"I was born a refugee in the Rashidieh refugee camp. I lived through oppression and misery, and when I was eighteen years old, I secretly joined the Arab Nationalist Movement at the time, which later became the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), so I went to Yemen, and got enrolled in a military training course, where I was trained in fighting and using weapons," Zahra Suleiman recalls as she sits alone in an old house in the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp.
After returning from Yemen, Suleiman began training a group of girls and boys in the use of weapons, and since the Rashidieh camp is located near the seashore, the trainings would take place there.
The woman, who was born in 1945, recounts how her military work evolved and eventually became directly targeted at the Israeli enemy, "I was serving in the military bases of the Popular Front, and I was the first female to carry out reconnaissance operations at the Lebanese-Palestinian border, and inside Palestinian territories." She says, "During a reconnaissance operation I was conducting, I was able to reach my village of Fara, located 13 kilometers north of the city of Safad. And in 1978, I took part in military operations against the enemy. Also during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, I was in the Rashidieh refugee camp. I resisted and fought against the enemy, I helped rescue the wounded and get them out of the camp to nearby hospitals in the area, and I also helped move the martyrs to to other locations."
"The absenting of women's role and their struggle as resistance fighters is due to the customs of the patriarchal society they live in, which highlights the role of men without that of women even though there are female fighters who had a leading role in our cause"
Today, Zahra lives in her sister's house in the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, and has no pension, salary, provider, or anyone who cares for her following a long journey of defiant struggle and activism. She says, "I do not regret all that I have given in my life, keeping in mind that I haven't gotten married or raised a family. Our homeland is greater than everything, and for it, I did what I did, but it hurts me very much to get here following such a long struggle, and I still don't know why I and so many female Palestinian freedom fighters are being ignored. We have become like a garment that has become too tight after a period of time has passed and was thrown aside, and now no one cares about it anymore."
Ne'mat Kadoura, who is 77 years old and from the town of Suhmata, lived with her family in the Tal al-Za'atar refugee camp after they sought refuge in Lebanon. She began to join the "Palestinian resistance" from a young age, aided by her uncle's affiliation with the Arab Nationalist Movement, which operated clandestinely because of the presence of the Deuxième Bureau (intelligence agency, aka the '2nd Bureau') in the camp.
Her uncle was arrested in Zahle, while she was with him on a mission in Baalbek. She returned to the camp and began, along with a group of boys and girls, guarding the members of the movement when they held their meetings, but without their knowledge. She says, "Whenever we felt the officers of the Deuxième Bureau coming, I would ask the boys to throw stones at the house they were in, so that those meeting inside would realize that something was happening outside, would end their meeting, and sit down to play cards."
Ne'mat's tasks evolved further. She worked in weapons transport, and she was the leader among a number of women. She used to hide the weapons in the firewood, and the women would put them on their heads, then the hidden weapons would be taken to the camp without anyone noticing. But during the Siege of the Tal al-Za'atar refugee camp she used to help treat the wounded. She would go to homes, bring blankets, and tear them to be used as dressings and bandages for wounds in place of the unavailable gauze.
Zahra and Ne'mat tell stories of their lives during the "time of struggle", about taking up arms and fighting. One lost her husband and son in the camp in the war. Today, both are waiting for help that won't come and factions that abandoned them a long time ago
Healers at the time used to boil water and salt to use as a disinfectant for wounds. She recounts that she used to transport martyrs, and dig graves to bury them in. She used to knead and bake in her house and then distribute the bread to people. Her husband was martyred in the Tal al-Za'atar camp. He had been a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). After he died she joined the PFLP, but soon left, only two months after joining it.
A life of misery
The 77-year-old activist says, "I lived through a great deal of suffering after my husband's martyrdom. My children were walking barefoot, I had no money, and I wanted to raise my children, so I worked in a kitchen, cooking for fighters in the Fatah movement. I survived the bombing of Zionist enemy aircrafts many times."
Ne'mat later trained in the use of weapons and explosives, and lived in the Damour area after leaving Tal al-Za'atar. She says, "I learned to dismantle explosives, and one day I learned there was a car rigged with 200 kilos of explosives. I went and dismantled it on my own, while keeping back everyone who would try to approach me. I got to know Dalal al-Maghraby and the group that was with her, and I witnessed their training in weapons, explosives, and diving. During that time I asked the diving instructor to teach my children how to dive."
During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Ne'mat lived in the Raouche area, and used to go to the Hay el-Sellom area to distribute and load ammunition. During the day she used to distribute the bread she would get from the Barbour bakery. During the War of the Camps, her son was martyred. He had been in the building that was blown up by members of the Amal movement.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership cannot take in these women fighters, because the political concern that exists today is not compatible with the ideas held by the women resistance fighters
After all that history full of struggle, Ne'mat lives a lonely life, with only a few small chickens to care for along with crops that have become her friends. She says, "How is it possible for this to be my current reality?" She receives a salary from the Fatah movement but today it is not enough to satisfy her hunger, so she waits for help from here or there in order to survive, at the very least.
Marginalization of women's roles
Amal Shihabi, head of the Legal Support Unit to the Palestinian National Security Forces in Lebanon, who is a liberated prisoner and is in charge of social work in the Palestinian territory in the Fatah movement, says, "After all the struggle of Palestinian women fighters and their long years of resistance, their names have been hidden away from the scene, and this is due to the customs and traditions of our patriarchal society, which always highlights the role of men without that of women, despite the fact that there are many female resistance fighters who have had a leading role in our Palestinian cause, and unfortunately there is always an absenting of the role of women and their struggle, and they are only remembered on the sidelines or on Women's Day."
For his part, Abdel Karim al-Ahmad, a member of the People's Committee in the Sidon region, says, "Unfortunately, the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is considered the 'mother of the Palestinian people', cannot take in these women fighters, because the political concern that exists today is not compatible with the ideas carried by the women resistance fighters, which exposes the existing leadership that is working to exclude them, because the process of struggle (resistance) work has stopped since the announcement of the Oslo Accords and the negotiations with the Zionist entity. This is one of the factors for which these resistance fighters are excluded."
He adds, "They are also excluded so that the new generation of young men and women will not be influenced by them and they would not become role models. The leadership today is excluding them in order to keep people away from thinking and becoming interested in national activism, so that money becomes the main concern, and this unfortunately is what is influencing Palestinian society in general nowadays."