e. the Palestinians, whom she famously refused to name in an effort to deny their existence and hence their claims to Palestine) do not love their children, and are therefore sub-human.

The tendency of the western world to dehumanize the Palestinians in ways strikingly similar to Meir’s statement has remained constant throughout the two Intifadas.  Queen Silvia of Sweden, speaking in a meeting of the World Childhood Foundation at the U.N., strongly criticized Palestinian parents as abusing and exploiting their children, saying: “As a mother I’m very worried about this.  I’d like to tell them to quit.  This is very dangerous.  The children should not take part” (Steinberg, par. 7-8).  Her statement, intentionally or not, insinuates that Palestinian mothers are not “real” mothers like herself. [1]

The western media is inclined to suggest that Palestinian mothers deliberately consent to sending their children to the battlefront, exploiting them intentionally, and stoically accepting violent deaths for the Palestinian cause as Allah’s will.  For example, an article entitled “‘Pride’ of Suicide Attacker’s Mother,” by a BBC Middle East correspondent, Orla Guerin, quotes a mother, seen smiling with a gun in her arm alongside her 23-year-old son, also smiling with a gun, who is on his way to carry out a suicide attack: “God willing you will succeed.  […] may God give you martyrdom.  This is the best day of my life.”  Later in the article, Guerin states: “[The mother] had no sympathy for the dead Israelis (two soldiers), no regrets over the loss of her own son.”  She asks the mother “if it mattered whether her son killed women and children.”  The mother is quoted as saying: “The women and children are also Jews.  They’re all the same for me.”  Such articles are misleading.  At a minimum, one must take into account the fact that the mother is fully aware that she is talking to a representative of the western media.  Unlike the claim made in Guerin’s report that the mother “has spoken of her feelings about her son’s action (emphasis added),” it is not her feelings that are expressed here.  Rather, she is sending a political message to the world about her and other Palestinians’ determination to resist the Israeli occupation.  Some media coverage of suicide bombers even suggests economic motivation behind the parents’ “celebration” (Koret, par. 5) of the death of their children.  As for the supposed “Palestinian hatred,” suicide bombings are reported as being simply the result of “Palestinian youths [being] long indoctrinated with hatred for Israelis,” (International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, par. 4) rather than as an outcome of the Israeli occupation.

The tactic of suicide bombing so prevalent in the current Intifada has raised the profile of the censorious western discourse on the failure of Palestinian parenting, and specifically of the role of mothers.  As one might suspect from Golda Meir’s statement quoted above, the notion that Palestinians exploit children to pursue violent goals has some historical depth.  Indeed, it was prevalent during the First Intifada, as can be seen in the following letter published in Los Angeles Times in 1989: “What is unconscionable about the Intifada is that children and women have been sent by those that inspired the rebellion to go and do all the fighting and perpetrate the violence, and incur the tragic consequences of that, while the men are all off doing something else.  […] you don’t send children and women to right your revolution for you because that looks compelling on camera” (Maibaum, par. 2).  Not surprisingly, this type of conspiracy theory or “first-rate propaganda to use against Israel” (Steinberg, par. 2) theory has repeatedly appeared in the Israeli as well as western media since the First Intifada.  Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi was well aware of this, when, in an interview in the summer of 1989, she replied to the question of why Palestinian parents did not protect their own children during the Intifada, citing a common Israeli charge that the Palestinians use their own children as tools, saying:

There is a racism implicit in this statement which I reject entirely.  People cannot assume that one nation, or people or race does not have the same emotional feelings for their children as another nation.  We love our children, we value our children, we value their childhood.  Nothing affects us more deeply.  We are trying to guarantee them a life of dignity and freedom […]. (“It is Possible”)

As Mikhail-Ashrawi rightly pointed out, this sort of discourse in the western media is far from satisfactory.  The two Intifadas, and suicide bombings in particular, cannot be understood in terms of “(lack of) love for children” or some sort of primordial “hatred for Israelis.”  In a very basic sense of course the two Intifadas have to be understood for what they are: resistance to the Israeli occupation.  The horror of suicide bombings must not blind us to the real issues of the conflict.

