“Up here at the encampment,” said Abu Tha’ir, peering ahead through the windshield, “we cross the Green Line into ’48. If there is a checkpoint and they stop us, they’ll send me back to prison.” He looked at me as if asking for my opinion, but he did not slow down as we approached the army post perched on the hillside overlooking the road north of Tulkarm. As he crossed the Green Line into Israel, slightly bewildered at his own decision taken earlier that morning, Abu Tha’ir also crossed the border of his own fear of renewed arrest, beatings, detention and prolonged separation from his wife and children — a border he confronts every day, somewhere, in some form, as a result of army restrictions on movement and assembly, or simply because he is a Palestinian. [1]

Today there was no checkpoint. So we continued unhindered on our shortcut through Israel to the northwestern part of the West Bank, avoiding the main road that leads circuitously from Tulkarm east to Nablus and from Nablus north to Jenin and is studded with army roadblocks. By mid-morning of this cold December day, we reached Ya‘bad and ‘Arraba, two of the larger villages in the north, to interview activists in local trade unions and women’s committees.

Thousands of Palestinians like Abu Tha’ir must make such decisions every day. Most have spent time in administrative detention, and many have been given a so-called “green” identity card upon their release, which bars them from entering Israel. Army roadblocks make travel in the Occupied Territories a cumbersome and even hazardous affair. Soldiers carry lists with names of those wanted by the intelligence service — “bingos” in army lingo: when one is caught, the soldiers “score a bingo.” Because the Shinbet’s intelligence network collapsed during the first year of the uprising, the authorities have little up-to-date information on activists, and can prove few guilty of political activity. As a result, everyone has become suspect, especially those with a prison record. On many occasions over the past two years Palestinians discovered that they were “wanted” only when they were summarily hauled out of a car at an army checkpoint. Even if you are not on the “wanted” list but your papers indicate that you have been in prison, you run the risk of being beaten or harassed.

Past Records

Abu Tha’ir drove gingerly into Ya‘bad. At the entrance to the village, a soldier glanced down from his guardpost on the roof of a house, a blue-and-white Israeli flag flapping in the winter wind. Off to the right, on the edge of a small square, a blackened building reminded passersby of the forced eviction from Ya‘bad of the collaborator al-Najjar family by villagers in 1988. Stores were closed: In Ya‘bad the half-day strike takes place in the morning.

We had come to meet a local trade unionist, Mu’ayyad, whom I knew from a number of earlier visits. He had been arrested and interrogated at the beginning of the uprising, and ended up spending almost 18 months in prison without trial before being released for lack of evidence in the summer of 1989. We parked in the center of the village, and Abu Tha’ir went looking for him. Mu’ayyad suddenly emerged next to me, and we hugged and kissed each other. But even as we started to exchange greetings, he pushed me back into the car and directed Abu Tha’ir to the house of neighbors on the edge of town before relaxing and extending the usual courtesies. At that point Abu Tha’ir, suddenly nervous, expressed concern that his car, which has Tulkarm license plates, would be reported to the authorities by local informers, which might earn him another term in jail. His presence away from Tulkarm in and of itself would be sufficient ground for administrative detention, given his past record.

The situation in Ya‘bad, Mu’ayyad explained, had become increasingly tense since last summer, in the wake of an Israeli campaign to rebuild the Shinbet’s intelligence system. [2] In the Jenin area, the military government tried to penetrate active communities like Ya‘bad with collaborators, offering them round-the-clock army protection. In August, the three al-Najjar brothers, brandishing Uzis, returned to their burned-out home under army tutelage and proceeded to terrorize the town. During the next few weeks, several young men were injured in clashes trying once again to force them out. Also in August, the army opened a “Civil Administration” office in Ya‘bad: Anyone seeking permission to travel, build a house, open a shop, register a baby, obtain a driver’s license and so forth had to apply to the al-Najjars who, for cash, are able to provide the required permit.

Yet Mu’ayyad resumed his unionist activities immediately upon his release. Now labor organizing is being done stealthily, outside the public eye. The union office was closed at the beginning of the uprising; meetings are now held at activists’ homes, and organizers have begun to make the rounds of local workshops, recruiting new members into informal networks.

