Marianne Heiberg and Geir Ovensen et al, Palestinian Society in Gaza, West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions (FAFO, 1993).

Ziad Abu-Amr, Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza: Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad (Indiana, 1994).

Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, Palestinians: The Making of a People (Free Press, 1993).

Ebba Augustin, ed., Palestinian Women: Identity and Experience (Zed, 1993).
Change and its contradictory impulses provide the backdrop to Palestinian Society, edited by Marianne Heiberg and Geir Ovensen. This study, the first comprehensive survey of Palestinian society in the Occupied Territories, is based on interviews with 2,500 households to elicit data on population trends, housing, employment and income, health, education, women and social stratification, as well as opinions and attitudes.

The survey provides information that often contradicts popular notions about Palestinian society. For instance, the infrastructural services in West Bank refugee camps and rural areas are worse than those in Gaza (88); Gazans report fewer symptoms of distress (124) and have a weaker perception of conflict than other Palestinians (241); and the Gaza camps seem to be the most secular of localities, along with Arab Jerusalem (259).

Another contradictory finding suggests that “militantly religious women express a greater sense of influence and empowerment than their non-religious or observant counterparts” (265), while also noting that women who wear Islamic dress feel less free to move at will than women who wear “modern” — i.e., Western — dress (304). These contradictions offer a welcome antidote to the usual facile stereotypes of Palestinian society. The survey pragmatically treats the conflict as a given, and proceeds to present solid, data-driven analyses. Often quite technical and specialized in its use of statistics, it nonetheless is an invaluable resource on Palestinian politics and society.

Although there is a chapter dealing specifically with women, a major strength of the book is the comparison between men’s and women’s responses, highlighting deeply gendered cleavages in lived experiences and perceptions of society. In one of the most interesting chapters, Heiberg summarizes the data on opinions and attitudes as depicting “a society…moving in two directions simultaneously” (281): one toward more liberal attitudes on the status of women, increased secularization and acceptance of democratic values, the other toward social conservatism, patriarchal values and intolerance of pluralism. Interestingly, the younger generation tends to be over-represented among those identifying with the latter trend. Heiberg attributes this to the disruption of education — normally a liberalizing element — during the intifada.

Ziad Abu-Amr’s study, Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza, while timely, provides only partial answers to some pressing questions about the rising influence of Palestinian Islamists, particularly Hamas. He depicts the transformation of a politico-religious movement into a nationalist religious movement rivaling the secular nationalist forces during the intifada. He traces the origins of Islamic Jihad to a rift within the Muslim Brothers over the primacy of the national struggle or the “Islamic call” (105).

The Islamic movement has not achieved its major goal of establishing an Islamic state and society in Palestine. Abu-Amr offers reasons why Hamas may be better prepared than the secular factions to deal with the political crisis that ravaged the nationalist movement in the aftermath of the Gulf war. He predicts that increased Israeli crackdowns could cause Hamas to moderate its more violent tactics, enabling it to shift to “infrastructural building and consolidation of internal influence within Palestinian society” (135). Recent events would indicate, however, that Hamas is managing to both engage in violent tactics and exercise power within Palestinian society to the detriment of the various PLO factions. Abu-Amr may have underestimated the potential influence and effectiveness of Hamas. But one must keep in mind that this book was researched before the most recent events, including the Oslo accord.

A major problem with the book is that Abu-Amr relies too heavily on the words of the Islamists themselves, both in their writings and in interviews between October 1986 and January 1992. He does not provide the Palestinian public’s reactions to the Islamists, and thus does not attempt to assess their influence. Many people respond to Islamists’ calls for strikes more out of intimidation than conviction or agreement. His uncontextualized uses of written sources muddy already turgid waters. For example, he cites Islamists’ internal criticism of the Brothers’ “methods of formation” (118-19), never defining such nebulous phrases, thus rendering them rhetorical.

