Reham Alhelsi – Palestinian Mothers: Homage to Steadfastness and Sacrifice
When the women came and told her to leave what she was doing and come and sit in front of the house with them, my grandmother knew what was to come. They sat outside and didn’t talk much. My uncle had been shot in the chest by the IOF that afternoon, and was at that moment being operated. He was in a critical condition, the doctors had told the men who had brought him to the hospital. Some were sent back home to prepare the family for the news and to prepare the refugee camp to welcome the hero, in case the worst happened. Although hope dies last, it was a necessity to prepare everything for a quick funeral and a quick burial. The Israeli army had been known to take bodies of Palestinian martyrs and steal their organs without the Palestinian family’s consent. The organs would then be given to Israelis who needed them. So a Palestinian killed by the IOF, mostly for no reason at all or for defending his country, would be labelled as terrorist by Israel and the biased media, while his organs would be used to save Israeli lives. In other countries, stealing the organs of dead people is considered a crime, but as usual, it doesn’t apply to Israel.
My grandmother sat quiet the whole time, no tears and no words. It was her youngest son, they said. His elder brothers had one time after another been imprisoned for everything that Israel considered “terror”, that she decided at least to spare the youngest the inside of an Israeli prison. Every day she would tell him to go to school and come back directly. “don’t go here or there”. I heard my mother say one time “she thought this way she was keeping him safe from the Israelis; everyday coming back from school after classes were over, and keeping him at her side most of the time.” Till one day, the boys came and told my grandmother that her son had been arrested. ”Arrested for what?” “he was throwing stones.” He hadn’t even bothered to go to school that day.” One of my other uncles said laughingly when the story was brought up once: but we had prepared him for this. And everyone laughed. I laughed too, because I have been though this process as well. Actually, to us kids, it was just another game. One of those bizarre refugee camp games, like the “UNRWA restaurant” game, where we would play little refugee kids standing in line and waiting for our daily portion of a slice of bread and small slice of tomato with salt, and being shouted at by the “UNRWA employee”. The other game, which was to prepare us for future imprisonment by the IOF was the “confession game”. Each one of us would be “tortured” to strengthen our resistance and prevent us from confessing anything in case we are interrogated by the IOF. There was really no “torture” in this game, because there was no real beating. We would be shouted at in a funny way, and the one among us to act the “IOF soldier” would be mimicking Israeli soldiers trying to be brave, but who are in fact afraid of us, little children. We would laugh while being “tortured”, for it was mostly fun for us. Although the game would not really prepare anyone for the barbaric Israeli interrogation and torture, in some way, the game was educational. It gave us the feeling that we are stronger than the IOF and that despite all their weapons, they feared us. So, we would just play being beaten by the IOF, and the one playing the IOF soldier would ask us continuously to confess and we would refuse. He would slash us, though not harshly, on the soles, and demand we confess. We would refuse, laughingly, because for us it was a game, a game that would prove useful one day.
That day, no funeral took place, for my uncle had made it. He had a strong will to live. But every time I think of that moment, I think about my grandmother. The 60 year old woman, who used to divide her week according to visiting days in Israeli prisons. Before one of them was released, another would be arrested, so that they rarely gathered at a dinner table. We were all used to it, not seeing all my uncles at the same time. I rarely heard my grandmother complain, but it was clear to everyone how much she loved her family and how sad she was that they weren’t all around her. She didn’t have to tell her children to go and demonstrate. It was a natural reaction to what these children themselves saw and went through, and it was the love of the land planted in their heart by my grandmother. She would often talk about Jrash, the village from which she and her family and all the residents were ethnically cleansed by the Zionist terror organizations. They were forced to move from one place to another, until they finally reached what is now Dheisheh refugee camp. There she tried to reconstruct her original home by planting some trees in the small piece of land near the UNRWA rooms they were to live in.
The life of my grandmother is typical of the lives of many Palestinian mothers. She was born in a small picturesque village in Palestine, where she grew up, got married and started a family. She would take care of her home, and help the family with the fields. She would care for her small garden and the apple trees which she loved most and would make marmalade for the winter. When the Zionist terror organizations started implementing their plan of ethnically cleansing the Palestinian population, Palestinian villages were attacked one after the other, and horrific massacres took place. The residents of Jrash were finally forced to leave, but not before they fought heroically. My grandparents often talked about these days. During my last visit to Palestine a couple of months ago, I listened to my grandfather as he talked about the fight with the Zionist groups. With sharp memory, he mentioned such details, that for a few seconds I could feel myself there, with them, 60 years ago.
A number of times my grandmother was beaten by the IOF soldiers, some of whom were younger than her own sons and who didn’t care that she was an elderly woman. When IOF soldiers would attempt to arrest someone in the refugee camp, she would hurry with the other women and try and stop them. When Zionist settlers would attack the refugee camp, she would carry the tree stem she hides behind the couch and go protect the camp alongside the men and women. And in the early mornings of the day, when everyone is still fast asleep, after finishing the morning prayer I would hear her asking God to protect her family, her relatives, her neighbours, the refugee camp, the Palestinians and the whole world. I heard her day after day asking forgiveness for the whole world.