By attributing to Palestinians a primordial hatred deeply seated in the family, the media is confusing political statements for cultural evidence.  However, the “declared meaning of a spoken sentence,” as Peter Carey writes in Oscar and Lucinda, “is only its overcoat, and the real meaning lies underneath its scarves and buttons.”  What the media reports are the political statements of Palestinians.  When a mother speaks out in favor of martyrdom, for example, these are not the words of a mother who lost her son, but rather the public rhetoric of the mother of a Palestinian martyr.  The necessity for making such distinction is precisely the reason behind the title of this dissertation, “The Meaning of Motherhood during the First Intifada: 1987-1993.”  The dissertation will first examine the symbolism of gender in the language of nationalism.  Subsequently it will examine the speech and action of mothers and of Palestinian society as a whole.  In examining “the meaning of motherhood,” the dissertation places language, speech and action of the Intifada in a socio-political context: namely how Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation is socially structured.  By fixating on the alleged failure of Palestinian parents rather than on the tragic consequences of the occupation on Palestinian families, the media is getting the story backward.  The Intifada must be understood as a response to the challenge of occupation, which was carried out in a form that was more appropriate for action in the context of oppressive Israeli rule (Barghouti 125).  The essential element absent in the media discourse is any real understanding of how Palestinian family relations and social construction of women have changed as a result of the necessity of resisting occupation.  The dissertation aims to:

·        Explore how changes in family structure and intra-familial power relations enabled new forms of socio-political practice that involved women in unprecedented ways.

·        Illustrate how the culture of resistance, exemplified in language and rituals, has influenced the social construction of women, in particular mothers, and how women in turn have come to define and establish their positions within that culture.

To achieve its objectives, the paper will focus on the First Intifada for two reasons: firstly, the phenomena of changing social construction of women and family structure can be examined more clearly when one does not need to consider the highly polemical issue of suicide bombings; secondly, the existence of a greater volume of resources, both primary and secondary on the First Intifada.  The resources used to write this dissertation include: social anthropological literatures on nationalism, gender, rituals, and society and culture of the Middle East; social science literature on the First Intifada, Palestinian Nationalism, and Palestinian women; poems, songs and short stories written by Palestinian writers, before and during the First Intifada; political literature issued by the Palestinian political parties before and during the First Intifada; Palestinian and international newspapers and journals from the period; documentary and feature films by Palestinian and non-Palestinian directors made both during the Intifada as well as in the periods before and after it, in addition to films on the Algerian struggle for independence for comparative purposes; and interviews conducted with Palestinians in various locations, although unfortunately never in Palestine due to the current political situation. [2]  

This paper will argue that, while the authority of the father declined during the First Intifada, the mother took on the role of embodying/co-embodying the heroism of her son the shab (youth), as well as becoming the mother to all Palestinians youth.  Mothers thus embodied the moral superiority of the Palestinian community in the context of the Palestinian resistance culture.  Furthermore, the following chapters aim to provide an important background for the understanding of the social context of the present situation.


[1] Farida Aref Amad, President of the Society of Ina’sh El-Usra, a West Bank Women’s Organization, declared not to believe when mothers say to the media that the death of their children is the will of Allah, saying no Palestinian mother would willingly send her child to die.  “We are mothers like any others,” she said, a claim repeatedly made by Palestinian mothers.  In an open letter to the Queen of Sweden, Sawt An-Nissa (The Voice of Women) declared: “[…] we would like to assure you that we are not any different from you or the Israeli mothers in our maternal or human feelings.  Those who try to accuse us of being different only try to contribute to the killing of us denying us the right to live as human being.”

[2] Locating Palestinians currently in the U.K., who were in Palestine during the First Intifada, proved to be quite frustrating.  Most Palestinians in the U.K. arrived before the First Intifada, and the most recent arrivals have come via another Arab country, in particular Lebanon.  The author was fortunate to find, through a former student of my supervisor, Khalid, whom I interviewed in 4 February 2003 in London, U.K.  Khalid is originally from Beit Sahour and he was in his late teens during the First Intifada.  He has been a leading political activist since before the First Intifada, and was in and out of prison throughout the period in question.  My second interview was conducted in 19 February 2003 with Dr. Hala Salem Abuateya, who was a single woman in her late 20s (slightly older than the so-called Intifada generation) during the Intifada.  That she lived on her own in Ramallah is an indication of the liberal nature of her family.  My third interview was with Umm Khalil and her daughter Danya in 22 March 2003 in Chicago, U.S.A.  Umm Khalil, whose husband was doing his Ph.D. in America, returned to Tulkarem when the Intifada started, so that she and her children could be in Palestine.  They stayed for six months, before deciding to leave for America to join the husband/father again.  Umm Khalil’s children were still young at the time, the oldest being 11.  Her only son, Khalil, was only one-year old, and the experience, Umm Khalil claims, has left a psychological scar on him: as a child, he became very agitated and would not stop crying whenever he heard big sounds that reminded him of gun-shots and bombs, and to this day he is afraid of thunder.  In addition to the three interviews, I was able to talk to two Palestinian families in Cairo, Egypt, in 19 August 2002, both of whom came to Cairo before the First Intifada, as well as to be in an e-mail correspondence with Nedaa, a 24-year old female medical student in Palestine, who grew up in a refugee camp near Hebron.