The Palestinian women at the forefront of Gaza’s protests

In socially conservative Gaza, women have been leading the Great Return March movement, uniting all Palestinians.

Mersiha Gadzo & Anas Jnena, 20 Apr 2018

‘I loved the sense of unity we all felt when both young men and women helped each other during the march protest,’ said Taghreed al-Barawi, seen in the photo [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

Gaza Strip – On one side of the fence, dozens of Israeli soldiers lay positioned behind sand dunes, tracking the Palestinian demonstrators through the crosshairs of their snipers.

On the other side, young women, with keffiyeh scarves covering half their faces to avoid tear gas suffocation, stand in front of the young protesting men, providing cover.

“Women are less likely to be shot at,” said 26-year-old Taghreed al-Barawi on April 13, while attending the third consecutive Friday protests in Gaza near the Israeli border with her younger sister and a group of friends.

“We live in a male-dominated society and women’s participation in protests can be a strange scene for some people in Gaza. However, this time men somehow were more accepting and encouraging. It seems like they finally realised that we’re all part of this and women should be present,” Barawi said.

But being female is no guarantee for protection.

Some 1,600 protesters, including 160 women, have been wounded and more than 30 have been killed by Israeli snipers since the Great Return March movement began on March 30, marked as Land Day for Palestinians.

Even though Barawi inadvertently choked on tear gas numerous times and felt like she was about to faint, the thought of quitting the protest didn’t cross her mind.

“I had this feeling of strange courage, or I don’t know what to call it – it’s as if the nearer I got to the border, the stronger my desire was to move forward. Maybe it was the urge to come closer to our home and visit it [territories that Israel took over in 1948].

“Personally, I’m also inspired and intrigued by Ahed Tamimi and her bravery standing up to the Israeli army,” Barawi said.

The Great Return March is a non-violent, grassroots movement that calls for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, as per the UN Resolution 194, from which they were expelled in 1948 when the state of Israel was created.

Thousands have been participating in the mass sit-in, with dozens of tents erected along the border with Israel. Each tent is labelled with the name of the town that the family was expelled from in 1948. It’s the largest mass protest Gaza has seen since the first Intifada.

The Palestinian territory with nearly two million population can only be accessed via Egypt and Israel but an Israeli-Egyptian blockade has been suffocating the Strip for 11 years. Living conditions have deteriorated over the years and unemployment wavers around 43 percent. Residents say they have reached a breaking point.

Palestinians have been protesting along Gaza’s border every Friday afternoon for years, but what is noticeably different this time is that a large number of women and girls have been actively participating on a scale not seen before.

And that’s why this Friday’s protests have been labelled the “Women’s March of Gaza”.

Palestinian women gather near the Israel-Gaza border during a tent city protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

‘My duty and responsibility’

Among those wounded and killed by Israeli snipers so far have not just been demonstrators, but journalists and medics too.

Razan al-Najjar is a 20-year-old volunteer nurse who has been working 12-hour shifts every day since the march started to aid those wounded.

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Palestinian Child Prisoners
Day of Social Media Action
April 17, 2018

Palestine Solidarity Campaign, April 16, 2018

Join us in campaigning to protect child prisoners on the 17th April, marking the International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian Prisoners.

We need you to help raise awareness of the mistreatment of Palestinian children by sharing our ready made infographics on your social media throughout tomorrow. Please post 2 or 3 of the images at the end of this email, also to be found on our website, with the hashtag #freechildprisoners .

Please also take the opportunity to write to Congress to ensure that pressure remains for action in holding Israel accountable for violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Under Israeli Military Detention, Palestinian children as young as 12 are routinely:

    • Taken from their homes in night time raids at gunpoint
    • Blindfolded, bound and shackled
    • Interrogated without a lawyer or relative and with no audio-visual recording
    • Put into solitary confinement
    • Forced to sign confessions – often in Hebrew, a language they do not understand

Children shouldn’t have to fight against the injustices of occupation, which is why they need our support. Please lend your voice on twitter and facebook, and also write to Congress.

The statistics are truly shocking. Over 78% of detained children are strip searched each year, 74.5% report physical violence committed against them, and 97% are interrogated without a parent or lawyer present.

A 2013 UNICEF report called Israeli ill-treatment of children “widespread, systematic, and institutionalised”. Every year 500 – 700 children are subjected to this traumatic experience.

Change will only come from sustained international pressure. We at PSC are making sure that the cry for justice for Palestinian children is so loud that it can’t be ignored any longer. Thank you for supporting this cause.