Mu’ayyad, an activist in the Construction and General Services Workers’ Union, recited a staggering litany of problems faced by labor activists. Unemployment in Ya‘bad has increased from an estimated 8 percent before the uprising to somewhere between 30 and 40 percent today, due to firings and layoffs of workers from Israeli work sites. Some 90 percent of the Ya‘bad work force depends on work in Israel, but at present only one third of these workers make the daily journey across the Green Line, and not all of them find work every day. Mundhir, a colleague in neighboring ‘Arraba, drew a similarly stark picture of the situation in his village. Out of the 800 villagers who used to work in Israel, he said, only between 150 and 200 remain employed today. In one case, the manager of the Iglanoid/Caesarea rug factory in Or Akiva was threatening to fire his 40 West Bank workers if they failed one more time to show up for work on the next strike day. Since most workers are unable or refuse to travel on strike days or to sleep over in Israel the night before a strike, the 40 were set to lose their jobs, Mundhir predicted.

Other economic developments in the West Bank and Gaza have hurt workers. Over the past two years, prices have gone up while the dinar, the legal tender in the West Bank along with the Israeli shekel, has collapsed. Workers lost more than 40 percent of their wages and savings almost overnight in January 1989. The closure of schools and universities pushed students into the labor force, increasing the number of unemployed. Jordan closed its market for building products, causing hardships for West Bank quarry workers. Many Gaza Strip workers have lost their jobs as a result of army curfews and other restrictions on movement.

Such conditions are turning labor organizing, never a pastime of armchair activists, into a real challenge. Unions like those in Ya‘bad and ‘Arraba have begun to focus on placing un- and underemployed workers in the few jobs that are available locally, and in protecting workers’ jobs by demanding production expansion by Palestinian entrepreneurs. New collective agreements which reflect the uprising conditions (like strike days and army curfews) have been negotiated in a number of factories and workshops, such as the Baqir plastics company and the Diana sweets factory in al-Bira. At the Silvana sweets factory in Ramallah, a local union set a precedent by winning a wage rate for 70 women at the same level male workers had been receiving, in addition to a 10 percent cost-of-living increase, sick leave and the right to set up a workers’ committee. In other workshops, too, employers have accepted workers’ committees as a necessary evil, following explicit instructions issued in leaflets of the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU).

Structuring the Revolt

Buffeted by the economic downturn and restricted in its work by the army, the union movement in the West Bank is facing tough times. Yet, along with other grassroots organizations created in the decade before 1987, like the women’s and medical relief committees, it played a pivotal role during the uprising’s first months. Though workers as a class did not play a crucial part, the unions lent their infrastructure, leadership and experience to the nascent insurgency, helping to bridge the gap between mass spontaneity and structured resistance. Active in the newly formed popular committees and strike forces, union leaders placed themselves, according to one, “at the head of the national movement.” Several unionists have served as (rotating) members of the UNLU, representing their political factions. Beyond this, though, the structure of the pre-uprising grassroots movement has remained separate from that of the new popular and neighborhood committees.

Women’s committees, set up since the late 1970s, provide a similar framework for popular mobilization. In the words of one Nablus activist, “Many young women came to us at the beginning of the uprising saying they wanted to do something, and the framework was there.” Women activists employed their experience and legitimacy they had accrued as community leaders to coordinate the new neighborhood committees which carried the uprising from its initial spontaneity to a disciplined mass revolt. “We were not surprised by the intifada, and we were quick to adjust our activities,” said one. Women activists claim that they were the first to take to the streets in the West Bank after the clashes that sparked the uprising in Gaza on December 9, 1987: “On December 11, we were out in the streets of Ramallah shouting ‘Where are you men of Ramallah!’” Similar marches were organized by women in Nablus and Bayt Sahour. Activists also claim that in a small number of towns and villages — for example, in Tulkarm, Ramallah, Halhoul and Idhna — women are now in charge of some local popular committees. In some neighborhoods in al-Bira, women have established “guard committees” that alert men to the arrival of the army during demonstrations and help build street barricades.

