I have long argued– including in this article on Hizbullah, or this article on the women’s organizations of Hamas– that the bedrock of the political strength of well-organized Islamist organizations like Hamas or Hizbullah has been their ability to build sturdy, resilient civilian mass organizations covering all sectors of society– rather than merely their creation of the (much smaller) armed organizations whose activities seem to get most of the coverage in the western media.
Well now, the Hamas women have played a hugely important role in defusing the latest crisis in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.
Over the past couple of days, the Israeli occupation forces, which had forced their way back into parts of Gaza after a short-lived withdrawal from the Strip, have been mounting extensive “search-and-screening” operations in Beit Hanoun. They had surrounded the whole town of some 28,000 people and cordoned it off, announcing a complete “curfew” (i.e. lockdown) on all residents except for men aged 16 through 50– and all these men were ordered by loudspeaker to report for screening to centers the IOF had set up.
However, according to that report linked to above, which is by AP’s Yakub Ralwah, a group of menwhom he described as “dozens of gunmen” on Thursday sought refuge in the mosque, instead…
…Most were thought to belong to the military wing of the ruling Hamas party.
[Israeli] Armored vehicles quickly surrounded the building, and the two sides began exchanging fire that lasted throughout the night, the military and Palestinian security officials said.
Israeli soldiers trying to pressure the gunmen to surrender also threw stun and smoke grenades, and knocked down an outer wall of the mosque with a bulldozer, causing the ceiling to collapse…
But then, as sporadic shooting continued this morning, Hamas’s radio called on Beit Hanoun’s women to walk as fast as they could to the mosque. And–
Dozens of women left their homes to a hurry to the mosque, and en route, came under Israeli fire, witnesses and officials said.
One woman, about 40, was shot and killed, and 10 others were wounded, they said.
The army said troops spotted two militants hiding in the crowd of women and opened fire, hitting the two.
By midmorning Friday, veiled women protesters had gathered outside the mosque, where troops were positioned in tanks and armored personnel carriers. The army said the gunmen in the mosque took advantage of the demonstration to escape because there were not enough soldiers to block the protesters from approaching the building, and troops did not want to shoot into the crowd.
But live ammunition was fired in the course of the demonstration, wounding a Palestinian cameraman and an unidentified woman.
Loudspeakers across Gaza called on people to come to demonstrations after Friday prayers to express solidarity with Beit Hanoun. By late morning, two rallies were already in progress in Beit Hanoun, and militants in the crowds were firing at soldiers, the army said.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas “saluted the women of Palestine … who led the protest to break the siege of Beit Hanoun.” Haniyeh urged U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to witness firsthand “the massacres of the Palestinian people,” and appealed to the Arab world to “stop the ongoing bloodshed.”
A spokesman for Hamas militants said 32 gunmen who had taken cover in the mosque escaped with the help of the women. The spokesman, Abu Obeida, denied reports that the men disguised themselves as women to escape, but one woman said she handed women’s clothing to some of the gunmen.
This action of mobilizing the women to come and form an unarmed interposition force around the Beit Hanoun mosque is very similar indeed to the action Ayatollah Sistani organized in Najaf back in August 2004. (See this , this, and this.) On that occasion, units of Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army were holed up in portion of Najaf and the US occupation force was closing in on them… But Sistani called for “a million men” to march peacefully to the city. That call was answered by, at least, hundreds of thousands of Sistani’s supporters from around the area, and in the course of that procession, also, the Sadrists were able to make theirescape.
Hamas’s mobilization of women in this role is particularly notable. But they’re an impressive bunch. Go read that article on Hamas women that I linked to up at the top.
Regarding Hizbullah, their mass civilian organizations proved their strength and value a number of times during the horrible crisis of last summer. Most notable of these occasions was when just about the entire pro-Hizbullah population of the devastated towns and villages of south Lebanon answered Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s call to return en masse to their homeplaces starting on the very day the ceasefire went into effect, August 14. Helped by Hizbullah’s well-practiced social-relief and social support organizations, the southerners responded to that call in every way they could. As they did so, they defied and openly mocked the announcements the Israelis were making that civilians should “wait until it was safe” for them to return home. And by returning home– unarmed, and in huge numbers– they reclaimed the whole of south Lebanon for Hizbullah.
Actions like this, I should note, take considerable amounts of courage, self-confidence, trust in the leadership doing the mobilizing, and discipline. The women who gathered at the Beit Hanoun mosque today showed all those qualities.
Update: This later filing by Ralwah tells us that two women were killed, and ten wounded. He also writes that shots were fired toward them as they approached the mosque. Imagine their courage as they continued toward their goal! You can also see some photos of the parts of the mobilization on the Yahoo website.
I have noted, a number of times, that the way Hamas and Hizbullah have been combining their use of armed action with the building and use of extensive, basically nonviolent, civilian mass organizations is very reminiscent of the way that South Africa’s African National Congress organized during the latter decades of the anti-apartheid struggle in their country. Nelson Mandela, remember, had been a key originator and the first implementer of the idea that the ANC should have an armed wing, in addition to its long-existing political organization; and it was for playing that role as head of theANC military that he was imprisoned by the authorities. That fact– and the fact that the ANC continued to keep its armed wing in existence right through to the conclusion of the peace negotiations, at which point it was integrated with the regime’s military into a new unified national defense force– both tend to get forgotten in a sanitized western media portrayal that glorifies the role of Mandela in the negotiations without saying much at all about the multifaceted nature of the ANC’s political strength…
Well, anyway, here today is a great new example of Palestinian people power in action. Yes, it is quite tragic that one of the women participants in that (unarmed) demonstration was killed by the IOF. But still, the women’s mobilization did serve to defuse the tensions around the mosque, most likely saving the lives of many more than one person at the scene. Plus, it no doubt helped show the leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian political groups– and the women participants themselves– the great value and strength of civilian mass organizations.
Yes, it would be great if Hamas transformed itself totally into an organization of civilian, nonviolent, mass action. (Ditto, of course, the state of Israel, which commands and is clearly prepared to use means of violent aggression and control that are hundreds of times more lethal than those used by any Palestinians.) But neither Hamas nor the state of Israel is, it seems, about to do that.
But still, absent a complete disarming of organizations like Hamas or Hizbullah, seeing them turn increasingly to, and recognize the value of, nonviolent means of organizing is a very important and constructive development.