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West Bank and Gaza

Hilde Granås Kjøstvedt
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.

West Bank and Gaza

The West Bank and Gaza Strip (WBGS) refer to the two disconnected areas that, together with East Jerusalem, are commonly referred to as “the occupied Palestinian territories.” They constitute what remains of the Arab Palestinian state outlined by the United Nations’ General Assembly Resolution 181 (the Partition Plan) of 1947. This plan proposed to separate the former British Mandate territory into one Jewish and one Arab state on 56 and 43 percent of the territory respectively. Jerusalem was designated as a corpus separatum under international administration. The plan was rejected by the Arab neighbor states, and, when Israel declared its “independence” on May 14, 1948, war broke out. Victorious in the war, Israel conquered 21 percent of the territory intended for the Arab state, as well as the western part of Jerusalem. One part of the remaining territory—the Gaza Strip—was governed by Egypt, and one part—the West Bank, along with East Jerusalem—was governed by Jordan. An estimated 750,000 Palestinians were made refugees as a result of the war, which is referred to as al-Nakba, the catastrophe. The majority of the 3.7 million Palestinians presently living in the WBGS and East Jerusalem are Sunnī Muslim: 99.3 percent on the Gaza Strip and 92 percent in the West Bank. The rest belong to various Christian denominations.


The West Bank (Arabic: Al-Ḍaffa al-Gharbiyya) is a landlocked area of 5640 km2 (including East Jerusalem). Jordan formally annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1950 and made the inhabitants Jordanian citizens with Jordanian passports. This move more than tripled Jordan's prewar population to 1,250,000, and it is estimated that 400,000 of those citizens were refugees. The Gaza Strip (Arabic: Qitāʾ Ghazza) is coastal area of 360 km2. After al-Nakba, 250,000 refugees were added to the original population of about 80,000. Egypt retained control over the Gaza Strip after the 1949 armistice agreement with Israel. Nominally, the All-Palestine Government ruled until 1959, but the area was for all practical purposes under Egyptian military administration. Given that a large majority of the population were refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) shared administrative responsibility with Egypt from 1950.

During this period, economic and infrastructural development was lacking and both areas remained mainly agricultural with high unemployment rates. The Jordanian rulers practiced discriminatory economic policies discouraging investment on the West Bank in favor of Transjordan. Egyptian rule changed after Nasser became president in 1956, and his social, educational, and security reform program was carried over to the Gaza Strip. The socioeconomic upheaval of al-Nakba meant that many peasant families lost their means of subsistence, forcing an unprecedented number of women to seek employment outside of the home. Women's organizations providing social services were established in major WBGS towns from the 1950s onward. The best known organization is Inʾash al-Usra (the Family Rejuvenation Society), established in al-Bireh on the West Bank in 1965 and headed by Samiha Khalil. Such societies expanded their activities from charity to education and vocational training for women, enabling them to find jobs outside the home. Khalil ran against Yasser Arafat in the presidential election in 1996, garnering 11.5 percent of the vote.

Following the annexation, the West Bank and East Jerusalem became subject to Jordanian law. In 1951, the Jordanian and Palestinian Sharīʿah courts were unified and a Jordanian Law of Family Rights was promulgated. The Egyptian governor issued a Law of Family Rights in 1954, pertaining to the Gaza Strip only. The Jordanian Law of Family Rights was amended in 1976, and both laws remain in force today. The laws govern personal status issues, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance for Muslims, and both are derived from the Ḥanafī law school. For Christians of the WBGS, ecclesiastic courts govern personal status issues according to the person's denomination.

Under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, political activities in the WBGS were severely restricted; after Nasser's coup in 1952, all political parties were banned in Egypt. Jordan invoked a state of emergency in 1956 and banned all political parties the year after, except for the Muslim Brotherhood. Given that it was allowed to operate openly, the West Bank-Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood developed in a more moderate, less militaristic direction than the suppressed Gaza Strip-Egyptian one. Although Pan-Arabism was the dominant ideology, Palestinian nationalist movements developed in exile. The policy of Yasser Arafat's Fatah (Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Falastini; the Palestinian National Liberation Movement) was to develop a Palestinian revolutionary authority on the WBGS. When the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was established in 1964, Nasser gave it nominal authority over the Gaza Strip. In 1965, Palestinian women's activism was unified and included in the PLO under the umbrella organization General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW). The GUPW worked toward the participation of women in all aspects of the struggle to liberate Palestine, and, according to its charter, for women's equality with men “in all rights and privileges for the purpose of liberating the homeland.”


