I came to know Ghada, a young Palestinian village woman, during my 14 months of fieldwork in her village in the West Bank. Ghada’s village, located south of Bethlehem, is home to approximately 3,000 residents, all of whom are Muslims. Ghada gained notoriety in the village and the surrounding communities after she attempted to stab an Israeli soldier at the Israeli army-controlled checkpoint on the road that links Bethlehem to Jerusalem. This checkpoint marks the dividing line between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Although the whole area was still under Israeli military occupation when Ghada attempted her attack, the Bethlehem area has, since 1996, been under partial control of the Palestinian Authority. Ghada’s attempted act of violence is interesting not only because it is unusual in the context of village life, but also because it illuminates the social, political and gender realities of life in the West Bank today.

Ghada, Her Family and the Israelis

In 1990, Ghada’s family came to the village for a visit from Kuwait, the country her family had emigrated to before Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. Labor migration to the Gulf states was common for communities in the West Bank during that era. Following the 1967 occupation, Palestinians residing outside the West Bank were not allowed to return permanently, except in cases of marriage or extenuating circumstances. So Ghada’s family lived in Kuwait for nearly 30 years.

During Ghada’s family’s visit to the village in 1990, the Gulf War began. Due to Israeli travel restrictions, the family’s brief visit ended up lasting three months. During this time, Ghada’s ibn ‘amm (paternal cousin) in the village asked for her hand in marriage. Ghada’s father was against this marriage — he did not like the young man — but Ghada was insistent, so the couple soon married.

Ghada immediately experienced conflict with her husband’s family, especially her mother-in-law. Each woman felt the other was interfering too much in her life, and since Ghada and her husband lived in a single room in her in-laws’ house the problems were continuous. To escape, Ghada often fled to her maternal grandparents’ house, but they always encouraged her to go back to her husband’s home.

One night during her first trimester of pregnancy, after her grandparents had sent her back to her husband’s home following a particularly bad argument with her husband and mother-in-law, Ghada took a kitchen knife and strode to the army outpost between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. She planned to stab a soldier in the hope that the Israelis would throw her out of the country. She assumed she could then return to her family, who were now residing in Amman, Jordan, having been barred, as were most Palestinians, from returning to Kuwait after the Gulf war.

As she approached the checkpoint, however, Ghada was quickly apprehended by the Israeli military police, deemed suspicious in demeanor, arrested and imprisoned for three months, where she lost the baby she was carrying. Upon her release, Israel forbade her to enter the West Bank for ten years. So Ghada got her wish: She returned to her family in Amman.

Meanwhile, her husband was imprisoned for two years for his intifada activities. By the time he was released, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had begun and many previous restrictions had been lifted. Ghada’s husband obtained permission to visit her in Amman, where Ghada’s family began pressuring her to reconcile with her husband. A month later, they obtained the necessary permission to return to the village together.

No sooner had they returned to the village than the serious marital discord flared again. Her husband’s family had built them a separate apartment, but to no avail. Finally, her husband, pressured by his mother and family, divorced her for the third, and thus final, time (according to Islamic law; after previous fights he had divorced her two other times). He returned to live with his family, leaving Ghada and her newborn baby girl alone in the little apartment.

Since the final divorce, only Ghada’s brother has come to visit her. Ghada’s grandparents still welcome her in their home, but she feels ashamed and awkward when she visits them. Since Ghada’s family is attempting to obtain permission to return to the village on a permanent basis, she is planning to stay there until their arrival. She is also waiting for the money owed to her by her husband’s family as part of the divorce settlement.

Realities of Village Life and Occupation

Ghada’s story illustrates some key social realities of village life for Palestinian women in the post-intifada, post-Oslo period. Women’s daily lives are enmeshed in the politics of occupation, oppression and resistance — stemming not only from external forces but also from within the village and family. A nuanced analysis of these dual sources of oppression and resistance reveals that divergent sources of domination may, at times, work together to constrain women’s lives.

In this case, both village social mores and Israeli occupation colluded against Ghada, trapping her in both the West Bank and her miserable marriage. Her personal circumstances — an unhappy domestic situation and a pronounced lack of alternatives — are inextricably entwined with her identity as a Palestinian villager under Israeli occupation. Here the hegemony of Israeli occupation and patriarchal village attitudes and expectations work together in powerful and disconcerting ways. Ghada’s case reveals that so-called “traditional” society and the forces of occupation may, at times, bolster one another in limiting young women’s lives. [1] Ghada’s experience also hints at a different kind of political activism found among some women in the West Bank. Her story challenges the implicit assumption evident in the scholarly literature and among some political activists that woman who are not involved in political organizations or stone throwing are apolitical. Ghada, who has never been a committee member and never thrown a stone (nor earned a wage), is intensely political.