One woman tackles two of Gaza’s toughest challenges

We Are Not Numbers, February 23, 2018

A Gaza man with a SunBox

Two of the Gaza Strip’s most pressing challenges are a blockade-induced shortage of both electricity and building materials. And, in this conservative, patriarchal society, it’s a young, female engineer who is tackling both.

Twenty-four-year-old Majd al-Mashharawi, a 2016 graduate in civil engineering, first figured out how to turn ash and rubble—of which Gaza has a lot—into a material she calls “Green Cake” that can replace cement. Now, she is turning her attention to renewable energy technologies, starting with a solar kit named SunBox. Now in the piloting phase, SunBox is, she says, the first off-the-grid solar kit in Gaza.

“Gaza has an extreme shortage of electricity—receiving just three to six hours a day. But the entire Middle East suffers from a lack of sufficient electricity,” Mashharawi says. “This severely affects both quality of life and opportunity for economic growth. But the region has a resource that can be harnessed—an average of 320 days of sunshine a year, making solar energy an ideal source of electricity production.”

Mashharawi researched solar options in use in Africa and India, where electricity outages also are common. However, she ended up turning to China for the most applicable solution. Her SunBox product is a small solar energy collection kit she imports, modifies to accommodate local electrical outlets and voltage and sells for US$355—a price her market research shows is affordable to most households. (She hopes to partner with microfinance businesses for those families who need to pay in installments.) The kit generates 1,000 watts of electricity—enough to power four lamps, two laptops, two phones, an internet router and a TV/fan/small refrigerator for a full day, before needing a “refresh” (using either the sun or the electrical grid, when available).

Mashharawi (far right) using a SunBox to power a light and laptop

If the Gaza launch goes well, Mashharawi is already dreaming of expanding into other markets—West Bank refugee camps, Syrians in Jordan and off-grid Bedouin communities throughout the Middle East (perhaps the largest of the populations, at an estimated 3.2 million).

Early inspiration

Mashharawi attributes her entrepreneurial spirit to her 11th grade math teacher.

"He forced us to find a way to solve math assignments on our own—rather than simply memorizing the formulas. It was the first and most difficult challenge of my life," she recalls.

This led Mashharawi to spend her entire, three-month summer holiday figuring out the "why" behind the answers so she could compile a booklet to distribute to other students. Mashharawi considers this her first startup.

“I didn't know how to change it into a business, however,” she laughs. “I was young and unaware of how businesses work.”

Mashharawi’s independence and a yearning to travel have driven her to work hard to build a future—no minor task in a society that is both conservative, restricting women’s freedom, and oppressed by a blockade.

"I know very well that the world around us is advancing, while our lives in Gaza are frozen,” she says. “But instead of wasting time complaining about how bad our situation is, I prefer to seek solutions for problems."

Green Cake

Gaza men make Green Cake

One of those challenges confronted her family when her brother got married and her father wanted to add a floor to their home for the new couple. However, that was impossible because he could not obtain any cement. In fact, today, nearly four years after Israel's war on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, an estimated 4,500 families still are living without a permanent home. Exacerbating the housing shortage is population growth and restrictions imposed by Israel on the importation of construction materials. The UN Population Fund predicts the population of Gaza, already the densest place on earth, will more than double to 4.8 million by 2050. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of the cement needed has been allowed into Gaza since the Israeli offensive.

That challenge was one of the reasons she came up with the idea for her first product, Green Cake—a material made primarily from coal or wood ash, then cured with steam—with a fellow student. The environmentally friendly brick is fire-resistant and only half as heavy as cement blocks and costs 50 percent less. Nevertheless, Mashharawi and her partner struggled to attract support at first, and the other student later abandoned the project. Fortunately, Mashharawi stuck with it.

A startup incubator run by the Islamic University of Gaza helped fund the first production round in September 2016, and now she rents office space, employing three people. To date, her company has provided the material for parts or all of three new homes.

"At first, I didn't get any help from others," she recalled. Mashharawi borrowed money to develop the project, ignoring the disapproval she received for being a woman in a traditionally man’s field. Then she heard about the Japan-Gaza Innovation Challenge, a two-day workshop and business competition. Two of the 10 competing teams were given the top prize, and Green Cake was one. Mashharawi was invited to tour Japan and then doors started opening.

"Travelling was such a big dream for me, but until then, I could never achieve it," Mashharawi says. Earlier, she had won a scholarship to study for a year in Berlin, and obtained the necessary visa, but she couldn’t get permission to leave Gaza from the Israeli government. Egypt’s Rafah crossing never opened.

“I applied several times to get a permit to leave Gaza, and each time they refused me. So, I lost the scholarship," she sadly recalls. She again was denied the opportunity to travel when she sought to travel to Dubai for the international Hult Prize competition for social-enterprise start-ups.

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