Following the Six-Day War of June, 1967, Israel occupied the WBGS, gaining control of the remaining 23 percent of the British Mandate area. With reference to international law, the WBGS are recognized as occupied territories by the international community and designated as such by the United Nations. Israel challenges this, and refers to the WBGS as “disputed territories,” arguing that they were never internationally recognized as sovereign prior to 1967. The territories were governed by an Israeli military administration, while East Jerusalem was formally annexed to the Israeli state. This annexation is not recognized as legal by the international community. Among the consequence of the occupation was that 1 million Palestinians were brought under Israeli rule, and Palestinians of the WBGS could now resume contact with each other, as well as with Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. Importantly, the Israeli labor market was opened to Palestinians, and, from the 1970s, around half of the Palestinian workforce was employed in Israel, predominantly as unskilled laborers (Tamari). Israel has argued that this contributed to increasing Palestinian income levels and living standards, that health and education services improved, and that electricity and piped water were made available to more Palestinians as a result of the occupation. This claim is challenged by those who argue that the economic integration with Israel contributed to a “de-development” that severely limited progress in WBGS agriculture and industry, keeping internal economic growth at a low structural level and impeding independent development in the WBGS.

The process of settling Israeli Jewish citizens in the WBGS and East Jerusalem was initiated in the late 1960s and accelerated from 1977 onwards. The purpose has been to create a territorial continuity between the Israeli state and the occupied territories, as well as to serve security and strategic purposes. Israel has utilized various strategies to acquire land in WBGS for settlement construction. All settlements are considered illegal under international law, but Israel disputes this and distinguishes between state-sanctioned settlements and so-called outposts. The present settler population is estimated at 300,000 on the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem, living in around 150 settlements and 100 outposts. The settlements on the Gaza Strip were evacuated in 2005.

Israel outlawed most kinds of political activism, and leading activists, both male and female, operated in exile after 1967. A number of women were involved in militant activities; Souhaila Andrawes and Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)—one of the Marxist PLO factions—carried out several air plane hijackings. On the WBGS, grassroots activism grew in the late 1970s through the so-called popular committees, which were sponsored by the various PLO factions. Among these were women's popular committees, which were well organized and highly decentralized and drew support and commitment from camp and village women. Although their main activities were directed toward national liberation, the organizations also included the emancipation and formal equality of Palestinian women in employment and education as part of their mandate.

When the first popular uprising against the occupation—known as the Intifada—erupted in December 1987, these grassroots groups played an active role in initiating and sustaining many forms of civil disobedience and mostly nonviolent protests. These activities were coordinated by an underground group known as the United National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) with ties to PLO in exile. The Intifada created international attention and sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight. In 1988, PLO's National Council adopted the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, declaring the State of Palestine as WBGS, with East Jerusalem as its capital. These territories continue to form the basis for the claim to sovereign statehood put forward in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Islamic groups—most notably Hamas (Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-Islāmīyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement), an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip—emerged during the Intifada, promoting a clearly religious agenda, in contrast to and in competition with the nationalist and largely secular discourses of the PLO. One example of this was the hijab campaign on the Gaza Strip, in which women and girls were admonished, even threatened, to adhere to a modest dress code associated with the modern Islamic dress promoted by groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (Hammami). By 1990, most of the leaders of UNLU had been arrested, and, even if the Intifada continued for a few more years, it was more sporadic in character.

Although initially barred from the negotiations, the PLO leadership became involved in peace talks with Israel beginning with the Madrid conference in 1991 and the largely secret Oslo talks thereafter. During these talks, Hanan Ashrawi, an academic and prominent Intifada leader, served as official spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation. These talks culminated in the 1993 Declaration of Principles (DOP) based on mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO. Pursuant to the DOP, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was established as an interim self-government authority. The PNA was to gradually assume control over the WBGS in concurrence with withdrawal of Israeli forces and transfer of authority from the Israeli army's civil administration from 1994 onward. The agreement stipulated further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank in a five-year interim period, during which key issues—borders, settlements, refugees, water rights, and the status of Jerusalem—were to be discussed and resolved. A two–state solution was envisioned as the end goal of this process, but this has yet to be realized. The PNA has, since its inception, exercised only limited control over parts of the WBGS.