Ghada’s story also highlights the village’s enmeshment in global politics: Ghada’s family emigrated to Kuwait from the West Bank for employment, were forced to remain there after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, and were later forced to flee Kuwait to Amman due to Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion. These international political events directly shape — and are shaped by — villagers in the West Bank. Villagers are part and parcel of a global economy and a complex regional political universe. The economic life of the village revolves around international border crossings to traverse the short distance between Bethlehem and Jerusalem to work, and depends upon other border transits for visits and remittances from relatives who lived in Kuwait and now dwell in Jordan.

Israelis who had heard of Ghada through news reports recalled that she carried out a “near successful” attack on a soldier for no apparent reason. Villagers would often point to Ghada’s story as evidence of Israeli oppression — oppression so great, they emphasized, that a young woman was driven to attempt the murder of an Israeli soldier. Both Israelis and Palestinians interpreted Ghada’s attack according to the demands of their respective nationalist political agendas, while simultaneously silencing important aspects of Ghada’s experience. Israelis drew attention to the violent and unjustified nature of the attack — the soldier was not bothering Ghada, they would insist; he was simply guarding the border. He was not shooting rubber or real bullets, nor was he harassing Palestinians in the street. Any questions about the presence of an imposed checkpoint, an enforced border which keeps Palestinians out of a country they consider their own, are eclipsed by Israelis’ need to envision Ghada’s attempted attack as irrational. This depiction of Ghada’s motivations feeds Israeli fears of Palestinians as unpredictable and unreasonable terrorists capable of violent acts, and thus deflects attention from the stark reality of an oppressive military occupation.

Just as a checkpoint is inherently oppressive in the eyes of those not manning it, Israeli control over reentry into the West Bank, and the disruption this wreaks in villagers’ personal and economic lives, is silenced by the Israeli explanation that Ghada was simply crazed. Ghada’s family is kept far away from her, unable to relieve her distress, by Israeli bureaucratic and other policing measures. By defining Ghada as irrational — indeed, as a terrorist — Israelis neatly sidestep the prickly issue of their control over the geography of the West Bank and its far-reaching implications for villagers’ lives. On the other hand, villagers who frame Ghada’s story as further evidence of the depths of Israeli oppression sidestep any critical analysis of Ghada’s social circumstances — circumstances profoundly influenced by conservative village social mores. Implicit in Ghada’s potentially violent act is a critique of these social mores, which allowed her no escape from an unhappy marriage. Her husband’s parents and grandparents avoided dealing with the nature and source of Ghada’s difficulties. Ghada herself could not ask for a divorce, let alone hope to set up her own independent home; such an action would never be permitted by the prevailing social mores. By ignoring the village’s own role in motivating Ghada’s actions, villagers deflected any critique of their own social universe and its detrimental impact on the lives of young women.

Ghada’s story calls attention to the multi-faceted nature of oppression — stemming from her marriage, community and identity as a Palestinian under occupation. By exploring the interconnections among those who are more powerful than Ghada — the Israeli military, her in-laws, the Kuwaiti regime, and her own family — one can transcend the binary analysis that dominates much of the literature on Palestinian women. Indeed, the danger inherent in emphasizing only one dimension of Ghada’s experience is clarified by the tendency displayed by Israelis and Palestinians alike to use her story in ways which serve and entrench their respective nationalist discourses, while ignoring important nuances of gender, opposition and resistance underlying the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Endnote

[1] See Nahla Abdo, “Women of the Intifada: Gender, Class and National Liberation,” Race and Class 32/4 (1991); and Didar Fawry, “Palestinian Women in Palestine,” in M. Gadant, ed., Women in the Mediterranean (London: Zed Press, 1986), for examples of analyses that argue for a two-tiered approach to understanding the dual effects of occupation and village patriarchy. See also Celia Rothenberg, “Spirits of Palestine: Palestinian Village Women and Stories of the Jinn,” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, 1998.

How to cite this article:

Celia Rothenberg "Understanding Ghada: The Multiple Meanings of an Attempted Stabbing," Middle East Report 210 ( ).
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