The female guardians of the land: The Palestinian women at the forefront of protests to defend Negev villages

Palestinian women make a stand to save Negev villages
8 min read
As Israel ramps up its policy of violent displacement against Palestinian Bedouins from the Negev, to make way for a tree-planting project, Palestinian women are making a stand.

The protests in Sawa village have highlighted the frontline role played by the Palestinian women of the Negev (Al-Naqab) as they have turned into guardians of the land, steadfastly resisting Israel’s attempts to seize it.

In recent years, as today, women remain the first line of defence for those whose homes are threatened with demolition, and whose lands are threatened with destruction by Israel's bulldozers. These operations are generally carried out during daytime hours when the men of Sawa are at work, and the children are at school. This leaves the women alone to face Israel's machinery of devastation.

During Sawa's last protest, on January 13, women and girls stood alongside the men to prevent the razing of village lands for a Jewish National Fund campaign to plant non-native trees in vast swathes of the Negev (Al-Naqab). One of these women, Umm Badran al-Hawashla, distributed onions to demonstrators to protect them against the thick clouds of tear gas fired at them.

"Women have to join the protests: we have no choice! We need to raise our voices, we must not be afraid, and we need to demand our rights"

Although the women had decided to stage a peaceful protest outside their homes, they were within sight of Israeli police units, some of whom started harassing them verbally and several girls were later arrested.

Women of the Negev raise their voices

Umm Raf’at al-Atrash (50) has six children. Her husband and his family have been severely affected by Israel's destruction of village lands in the Negev. They use the lands for cultivation and to graze their livestock, and as such it constitutes their source of income. She says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, her anger clear: "This is the first time we have seen an attack of this kind, and the first time I have joined this kind of protest."

She adds: "They threatened us and viciously assaulted us. My cousins were arrested for no reason. They also arrested several young men in the family and were savagely attacking everyone."

Al-Atrash asserts: "Women have to join the protests: we have no choice! We need to raise our voices, we must not be afraid, and we need to demand our rights. This is the first time I stood alongside others against the occupation. My blood was boiling… they were threatening us on our own land, on our livelihood! We won’t stand down whatever happens."

Taking part in the struggle

The role of Bedouin women in the Beersheba area (known as the Negev or Al-Naqab) has changed drastically since the mid-1900s. Then, women were mainly concerned with household matters, looking after the family and raising livestock.

But now, a new generation of women has come to the fore, one which is social media savvy and highly educated, and which has plunged into this battle-ready to call on their hi-tech know-how. They have become partners in the struggle, playing an equal role in protests and even facing arrest just like their male counterparts in the name of defending the land of the Negev's "unrecognised" Arab villages.

"It was heartening today to notice some international coverage of our case, and we hope there will be more and that there isn’t a media blackout against us"

While the Israeli settlements constructed atop the ruins of depopulated villages are built for luxury and comfort, the drinking water in Sawa village is cut off for days at a time. In everyday life, moreover, the unrecognised villages are not provided with the basic services or infrastructure essential for a dignified life. Nonetheless, those who have lived there for generations refuse to be kicked out, no matter what the price.

Saja Aoda al-Atrash (18) and her family lost their lands when Israeli forces bulldozed it and replanted it with trees. She says: "The occupation forces' behaviour has been barbaric, they enter the houses and throw sound bombs at the children and women... these lands have sustained my family for generations, my grandfather farmed it. We made our living from the olive trees they uprooted. In their place, they’ve planted their own trees, which we can’t use for anything in this desert."

Intimidation and repression won't work

When asked how women and girls took the decision to protest, Saja says: "Most of the men have been arrested, so if we don't stand up – who will? It was heartening today to notice some international coverage of our case, and we hope there will be more and that there isn’t a media blackout against us."

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Asked whether the arrests had taken their toll on the women's determination to participate in further protests, Safa stresses that "the arrests haven't affected us at all. The reverse – the girls who got arrested came back even more determined to stand up against the bulldozers next time." She is adamant that the Israelis won’t achieve their goals through repression and intimidation.

"During the protests, we have tried to live broadcast what’s happening on social media. They tried to arrest me while I was filming but had to release me because I hadn’t done anything which broke the law. They treated us like animals, from the first time we protested, firing tear gas and using other violent tactics. However, I repeat: we will not relinquish our rights. And women will stand shoulder to shoulder with the men in every part of this struggle."

Arresting schoolchildren

Rania al-Atrash (16) was arrested for no reason during the recent protests in Sawa. Her sister, Israa says: "We saw them enter the village and start bulldozing. The men were protesting at the village crossroads and we were next to our homes. We posed absolutely no threat to them, in contrast to their claims."

"Last year they put up posters telling us we were barred from entering our own land, with the excuse that it belonged to the state, even though the fig trees on my family's land, which they uprooted, are over 70 years old  older than the occupation itself"

"Then they came over and started pushing us around before dragging Rania away and arresting her, then arresting my cousin, Sujud. Female soldiers should have arrested the women, but Rania and Sujud were arrested by men. They were insulting Rania, using obscene language thinking she would be intimidated, but she answered them back and defended herself. They released her the next day. They fined her and put her under house arrest for 10 days – she was only allowed out to do her secondary school final exam. They did the same with Sujud."

Though Al-Araby Al-Jadeed wasn't allowed to communicate with Rania and Sujud directly due to the house arrest, Israa said that their morale was high and hadn't been dented by their experience, and summed up a message Rania had passed on to her: "What happened will be repeated – we are expecting it. The same thing was happening last year in Khirbet Watan (a nearby village) and to the al-Atrash family lands – as though the Israelis were paving the way for what is happening to us now.

"Last year they put up posters telling us we were barred from entering our own land, with the excuse that it belonged to the state, even though the fig trees on my family's land, which they uprooted, are over 70 years old – older than the occupation itself."

Palestinian women make a stand to save Negev villages
Palestinians in Gaza protesting against Israel's confiscation of Palestinian lands and its aggressive actions in the Negev, 14 January 2022 [Yousef Masoud/Getty]

Student Jenin al-Atrash (16) was arrested and held for almost two hours. She says: "I was standing with my friends, to protest. We didn't do anything to threaten the police, who were attacking the boys' protest at the centre of the village." 

She believes she was arrested because she was standing with the protesters: "They interrogated me maybe thinking I had a weapon, and detained me for two hours. I saw them beating the boys who were protesting. Then they let me go."

Her father Suleiman says: "Because I'm a truck driver I have to leave the house early in the mornings. So I didn’t know the soldiers had returned to attack the village and bulldoze the land. Jenin took part with her friends in a protest without doing anything to cause panic. They did nothing but protest peacefully but the soldiers arrested her anyway and took her away to their police van for two hours. It appears they were forced to release her because she's a minor."

"The land is her land and our land, and it is everyone's duty to stand up against this strategy of confiscation and harassment"

Upon seeing his daughter among the people arrested on social media, he asserts, "I never felt afraid. I spoke to her mother and came home and found her there. Thank God no harm came to her. But I am very proud of her, and I see no reason to stop her from protesting. The land is her land and our land, and it is everyone’s duty to stand up against this strategy of confiscation and harassment."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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