The Only Hope for the Palestinian Struggle Is to Rid It of Its Macho Narrative

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Palestinians in Nazareth celebrate the jailbreak of prisoner Zakaria Zubeidi from an Israeli prison, Sept. 2021
A celebration of Palestinian prisoner Zakaria Zubeidi's jailbreak in Nazareth, in September. He did not defeat the occupation nor will he defeat it anytime soon.Credit: Rami Shllush

Hamza Younis’ escape from an Israeli prison in the 1970s (three times!) is just one of many formative moments that preceded the recent jailbreak by Zakariya Zubeidi and five fellow inmates from Gilboa Prison.

The Palestinian-Arab press trotted out every possible superlative to describe Zubeidi: freedom fighter, dragon of Palestine, black panther, legend, hero of the second intifada. Zubeidi, as a Palestinian man, met the national test to which he was put – Dominant Palestinian discourse has lauded him specifically and Palestinian masculinity in general as heroic.

Celebration of jailbreak of 6 Palestinian inmatesCredit: Celebration of jailbreak of 6 Palestinian inmates

The problem is that his masculinity, like that of many Palestinian men, is defined vis-a-vis the violence of the masculinity of the Israeli occupier. The beatings, arrests, torture and imprisonment he underwent are rites of passage for heroic national Palestinian masculinity. This is what Palestinian society expects from a man experiencing a transformation from a regular guy to hero. Ordinary, mortal masculinity signifies defeat, which is something internal Palestinian discourse refuses to absorb.

The demand is for a counterweight that is “equal” to the occupying Israeli masculinity. Every day anew, the occupation creates a poster-like or defeated form of Palestinian masculinity; it shrinks the space in which it operates, channels and dictates its social and political responses.

It is pretentious and misleading to assert that Palestinian masculinity – which is regularly fueled and inflated by Palestinian pathos – is equivalent in physical and symbolic power to the occupying Israeli masculinity just because it is capable of reacting to it. This reactiveness does not actually alter the balance of power and therefore its final refuge is replication of the heroic model again and again, in an attempt to breathe life into the slowly fading Palestinian narrative.

Zubeidi’s escape is one fighting response out of a range of possible reactions to Israeli political-masculine oppression. It is not the ultimate and only response, so it cannot be depicted as a complete national Palestinian victory over the occupation, as has been the dominant theme in the community's discourse.

In general, Zubeidi’s escape and Palestinian male heroism should not be become the sole signifier of what it means to be Palestinian, or of the Palestinian cause. He did not defeat the occupation nor will he defeat it anytime soon. His escape did not “undermine the security of Israel and Israelis.”

That is hollow, historically erroneous and destructive talk that intimates in a nostalgic way that only Palestinian male heroism can be triumphant. In fact, no male Palestinian heroism has put an end to the occupation, altered political discourse regarding the occupation, or offered any evidence or an alternative toolbox to the younger generations – aside from the glorification of sacrifice and loss.

While the female Palestinian body is perceived as something shameful, men expose their own beaten and tortured bodies in public and to the media because signs of torture are a source of pride and an indication of having passed the masculinity test. Palestinian men control the narrative via their bodies and then preserve and dictate it: Upon their release, the humiliation, incarceration and torture they experienced in Israeli prisons are leveraged for access to power, to key positions and political influence.

The story of Marwan Barghouti who has been imprisoned in Israel since 2004 (for involvement in attacks during the second intifada) is a classic example of the leveraging of persecution, incarceration and a life sentence that grants political power and influence. The man continues to function as a national leader from inside the prison walls; he was involved in the implementation of the “Cairo accords” aimed at achieving Palestinian national unity, and in the reorganization of the Fatah ranks. He also put himself forward as a candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority this past year.

Barghouti's political achievements do not exceed those of female activists and lawmakers Khalida Jarrar or Hanan Ashrawi, but he is still crowned as the next political leader thanks to that aforementioned leveraging.

Excluded from the discourse

Palestinian activist Zakaria Zubeidi, in 2007. Palestinian women have no access to male Palestinian heroism like his. Credit: Miki Kratsman

The dynamic I described above does not apply at all to Palestinian women. The physical violence the occupation uses against them does not serve as a rite of passage to a national-heroic Palestinian femininity. There is no "track" to female Palestinian heroism. Palestinian women are completely excluded from this heroic discourse and from the sociopolitical rewards that go with it, mainly because Palestinian men are the ones responsible, per current discourse, for waging the struggle and for the honor and protection of Palestinian women, so therefore women’s heroism is not needed.

The creation of a female Palestinian heroism track would mean upsetting the narrative's balance of forces on the basis of gender, and making it accessible to excluded Palestinian femininity.

Even if they wanted it, Palestinian women have no access to that Palestinian heroism because it entails physical contact that is religiously, morally and nationally forbidden with strange men, in this case the soldiers of the occupation.

Palestinian female prisoners will never try to escape because they will always have the shame and fear of social sanctions hanging over their head after they gain their freedom if they have been beaten and tortured. Also, being freed from prison won’t be a source of pride for them or a means for achieving sociopolitical mobility.

Maternal-womb roles

Thus, the female Palestinian body has been pushed into traditional maternal-womb roles in which Palestinian women are expected to function as “witnesses” to the violence that the occupation commits against Palestinian men and children.

For the most part, Palestinian women are documented by the media and reflected in the narrative almost exclusively as acting as a buffer between children and soldiers, shouting at troops and pulling their children away from them; they function as the mothers of all the children and all the Palestinian men. And because they are prevented from telling the story of what has been wrought on their bodies, they recount the sole legitimate story: of Palestinian men who are beaten, tortured and killed.

Palestinian prisoner Israa al-Jaabis Credit: Palestinian prisoner Israa al-Jaabis

The women are permitted to engage in bereavement and loss because those are things that fit in with their religious, moral and gender-related role in their society. Female heroism is taboo. The narrative that is told shall not include female fear and anxiety in the shadow of the occupation.

Currently, there are 40 Palestinian women incarcerated in Israeli prisons. To the public they are anonymous, lacking names or stories. The only one whose name comes up in the Palestinian and Arab press from time to time is Israa al-Jaabis. She is serving 11 years for an act that she insists she did not commit (blowing up a gas cannister in her vehicle at the checkpoint near the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim).

Jaabis did not become a symbol of female Palestinian heroism because her denial of the deed of which she is accused, and her request for medical care, are perceived as negotiating with the occupation forces and distancing herself from the Palestinian national cause.

It is not the job of Palestinian women today to adopt Palestinian national male heroism, to publicize it and support it or defend it as the previous generation of women did. Their job is to crack it and criticize it, to fight it and kill it off politically and in terms of public consciousness. To refuse to go on accepting it. This refusal will likely be met with violence, with cries of betrayal and disdain from most Palestinian men, but another kind of Palestinian femininity needs to be born.

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