In Palestine mothers are sacred. Every one of us has several mothers: the mother that gave birth to us, the olive tree, the land and the mother of all: Palestine. And a Palestinian mother isn’t just a mother to the children she gives birth to, she is mother to all Palestinians. When a Palestinian is being arrested by the IOF, women of all ages will be surrounding the soldiers within seconds, trying to free the prisoner. And for that, sometimes they pay a heavy price, like the 60 year old Mariam Ayyad from Abu Dees. On the night of 20th of September 2008, IOF soldiers broke into her house. After arguing with her, the old woman was repeatedly hit and thrown on the ground by the soldiers until she died in front of her children and grandchildren. During curfews, it is mostly women who would move carefully from one house corner to another and from one street to the other and distribute wheat and milk. When young masked men wanted to go from one place to another, they would be assisted by these mothers, who would check that the roads were clear of IOF soldiers. And when one of their millions of children gets killed by the IOF, they all gather and mourn as one single mother, that it becomes difficult to figure out which one of these mothers is the martyr’s mother. They are the protectors, the helpers and the witnesses of Israeli brutality, for many of them not only carry the pain of losing their children, they carry the scars of more than 60 years of Zionist terror and destruction.
During the Nakba of 1948, Zionist terrorists massacred Palestinians indiscriminately. Even women and children, who are protected during wars under all human laws, were killed in a brutal way. Accounts of the Deir Yassin massacre mention that among the 254 Palestinians victims were 25 pregnant women who were bayoneted in the abdomen while still alive. Another 52 children were maimed in front of their mothers before having their heads cut off by the Zionist terrorists. After the village of Beit Darras had been surrounded by Zionist terror groups and further Zionist mobilization was on the way to occupy the village, the Zionist terror groups called on the Palestinian residents to leave the village safely from the south side. The villagers decided that it was safer for the women and children to leave, since it was the village the Zionists wanted. Upon leaving the village, all the women and children were massacred by the Zionist terrorists. Kafr Qasim, Qibya and many other massacres carry the same pattern of killing unarmed mothers and their children. Other mothers lost their children, and many their lives, after being forced out of their homes to wander the hills of Palestine in search of a safe spot.
The suffering and pain of Palestinian mothers continues till today. Palestinian mothers, including the elderly and the sick among them, are often humiliated at checkpoints in front of their children, and pregnant women are delayed, causing many to give birth at these checkpoint. Women are not only delayed at checkpoints, they are often prevented from reaching hospitals, causing miscarriages and even the death of some of women and infants. Many unnamed children are stillborn at Israeli checkpoints after unnecessary delays or after their mothers were forced to deliver on the dirt road or inside cars at the checkpoint. A report of the Palestinian Ministry of Health published in October 2006 states that since the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000 some 68 pregnant women gave birth at Israeli checkpoints, leading to 34 miscarriages and the death of four women. In 2002, in two consecutive days two pregnant women on their way to hospital were shot and injured by the IOF soldiers at a checkpoint in the Nablus area. One of the women lost her husband who was shot on the neck and the chest. Others are forced to give birth at home, despite fear of complications because they fear they will be stopped at checkpoints and won’t make it in time to the hospital. In Azzun Atma near Qalqilya pregnant women are even forced to take up residence outside the village until they deliver out of fear that they might not be able to get the necessary medical treatment. The village, encircled by the apartheid wall, is separated by a gate from the rest of the West Bank. This gate is not manned at night, making the village a prison to its residents. According to a B’Tselem report, alone during 2006 some 20 out of 30 pregnant women from Azzun Atma were forced to relocate outside of the village because of their pregnancy.
IOF soldiers don’t hesitate in arresting Palestinian mothers to be used as hostages to pressure wanted Palestinians to give themselves up. In its report “Behind the Bars: Palestinian Women in Israeli Prisons” published in June 2008, Addammeer, Mandela Institute and the Palestinian Counselling Centre state that “As of May 2008, over 9.080 Palestinian political prisoners remain in Israeli prisons, detention facilities and camps; of those 73 Palestinian women (including 2 girls aged 16 and 17 of a total of 327 minors, and 24 mothers with a total number of 68 children.” Many of the prisoners are held without any charges, and are subjected to torture, humiliation and intimidation. There were four cases of women giving birth inside Israeli prisons under difficult conditions. These women had their hands and feet shackled to their beds. They remain so until they enter the delivery room and are chained again after they deliver.