The issue of historical interpretation is at the heart of Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal’s Palestinians. At the outset they note the importance of historiographical debates in the conflict between Palestinians and Jews (xvi). Palestinians have learned the hard way that Israeli expropriation of land has been facilitated by a proficiency in appropriating history. The authors’ purpose is to write against the grain of “mythmaking national projects” for both sides (xv).

The first and strongest part of the book discusses the three revolts that they propose have defined modem Palestinian history: the 1834 revolt in Nablus against the Egyptian occupation, the 1936-1939 revolt against the British and the intifada. Their refutation that Palestinian national history begins with the first wave of Jewish immigration in 1882 is refreshing. They overemphasize, however, a supposed tension between Jaffa (the coast) and Nablus (the mountains). They seem to be grasping for a dichotomous paradigm to set up later theses about the cleavages in Palestinian society that contributed to Arab disunity and eventual defeat in confronting Zionism.

The book demonstrates the limits on how far some enlightened Israeli intellectuals are willing to go in revising historical conceptions. In their attempt to balance the historical record, the authors are oddly reticent about raising certain topics. In their efforts to locate Palestinians as the primary actors in their own historical narrative, they all but leave out discussion of Jews and Israelis, a rather large hole in the tale. The neutrality in tone and content fails to provide an account of the historical asymmetry of political power and the sources of that power. By focusing only on one of the two national protagonists, they avoid the thorny issues that are integral to Palestinian history. For example, discussing the intifada, which they strangely refer to as “ethnic violence” (260), they examine Palestinian strategies: popular committees, strikes, the use of martyrs as symbols and so forth. They mention “bloody battles,” “full-scale violence,” arson, knifing and kidnapping of soldiers. But collective curfews, house demolitions, assassinations by hit squads and deportations are almost absent from the narrative, mentioned only in muted asides, as though the Palestinians were “rioting” in a vacuum.

Ultimately, the authors do not move beyond the liberal Zionist framework of viewing the antagonists as two national movements with equal claims. They are unable to come to terms with the colonialist nature of the Zionist movement, and the fact that a minority group of mostly recent immigrants are currently imprinting their political agenda, language and culture upon an indigenous majority population by force.

Ebba Augustin’s Palestinian Women is an edited anthology which includes autobiographical selections, short stories, human rights testimony and research articles. Its eclectic nature is at times a strength, but sometimes results in redundancy and a lack of focus.

Several significant themes resonate throughout the book. One is the contradictory nature of women’s political involvement. Although Palestinian women have been politically active for decades, their participation in the intifada has been perceived as a new phenomenon due to the sheer numbers and high visibility of women involved.

Yet a different analysis has begun to emerge among Palestinian women activists. The heady flush of excitement about women’s activism in the early years of the intifada has been replaced with some soul-searching reappraisals. Although activist women have increasingly challenged the bifurcation between “women’s rights” and national liberation, there remains a strong tendency to view “feminism” as non-political, with the corollary that “political work” connotes the nationalist issue because it often means working within the framework of the PLO factions. Feminism, or “women’s work,” is perceived as “social,” something distinct and apart from “politics.”

Some women (and men) activists still do not perceive feminism as a political movement for gender equality so much as a reformist movement with a social agenda. The primacy of the national issue continues to dominate the debate on women, limiting the analysis of the role of gender within Palestinian society. But such views have become the subject of intense debate recently within the women’s movement, making much of this book’s material on women’s political role seem outdated. [1]

The most incisive and moving chapters are those where personal testimony or narrative illustrate some of the effects of this dichotomy. Faten Mukarker’s affecting chapter describes a childhood in Germany and then a move back to her parents’ native Bethlehem where she was pressured into marrying. Though her story is common enough, she weaves complex issues about exile, one’s sense of belonging and confusion about culture, gender traditions and identity throughout her personal history.


[1] See Rita Giacaman and Penny Johnson, “Searching for Strategies: The Palestinian Women’s Movement in the New Era,” Middle East Report 186 (January-February 1994).

How to cite this article:

Ellen Fleischmann "Recent Books on Palestinian Society," Middle East Report 194-195 (July/August 1995).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This