Organizing has an intense, breathless quality wherever you meet with activists. In Jerusalem and Ramallah, an appointment is postponed because of an urgent last-minute press conference to protest the forced expulsion of women without identity cards from the West Bank to Jordan. In Nablus or Gaza, the postponement likely owes to a spontaneous women’s march or a street demonstration. In Nablus I waited about 20 minutes before the person I had come to see came dashing in to report that the march that she had helped to organize in the Old City had been broken up by the army after members of the popular strike forces had shot to death a collaborator a few streets over. She gave me about a quarter of an hour of her time before rushing off to a meeting.

Villages like ‘Arraba, a stone’s throw from Ya‘bad and a half-hour’s drive from Nablus, are oceans of calm because the army rarely visits and the few collaborators are known and assiduously avoided. Palestinian nationalist and green Islamic flags indicate who is in effective control of the village. When I met with local union and women’s committee activists, we walked leisurely through town even though Mundhir, the trade unionist, was a long-time “bingo.”

They showed me the women’s committee’s center which had been raided by the army in August 1988: The soldiers had left the place shattered, breaking two sewing machines, windows and benches. Raqiyya, one of the activists, said that most committee work now takes place in members’ homes or in the streets. The committee put most of its energies into providing alternative education to children. It has also coordinated support for families with sons or daughters in prison. Local activists distribute leaflets issued by the Unified Women’s Council in the Jenin area, one of several regional bodies that bring together representatives from the four women’s committees. The leaflets include specific instructions for women’s activities and interpret UNLU directives to the extent that they have a bearing on the work of the women’s movement. Membership in the Arraba committee, according to Raqia, increased from 20 before the uprising to over 100 today. The committee’s main purpose, she said, was “to have a presence at every occasion.”

Changed Lives

Although soldiers harass and sometimes arrest women in the street, more often than not they are left alone despite their participation in marches and demonstrations. The number of activists who have spent time in prison remains small compared with men. The committees have taken advantage of this by widening the scope of their activities from education and training to more political and streetwise activities. In addition to directly confronting soldiers, women’s groups have also monitored shopkeepers’ adherence to a fair price for food products and enforced the boycott of Israeli-manufactured goods. Committees also organize visits, often busloads full, to the homes of martyrs, and mobilize legal and financial support for families who have relatives in prison or the hospital.

The lives of women have changed as they have thrown themselves into the battle for national liberation, although perhaps not as much as the activists themselves would like. On the positive side, one activist recounted, the cost of marriages has declined dramatically because of the general economic downturn. The bride price (mahr) is only a fraction of what it used to be. This means, she said, that the customary bargaining has ended: “So now it is no longer so that one woman would be cheaper than another!”

In the economic sphere, women’s productive cooperatives have been set up. Women’s activism in neighborhood committees “helped to bring the issue of women onto the agenda while increasing women’s social consciousness,” said Najwa, one of the committees’ leaders. This led to an open discussion about the status of women in society; committees have begun holding lectures about early marriages, divorce, personal status law and the division of labor in the home. But these changes are meeting resistance, she said. Beyond the home, even women activists are not getting further than their own organizations, failing to penetrate traditional male-dominated organizations like the trade unions. [3] So, Najwa said, “Our position in the political struggle has changed, but our position in social life has not.” Intisar, an activist from Nablus, complained that “men are still making the decisions, and if a woman is active, the neighbors start talking. So it will take a long time of struggle, and we won’t automatically get our rights as women when we get our state.” She said that the committee will visit a member’s relatives if there are problems concerning her participation in the committee: “We go and tell them that there is no reason to be afraid and that [the work] is part of our national duty. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we don’t.”

As a method of advancing the position of women, the committees propose continuing education, and fomenting change by encouraging emulation. “Our committee will visit families if women are beaten or prevented from leaving the home. But the point is that women have to change their ideas about themselves so that they can solve their problems themselves. So all we do is to exchange with other women our own experiences,” one activist said. There is a real fear that if these issues are not addressed now, “we won’t be able to push them later on, and we’ll be abused by the national movement. We are struggling for independence but we don’t want to compromise our role as women. The issue has come up now because we have realized through our work in the intifada how important our role really is. This has given us confidence.”