Following the DOP, the PLO leadership in exile, headed by Yasser Arafat, returned to the WBGS and, to a large extent, took control over the PNA. Although largely male dominated, Arafat's government included long-time Fatah member and GUPW leader Intissar al-Wazir as Social Affairs Minister, Ashrawi as Minister of Education, and Zahira Kamal as Minister of Women's Affairs. The women's movement quickly began lobbying to develop the legal framework for the future Palestinian state in a gender-sensitive direction. In 1994, the Women's Charter was launched, demanding that the Palestinian Basic Law adhere to international human rights principles, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW). The law, signed into effect by President Arafat in 2002, incorporates the affirmation that “(a)ll Palestinians are equal under the law and judiciary, without discrimination because of race, sex, color, religion, political views, or disability” (The Amended Basic Law, title 2, article 9). However, the Basic Law also affirmed that personal status issues were to be governed by Sharīʿah and religious courts, and efforts to amend existing Family Law regimes have so far failed.

Women activists have also attempted to amend Palestinian citizenship rules, which are currently governed by the 1964 Palestinian National Charter and which state that Palestinian citizenship is passed on from the father. Notable victories include the fact that married women do not need their husband's consent to apply for a Palestinian passport, and unmarried women older than age eighteen do not need a guardian's consent. Also, changes in the election law include a women's quota. In the 1996 election, only five of eighty-eight seats in the legislative assembly were won by women. Although women lobbied for a 30 percent quota before the 2004 municipal elections, the current election law states that all the election lists must have a minimum of one woman among the three first candidates, two women among the eight first, and three women among the first fifteen to be approved. All municipal and village councils must include at least two women.

Further reform processes have stalled as the state-building progress itself was suspended. Failure to meet their obligations and mutual distrust impeded further peace negotiations from succeeding. The second Intifada that erupted in September 2000 was far more violent than the previous one, and, on the Palestinian side, dominated largely by armed groups from both Islamist and nationalist factions. Following a spate of attacks, Israeli forces reentered the previously evacuated areas in 2002. Over the following years, a system of roadblocks, checkpoints, and a separation barrier partially built on West Bank land limited freedom of movement in WBGS and contributed to dramatic increases in poverty levels, as well as physical and social isolation. This, together with a lack of security, has arguably contributed to increased conservatism and a return to traditional law enforcement mechanisms.

In November 2004, Yasser Arafat passed away after having spent eighteen months in his Ramallah compound surrounded by Israeli forces. Fatah strongman Mahmud Abbas was elected president. When the long overdue legislative elections were held in January 2006, the Change and Reform List, consisting mainly of Hamas members, scored an unexpected victory, capitalizing on popular frustration with the failed peace process and distrust of the PNA. Women gained 17 out of 132 seats. Six of these were Hamas representatives. Among them was Maryam Saleh, who was appointed Minister of Women's Affairs; Muna Mansour, widow of a Hamas leader assassinated by Israel in Nablus; and Maryam Farhat from Gaza, mother of three suicide attackers. Economic and political sanctions were enacted to pressure the Hamas government, led by Ismail Haniya, to recognize Israel, comply with agreements between Israel and the PLO, and renounce violence. Attempts were made to form a national unity government consisting of both Hamas and Fatah, but these were cut short when Hamas wrested control over the Gaza Strip in June 2007. While sanctions against the West Bank were eased, Israel proceeded to impose a complete blockade on the Gaza Strip. Tensions between Israel and the Gaza Strip erupted in December 2008 when Israel launched an airstrike and subsequent ground invasion. On the West Bank, further peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have stalled as Abbas insists Israel must cease settlement expansion as a precondition for negotiations. Abbas’ latest move—to have the UN Security Council recognize Palestine as a UN member state in September 2011 failed to get the required number of votes. One hundred and thirty UN member states presently recognize a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


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