Rula Salameh lives in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem and works for Just Vision, an NGO committed to finding and disseminating non-violent ways of ending the Israeli-Palesinian conflict in both communities. She is also a television presenter for Ma’an News Agency, a Palestinian television channel, and is active in a number of women’s groups in East Jerusalem.
“What happened in Gaza recently really effected most Palestinian lives in Israel and the West Bank,” Salameh told me on the phone last week. “I felt that we had to do something to support people in Gaza, to tell them we are thinking of them and supporting them and we can’t live a normal life while Gaza is under Israeli attack.”
She said she organized peaceful gatherings in Jerusalem. She also spearheaded an initiative to help Gazan refugees who have come to East Jerusalem’s hospitals. Salameh has also visited more than 50 Gazans who got stranded in East Jerusalem while seeking medical care at Augusta Victoria Hospital before the conflict began. These patients and the family members who traveled with them now lack necessities like clothing, enough money for a bottle of water, and chargers for their cellphones. Salameh told me that she and other female leaders of her community took it upon themselves to care for this community, checking in on them and supplying these basic needs.
I asked her if standing with Gaza meant standing against Israel. “We are here supporting human beings,” she told me. “The people here are in serious conditions. A lot are kids, or young adults. All the people, they have nothing to do with army groups or even they are not even politicians. They are normal people who are inside their homes when they just received the bombing or they are running from one place to another when they were attacked.” She reiterated: “We are not working against Israel. We are supporting each other.”
Salameh said that women are playing a big role in Gaza, both in terms of suffering and in terms of shouldering the care for the wounded. I asked her to comment on the way Hamas treats women. She told me that both nationally and internationally, there was a big fear in 2006 after Hamas was elected that they would force women to wear hijabs, stay home, not work, not be involved politically. Those fears, she said, were not realized. There are 17 women on the the Palestinian Legislative Council—the Palestinian Parliament—out of 132. When a Palestinian Supreme Court Justice ordered female lawyers to wear scarves and caftans while practicing law, there was pushback from lawyers, and Hamas’s Justice Ministry cancelled the order.
“In the last years since they took over power in Gaza, we never heard that they didn’t treat women in a good way, that they were beaten or forced to wear a hijab or forced to leave work,” Salameh said. “On the other hand, we saw a number of female leaders within Hamas, they took their role in the community and are doing a good job, in schools or in University, or in NGOs, or as members of the Hamas political party.”
When Salameh has encountered these women at conferences, they have been wearing hijabs, but she believes it is because they are religious, and would wear them even if they didn’t live in Gaza. “We didn’t hear as journalists or women leaders in the West Bank or Jerusalem that women are forced to wear a hijab or forced to stay home and not go to work.” On the streets of Gaza, you will find women with hijab and women without.
For Salameh, the solution to the occupation is “to find a way to end the siege around Gaza and to treat these people as human beings. Imagine people living without electricity, without water, without medication.”
She said the Israeli offensive against Gaza is a turning point for Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank, too. “What happened in Gaza changed everything here. I think Gaza managed to unite the Palestinians in different ways—Muslims and Christians are all supporting Gaza. Churches and mosques are supporting Gaza, collecting blood to send to Gaza. Politicians are holding the Palestinian flag, not the flags of other political parties… The Palestinians will never accept to see Gaza under siege. They can’t stay silent anymore.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.