Building the Future

As it was before the uprising, trade unions, women’s committees, medical relief committees and others aim not merely at providing services while mobilizing people under the banner of national liberation. The purpose of the popular movement has been to help build an infrastructure of resistance which can present an alternative hegemony to Israeli control. [4] The popular movement was itself the outcome of the failure of earlier attempts at nationalist resistance, which had their basis in municipalities and local institutions. Easily identifiable because of their high profile, mayors and other nationalist leaders were routinely jailed or deported in the 1970s and 1980s; institutions, including the universities, were shut down for varying periods by the army. In the late 1970s, grassroots activists sought to counteract this vulnerability by keeping the leadership base large and diffuse, and by not registering their organizations with the authorities. Although many were arrested, new leaders presented themselves immediately; if an office was closed, activities would continue without much interruption in an alternative location.

The popular organizations owe their success during the uprising to a dynamic mix of qualities: their mass base, informal nature, democratic structure, nationalist appeal, diffuse leadership and, last but not least, their uncanny ability to exploit the restrictions imposed on them by the military authorities. The women’s movement, for instance, emphasized education in all its aspects (literacy, skill training, political awareness, health education), drawing women in the towns and camps, and to some extent in the more traditionally inclined villages, out of their homes and into makeshift committee offices that were both classrooms and social gathering places. Committees established income-generating productive projects which appealed to women from families in economic need. Although some production, like embroidery, could be done at home, other activities, like enamel and copper work, required specially equipped centers. “The women had to come out of their homes, and that was exactly our aim.”

The psychological significance of this trajectory became apparent during the uprising, when women in larger numbers than ever before stepped beyond the confines of home or office walls to participate in street actions. The large-scale imprisonment of men accelerated this process.

The success of the women’s movement during the uprising should probably be attributed to two additional factors: First, the movement was never wracked by the factional schisms that hurt the labor movement; institutionalized coordination between the four committees has helped lay a more solid basis for effective grassroots work. In addition, the women’s movement has enjoyed a considerable degree of insulation from army repression, in all likelihood because of the authorities’ traditional conception of women.

The challenge confronting grassroots organizations at this point is to transform the infrastructure of resistance to the occupation into the groundwork for the future Palestinian state. Although independence is no longer a pipe dream, to mold an appropriate integrated strategy to get from here to there has proven difficult. There have been attempts to substitute “reconciliation (sulh) committees” for existing religious and civil courts in matters regarding women’s status and workers’ rights. One activist said that women’s committees have started to play a mediating role in divorce cases. Another related how neighborhood committees actively intervene in domestic conflict — with mixed success — when women ask for help and advice. The women’s committees are also reportedly drafting a new family status law to replace the repressive religious laws that have governed divorce, inheritance and other matters. Mu’ayyad, the Ya‘bad unionist, asserts that trade unions now negotiate directly with employers on the basis of what is seen as fair rather than on the basis of obsolete Jordanian labor law, citing repeated UNLU calls on employers to accomodate workers’ demands as a justification for labor action.

Such attempts clearly challenge the authority of the military occupation. They do not yet constitute an alternative authority. Although I found a great deal of enthusiasm among labor and women’s activists about the opportunities created by the uprising, any future state-building role assigned to the popular movement is threatened by factional rivalries. Despite a temporary reprieve during the first two years of the uprising, these are simmering just beneath the surface. So far, escalating military repression has prompted further coordination among the four main factions of the popular movement. The Higher Women’s Council set up in December 1988, integrates the four women’s committees. The women’s movement already had a history of coordination and joint activities, and this latest move, spurred by the uprising, consolidated the trend. But sharp differences do arise in the Council, and the closest coordination between the committees therefore usually takes place on the neighborhood and village rather than on the national level.

