The Womb as a Weapon in Palestine

The article examines the systematic violence against Palestinian women's reproductive health and sexuality, depicting the womb as both a target of aggression and a tool of resistance amidst the ongoing struggle in Palestine.

Fertility and women sexuality have long been targets of violence during both war and genocide. In Palestine, Israel has long seen Arab women’s reproductive role as a "demographic threat" and has subjected them to systematic violence in order to disrupt the cultural, social and biological reproduction of the Palestinian people. Israel’s tactics include not only denial of access to reproductive health services and destruction of medical facilities, but also targeted violence against women, including psychological humiliation, physical abuse, and rape.

Following the 1948 Nakba, Palestinian intellectuals examined the intersection of women’s liberation and national liberation within the Palestinian context. The metaphor of "Palestine as a woman and women as Palestine" emerged as an important symbol in the national struggle against the occupation. This idea conveys how women's role as mothers has been woven into and thereby feminized the practice of everyday resistance.

The Biological Weapon of the Womb

The lives of Palestinian women are in many ways shaped by traditional gender roles; they are the home-makers who maintain the domestic sphere and the mothers who reproduce the population. As Palestinians were increasingly subjected to militarized control by Israeli forces after the Nakba, the emergence of the resistance movement put women in new and non-conventional roles as fighters, professionals, civil society leaders, and political party members. Nonetheless, biological reproduction remains paramount in the demographic battle against occupation, and it continues to be a defining aspect of women’s role in the national struggle.

The Palestinian national movement recognizes the crucial reproductive power that women wield as the mothers of the nation. For the resistance, the womb is a weapon that can preserve the continuity of the community and compensate - to some degree - for the asymmetrical power relations with Israel. The late resistance leader Yasser Arafat boasted of the "womb of the Palestinian woman" as the "strongest weapon against Zionism" and a harbinger of the victory ahead. And insomuch as Palestinians view the "womb" as a source of power, the murder of so many women and children over the past 6 months in Gaza shows that Israel sees them as a threat.

Destroying the “Reproductive Power” of Palestinian women

At the time of writing this blog, the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics reports that 34,149 people have been martyred by Israel in the Gaza Strip, including 9,220 women and 14,000 children. Israel refers to these latter causalities as “collateral damage”. But when we recognize that children are the future of the Palestinian people and women are the carriers of this next generation, we can understand why this is no mere accident of war.

Many women in Gaza have had no option but to undergo traumatizing childbirths without any anesthesia. When the Israeli military knocks out power to medical facilities, doctors have only their phone flashlights to perform operations. Hospital grounds themselves have been the target of heavy shelling. These conditions have exponentially raised the risk of miscarriages and premature births as pregnant women are subjected to intense stress, shock, and fear. Many newborns have died in the early postnatal period due to lack of fuel and electricity needed to sustain their incubators. The blockade has left women with insufficient water to properly clean their bodies after childbirth, and some are forced to resort to mass hysterectomies to control postpartum bleeding. And throughout Gaza, widespread hunger has made it impossible for mothers to produce milk or breastfeed.

Tagreed Al-Ashqar described her harrowing experience giving birth amidst displacement:

“I gave birth via cesarean. After three days, while I still had stitches, we were forced to flee Jabaliya Refugee Camp. And she [the baby girl] was not doing well. No diapers, no milk - we had nothing. Since we came here, she has endured the flu, a cold, and lots of coughing. If you need vapor therapy, you find none. Medicines are not available. Her mouth is infected. Even clothes are not available. We scratch to find what we need from here and there, but it is not warm enough for her.”

Nearly 1 million women and girls displaced in Gaza face severe challenges in accessing basic hygiene products, exacerbating their already dire living conditions. Many have resorted to makeshift materials like strips from their tents and pieces of clothing as sanitary pads, while some have turned to norethisterone tablets, typically used for menstrual disorders, in attempts to halt their menstrual cycles. And for some women, the extreme stress and food deprivation over the past six months have caused disruptions in their menstrual cycles.

Sexual Violence on Women Detainees – Testimonies

In Israeli’s prisons, Palestinian women have given testimony of appalling incidents of torture and sexual violence following October 7th. The Women Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Palestine compiled a report that was submitted to the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, which described threats of rape and sexual assault, degrading strip searches of the prisoners, collective strip searches, verbal sexual harassment, and the use of menstruation as a means of physical and psychological pressure on imprisoned women. This includes depriving women of sanitary pads, hygiene items and laundered clothing, restricting their bathroom usage, violating their privacy, forcing them to remove their hijabs, capturing and circulating their images on personal phones, and forcing them to stay in overcrowded rooms.

Journalist and writer Lama Khater testified that following her arrest she was threatened with rape and sexual assault:

“I was surrounded by 20 investigators and intelligence officers, and I was handcuffed and blindfolded. The officers began threatening me with rape to humiliate me. It was so despicable - the way they were discussing different forms of rape.”

In another testimony, Ahed Tamimi described how she was stripped naked and beaten repeatedly all over her body on three occasions:

“I was stripped naked, taken to a bathroom and beaten all over my body while I lay on the floor”.

Hanan Barghouthi described her ordeal of sexual harassment as follows: “The soldiers’ hands were touching me on various areas of my body, especially the chest area, under the pretext of holding me for fear of falling. Their groping made me scream at the top of my lungs, telling them to leave me alone, to stay away from me, not to touch me. But it was to no avail.

A Weapon of Life

Within the framework of genocidal wars, women's bodies often become a battleground of sexuality and a target of violence for those with colonial agendas. The Israeli state has come to recognize that the womb is a weapon for the Palestinian people. In its attack against Palestinian motherhood, Israel has attempted to fragment national identity, dismantle resistant social structures and control their demographic increase. And as blatantly evidenced over the past 6 months in Gaza, Israel has also put women behind the cross-hairs as targets of the Israeli forces’ “necro-power” – power wielded through the infliction of death. But as many Palestinians recognize, the womb is not a weapon of death but a weapon of life – a “Bio-Weapon” of sorts. And as both the symbol and the means of the reproduction of the nation, it embodies people’s hope for the future amidst such violence and despair, even as ceasefires are repeatedly blocked and violated.

If We Don’t End War… War will End Us
H.G. Wells

Tami Rafidi is a Palestinian political and human rights activist who currently works as a Program Manager at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung – Palestine office. Tami earned her Bachelors Degree in English Language and Literature and her Masters Degree in International Studies from Birzeit University – Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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