F. Robert Hunter, The Palestinian Uprising: A War by Other Means (I. B. Tauris, 1991).
Joost Hiltermann, Behind the Intifada: Labor and Women’s Movements in the Occupied Territories (Princeton, 1991).
Julie Peteet, Gender in Crisis: Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement (Columbia, 1991).
These books offer rich and diverse perceptions of the Palestinian national movement, its trends and social implications. Robert Hunter examines the historical background and sociopolitical impact of the intifada; Joost Hiltermann focuses on its organizational basis and agenda for social change. Julie Peteet explores women’s political activism in the Palestinian resistance movement in Lebanon and its implications for transforming gender meaning and relations.
Hunter traces the uprising’s roots to the development of Palestinian nationalism in the struggle during the British Mandate. The emergence of the Palestinian resistance movement, and the creation of the PLO in the early 1960s, provided an institutional framework for independent Palestinian organizations, such as labor unions and students’ and women’s associations. These popular organizations helped break down the barriers which had separated various Palestinian communities, and later became the institutional infrastructure of the intifada.
In the Occupied Territories, the intifada then generated community-based economic organizations and popular committees which provided for people’s basic needs and forged a new local leadership. When the formal judicial system was suspended at the outset of the period of civil disobedience, the popular committees reverted to customary laws and the application of atwa, a traditional form of mediation, to settle disputes. This practice had never disappeared, but the intifada restructured it, giving it new meaning. Mediation is now performed not by clan notables but by members of the popular committees, whose authority rested on their political activism.
Though Hunter refers to the several revolts that broke out during the first two decades of the occupation, he seeks to explain why “Palestinians acquiesced in, rather than resisted Israeli rule,” for a good part of that time. Hunter recognizes only collective and coordinated political activities, excluding numerous “anonymous” forms of daily resistance that constituted the stubborn bedrock upon which the intifada has grown.
Hiltermann takes up the question of the sociopolitical context in which the intifada emerged, focusing on how workers and women were mobilized in the mid-1970s. His starting point is Jeffrey Paige’s model of successful political action in economic systems dominated by landed estates that employed a migratory wage labor force.  The basic characteristics of colonial estates apply to the Israeli workshops employing Palestinian laborers from the Occupied Territories: incapacity to survive without a cheap, disenfranchised labor force, and irregularity of employment which helps nourish and strengthen the migratory workers’ ties with their communities. These “frontier workers” become, according to Paige, the driving force for a revolutionary movement once an ideological and organizational framework has crystallized. The PLO provided such a framework in the Occupied Territories.
According to Hiltermann, the Palestinian turning point was the building of mass and quasi-legal trade unions and women’s committees by the left in the mid-1970s. The unionization of migratory laborers who had hitherto been outside the official trade union movement gave the labor movement a mass following. Through their alliance with other sectors of the population, the trade unions formed the basis of the national movement in the occupied territories, with the peyty bourgeoisie and professionals providing the leadership.
Hiltermann raises the issue of nationalism as a “cohesive ideology” that holds the various classes and groups together. Workers’ and feminist agendas have been subordinated to the nationalist cause, he argues, and the class struggle has been officially “frozen.” Likewise, much of the women’s movement refrained from examining gender roles and relations. Hiltermann’s explanation of the different voices within the women’s movement along the lines of political affiliation, however, is problematic: None of these political groups or women’s organizations has articulated a specific ideology of gender. His citations probably reflect the activists’ personal perceptions, shaped by class, experience and political consciousness rather than by political affiliation.
Rather than treating Palestinian women as responding to change, as Hiltermann implicitly does, Peteet perceives them as actors who initiate and introduce new norms of female potential to gender relations. The portrait she sketches of women political activists in refugee camps in Lebanon explores the potential for structural and ideological transformation in gender relations as well as the limitations imposed by the national framework. The process of crisis in Palestinian exile society has blurred the boundaries of sexual division of labor and subjected gender ideology to conscious reexamination. In response to attacks on camps, households are mobilized for communal defense, women’s domestic labor becomes politicized, and women assume tasks usually associated with men.
Peteet draws on a practice-centered view of history and society. Her concept of Palestinian women’s political consciousness is multi-dimensional: national, class and gender. It is molded first by the experience of exile and the inability to live according to the social norms of domesticity, both being mediated by class. Palestinian female consciousness, Peteet asserts, has been critical in developing a feminist consciousness. Women’s political activism has revealed the fragility of gender meaning, and has awakened some activists to their subordination.
If political activism initiates the potential for ideological changes, the national framework that legitimizes political activism also imposes limitations on such potential. Palestinian nationalist discourse has not articulated a specific gender ideology. It does not allow for women’s participation in a struggle to confront internally imposed forms of repression and domination. Most activists and camp women do not see gender inequality as a particularly salient issue, and they therefore tend not to seek changes in the allocation of social roles.
All three books will be of importance to researchers on the Palestinian question, and on nationalism and social change. Peteet’s study stands out as a special contribution to studies on gender in the Middle East.