The labor movement has been badly split since 1981, with four political blocs competing to control three separate labor federations. Following repeated UNLU calls and much bickering, the pro-Fatah Workers’ Youth Movement (which has a tiny labor constituency but much political weight) and the pro-Communist Progressive Workers’ Bloc “reunified” the General Federation of Trade Unions on March 1, 1990. They reserved only two seats on the 16-seat executive committee for one of the largest labor blocs, the pro-DFLP Workers’ Unity Bloc, which turned down the offer as insulting. More effective labor coordination has taken place on a local level, with material results for workers: In February 1989, the four blocs teamed up to jointly negotiate a new collective agreement for the Star soap and detergent factory in Ramallah.

Taking Stock

In the taxi on the way back from Nablus to Tulkarm, we were forced to take a narrow country road, passing from village to village, because the army had blocked the main road to Palestinian traffic. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we were stopped by four boys clad from head to toe in black costumes and carrying sticks. Far from the main road, they were in command of the situation. They wanted to know if there were any workers among us, because tomorrow was a strike day, and they wanted to make sure that no one was getting around it by entering Israel now and spending the night. There were no workers in the car, and the leader of the boys apologized profusely before waving us through.

In this conflict, one person’s punishment becomes another’s gain as the resistance systematically exploits every petty restriction laid down by the army. What the uprising has made clear is that when it comes to military repression, there are no real barriers to popular mobilization. Activists take advantage of their time in jail to coordinate future activities with friends from other regions whom they otherwise could not have visited due to travel restrictions. My friend Mu’ayyad, the Ya‘bad unionist, was not really sure whether he was wanted by the army or not at the time that I saw him in Ya’bad, but he shrugged it off when I asked him. The continuum of his work would not be broken by his arrest; other activists would immediately take his place. Abu Tha’ir, driving cautiously into villages, uncertain where to park his car, found friends everywhere he went from different factions. They had all met in Ansar III during the uprising, or in other prisons earlier. They respected each other and were ready to work together despite their political differences.

There is a fear, though, in the midst of the rush to build a powerful mass movement, that the centrifugal force of the Jerusalem-Ramallah axis — where the national leadership resides and factionalism is at its most severe — will sap the mobilizational strength of those working at the grassroots. The popular organizations, cashing in on their success, are attracting outside funding to start new projects and open offices in Jerusalem. Some activists fear they will become top-heavy bureaucracies. A Nablus organizer said that during the intifada’s first year, her committee operated virtually independently from Jerusalem headquarters, but that in the second year, her organization’s national leadership reimposed central control. She did not seem too pleased. In the third year of the intifada, she felt, time has come to take stock, to assess the purpose of the burgeoning projects and ask where the activists want the movement to go.


[1] Names have been changed to protect the identities of persons interviewed.
[2] Collaborators are usually known. They often carry arms supplied by the Israeli authorities, and perform specific functions on behalf of the Shinbet (intelligence, and assistance in arrests and interrogation) or the Civil Administration (permits). Informers are often not known. Their role is exclusively to provide the Shinbet with information. Many informers eventually turn to open collaboration once their cover is blown. For interviews with collaborators and informants, see Zvi Gilat, “The Collaborators’ Magnificent Careers,” Hadashot, July 28, 1989 (English translation available from Israel Shahak); and Sabra Chartrand, “Israelis Training Groups of Arabs to Halt Uprising,” New York Times, September 24, 1989. For an account of actions by collaborators against the population, see al-Haq, A Nation Under Siege: Al-Haq’s Annual Report on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories 1989 (Ramallah, 1990), chapter 4. For a sympathetic portrayal of the al-Najjar family, see Jackson Diehl, “As Inter-Arab Violence Rises, West Bank Family Lives Under Siege,” International Herald Tribune, August 24, 1989.
[3] I am aware of three top trade unionists in the West Bank who are women: Amna Rimawi, the current leader of the Workers’ Unity Bloc; Samar Hawash, a union leader in Nablus; and Karima Dib, a unionist active in the Labor Studies Center in Ramallah.
[4] This argument has been elaborated in my book on Palestinian trade unions and women’s committees in the Occupied Territories, forthcoming in 1991 from Princeton University Press.

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "Sustaining Movement, Creating Space," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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