Palestinian mothers are not only to suffer the loss of their children, husbands and other family members, they themselves are also targeted by the IOF. According to Miftah 7141 Palestinians had been killed by the IOF during the period from 28th September 2000 till 28th February 2009, 1138 of whom were children and 581 were women. A recent report of the Palestine Centre for Human Rights on Israel’s war on Gaza confirms that “Over the course of the 22 day Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, a total of 1,434 Palestinians were killed. Of these, 235 were combatants. The vast majority of the dead, however, were civilians and non-combatants: protected persons according to the principles of IHL. PCHR investigations confirm that, in total, 960 civilians lost their lives, including 288 children and 121 women. 239 police officers were also killed; the majority (235) in air strikes carried out on the first day of the attacks. The Ministry of Health has also confirmed that a total of 5,303 Palestinians were injured in the assault, including 1,606 children and 828 women.” Every single child killed had a mother. Human rights organization talked in their reports about mothers being killed together with their children, others witnessing the killing of their children and not able to prevent it, while others died in front of their children. Some of these mothers lost not only one child, but several. Of the many war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza, one horrific story tells the fate of a Palestinian mother of 10. While sitting with her children, the IOF soldiers entered her house and demanded she choose five of her children to “give as a gift to Israel”. After the woman screamed in horror, the IOF soldiers told her they would choose themselves and then killed five of her children in front of her.
Palestinian mothers have been actively participating in resisting the occupation. They are the first to organize sit-ins in front of international organizations and hold marches demanding the release of their children from Israeli prisons or protesting the brutality of the Israeli military occupation. They visit their sons in hospitals and in jails, despite the long wait and the humiliation they endure on the hands of the Israelis jailers. Also, many of these mothers are the supporters of their families. When the father or son is arrested or killed by the IOF, it is the mothers who take on the burden of providing for their families. Those among them who have a piece of land would plant it with vegetables and herbs, to be later sold to neighbours or at the local market. Others use their embroidery skills to stitch Palestinian tradition dresses “thob”, scarves, shawls and pillow covers. They hold their families together, particularly in difficult times.
Biased media, serving only Zionist propaganda, ignores the suffering of Palestinian mothers under Israeli occupation and instead often portrays them as heartless women, who send these children to the streets and encourage them to throw stones so be killed and then celebrate their death. Palestinian parents encourage their children to study and get a good education and build a better future for themselves. Some parents even lock their children inside the house to prevent them from participating in demonstration or any other kind of activity against the IOF because they know the brutality of the IOF and out of fear they might be killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers. Parents work hard to spare their children the suffering they themselves endured under the Israeli occupation. But as long as the Zionists occupy Palestine, Palestinian suffering will continue, and generation after generation will seek to get themselves rid of this brutal occupation, no matter how hard the parents try to keep their children away from it. Living in Palestine, and being confronted with Zionist terror every day, one is not in need of parents or teachers to form an idea about this Zionist state and decide to demonstrate for a better future. That is why many join demonstrations or get politically active without telling their parents. In many cases it is when the children get arrested or are killed that the parents first know of their children’s involvement in resisting the occupation. Palestinian mothers who lose their children often appear composed on TV and in the news, and if asked, most of them talk about their martyred children in pride and calm and without shedding a tear. It is behind the camera that they show their sorrow and anger at the loss of their beloved ones. Palestinians know that these mothers want to send a message to Israel: despite the suffering and the pain, you won’t break us, ever. Few journalists bother to visit these mothers days after their children have been killed. Many of them visit the grave of their killed child daily, and others keep their room as it was when they still lived there. Few reporters bother asking these mothers what memoires they have kept of their children. If they did, they would be shown clothes, hair brushes, notebooks and pictures, all soaked in tears. These mothers would have freely sacrificed their lives to save their children from death on the hands of the IOF and give them a future empty of Zionist occupation.
Mothers are sacred in Palestine because they are the personification of Palestine: the homeland and the mother of all Palestinians. It is the love of this land that is handed over from one generation to the next. Whenever in Dheisheh, we often sat with grandmother as children, listening to her talking about Palestine, the Nakba, the Naksa and the life in a refugee camp. She would talk about her mother and her grandmother, about her brothers and sisters, about my grandfather, and about her children. She was strong and was always there for her family, even at times when she herself was very weak. She was the safe island everyone seeks and the cave that sheltered us from the storm. Even long after her death, I still often think of her and ask for her guidance. She passed down her strength, steadfastness and kindness to her children. My mother continued the tradition of connecting us to the Palestinian landscape. As children, she and my father used to sit with us and tell us stories about Palestine, the history that one would not find in book, the history of the real people who lived on this land and appreciated it. For me, the personal experiences of my grandmother and mother are priceless. I am thankful to my grandmother and my mother for introducing me to a Palestine that was unknown to me, to parts of our history that others work hard to delete, to a heritage that is mine forever. Through our mothers Palestine is celebrated every single day.
In his poem “My Mother”, late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said:
I must be worth my life
At the hour of my death
Worth the tears of my mother
Source: Palestine Think Tank